From Grassroots Activism to Power Politics: Human Rights Ideas and 20th-Century International Relations

AHA Session 298
Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations 2
Sunday, January 8, 2017: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Centennial Ballroom G (Hyatt Regency Denver, Third Floor)
Vanessa Walker, Amherst College
Vanessa Walker, Amherst College

Session Abstract

During the twentieth century, questions about the responsibilities of states to their populations dominated the discourse and practice of international relations. Human rights policy was not just foreign policy — the emergence of international norms shaped the lives of citizens around the world. To grapple with the constellation of ideas we call human rights and their role in global affairs, therefore, historians must contend with local conditions, intersectionality, and cultural and societal factors.

This panel on the role of human rights ideas, sponsored by the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations, thus engages directly with the 2017 Annual Meeting theme of “Historical Scale: Linking Levels of Experience.” Each of the panel’s three papers link the global and the local, exploring the agency of citizens as well as the asymmetrical power of the state. All three treat human rights as a contested concept, both internationally and domestically, and examine how individuals and organizations worked to impose their own interpretations thereof on publics and policymakers. The papers draw links across time and space to engage with the question of human rights — from the churches of the Southern United States to the halls of the Kremlin. Taken together, the papers in this panel assess the intersection between foreign and domestic policy, the role of the United States in the world, and the questions of race, class, and gender which informed modern human rights policy and its consequences.

Beyond engaging directly with the theme of this year’s meeting, all three authors featured on this panel make significant contributions to the historiography of human rights in their own right. Ingu Hwang’s paper explores pressure for democratization in South Korea from both within and without, placing the idea of human rights at the core of efforts both to support and suppress the liberalization movement. Simon Miles examines human rights in the context of the waning Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, making extensive use of newly declassified documents from Russian, Ukrainian, and other Eastern bloc archives to illustrate how both Moscow and Washington appropriated the language of international human rights movements to suit their own goals. Lauren Turek’s paper probes the fierce debates, as well as moments of shared purpose, that broke out among and between American religious denominations — from Pentecostals and Southern Baptists to Catholics, Jews, and mainline Protestants — as they sought to convince US policymakers to take up the cause of human rights and religious liberty across the globe during the Cold War. 

In unique ways, this panel both enriches and complicates our understanding of human rights as a historical phenomenon, contributing to an important conversation about the role of human rights in global affairs. By tracing links across scales, all three papers inform our understanding of the history of human rights movements around the world as both drivers of local change and responses to large-scale global shifts.

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