Constructing a Global History of Human Rights and Development

The history of global human rights has been, as Joseph Slaughter puts it: “hijacked” by Euro-American narratives (Slaughter, 2018). It has been claimed, through history books and the institutional memory of bodies such as the United Nations or Amnesty International, that human rights can be traced back to documents such as the Magna Carta, that they were intellectually developed and promoted globally through the ages of Enlightenment and Imperialism, and that they were enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

Even in recent decades, attempts to frame and conceptualise the latest milestone of human rights, which took place at the height of globalisation in the 1970s, was a Western ‘revival’ or ‘rediscovery’ of human rights as a transnational tool through which states could be held accountable for their violation of rights. Crucial reference points for scholars today include the so-called ‘Human Rights Utopia’ of the 1970s (see Moyn, 2010) or the development of ‘New’ Human Rights two decades later (see Nelson & Dorsey, 2008). To reconstruct the past, scholars often seek changes in the discourse of global institutions; they analyse the most widely reported human rights movements; they call upon the emergence and establishment of organisations such as Amnesty International; they run keyword searches of major international newspapers; and they look to the political discourse of major global players, all of which are largely based in the Global North.

No wonder, then, that the major turning point of the transnational human rights movement is so precisely associated with the year of 1977, when Amnesty International won the Nobel Peace Prize and US President Jimmy Carter incorporated human rights into the country’s foreign policy. The so-called utopia that was set forth during this transformative moment in history was that human rights came to represent an alternative to anti-establishment movements against US imperialism and consumerism. It also represented an alternative to socialist states, which for many of the Left was proving to be a disappointing avenue for meaningful change. A transnational social movement of solidarity was also imagined as the key to holding states accountable for the human rights violations of their own citizens.

The result of this revisionist history is not only an incomplete picture, but what Walden Bello calls “the [structural] resubordination of the [Global] South within a US-dominated global economy” (Bello, 1994 cited in Slaughter, 2018). As the agency of Global South-identifying actors is denied, so is their role in shaping what today are known as rights of self-determination, sustainable development, peace, minority, and rights to natural resources and the environment, among other things.

Yet there exists an alternative history to human rights that has been obscured through attempts to narrate the past. This history has been prevented from entering the debate, I would argue, for three key reasons: first, dominant historical narratives emphasise actors and institutions of the Global North as the leading protagonists in the process of the construction of human rights. Second, and as a result of the first, methodological approaches have been limited by what is perceived as the spaces within and through which concepts and practices of human rights are constructed and diffused globally. Third, potential alternative sources of ideas surrounding human rights and their global diffusion are and have almost always been brushed aside as anything but potential sources of human rights: they have been labelled as socialist, anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist, and even terrorist, none of which could possibly be compatible with human rights.

But the issue does not stop at asking the right questions. The problem cannot be solved simply by asking whether and if so what Global South actors and organisations contributed to human rights norms, concepts, and practices, but also how they did so. And this requires returning to the drawing board methodologically. If potential contributions do not take place within dominant institutions, state-to-state dialogue, and major international organisations, then we need to look beyond these spheres for our evidence.

Brazil and the Oppressed

My own research has demonstrated just how valuable it can be to move beyond traditional methods when addressing the construction of human rights and development norms. In 1964, Brazil was hit by an authoritarian military coup. At first, many – including the military itself – believed there would be a return to normalcy within a few months, but the dictatorship ended up lasting 21 years. In this time, around 10,000 Brazilians fled the country as political exiles, fearful of the military’s increasing use of torture and disappearance as a means of repression. Manyof these exiles were affiliated to socialist and communist parties, student and labour unions, and even militant urban guerilla groups.

Against the backdrop of the so-called Transnational Human Rights Movement of the later 1970s, it might be hard to imagine Brazil’s political exiles engaging with debates about human rights. While the violation of political and civil rights was important, opposition to the regime was really about social and economic inequality, environmental degradation, workers’ rights, indigenous minorities, and the economic penetration of multinational companies. To begin with, these were topics that groups like Amnesty International deemed ‘too political’ and tended to avoid. Second, it would seem out of place to imagine Brazilian exiles engaging with the very same liberal and individualist human rights discourses which, they argued, were so easily reconcilable with the global capitalist order they were fighting in the first place.

Yet this was not the case. Many Brazilians – particularly those of the more active Left – actively re-interpreted human rights and used them as a weapon of resistance against the regime, merging it with their own locally developed ideas, concepts, and practices surrounding rights and development. These re-interpretations of human rights and their dissemination did not take place through the traditional channels of groups like Amnesty International, European political parties, or major international institutions like the UN. They took place through ‘transnational advocacy networks’, or TANs (Keck & Sikkink, 1998), taking the form of political pamphlets, posters, community hall meetings, university seminars, public protests, and religious conferences, among other things.

Upon closer inspection it becomes clear that Brazilians often presented themselves as part of a broader Latin American and ‘Third World’ community – a people at the whim of the global economic order; a people with shared struggles and visions of rights and development. In particular, Brazilians called upon locally situated concepts such as oppression and economic dependency. Oppression in this context is a concept coined by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and popularised through progressive Catholic groups subscribing to ‘Liberation Theology’, a branch of Catholic action dedicated to bringing about social justice for marginalised and oppressed communities. Dependency theory, on the other hand, which was elaborated by prominent Latin American intellectuals, economists, and scholars from the 1960s, provided a framework for explaining Brazil’s position within the global economy, and thus the social and economic hardships of exploited workers, rural and landless peasants, indigenous peoples, and the urban poor.

An important example here is Brazilian sculptor Guido Rocha, a political exile, whose ideas were disseminated internationally through artistic and cultural production. Guido, who had been an active member of the Brazilian Socialist Party, was first arrested in 1962 for protesting against the military. He was arrested again in 1969 during one of his exhibitions, where the political nature of his work rendered him a suspect of subversion. His first attempt to flee Brazil landed him in a Bolivian detention Centre for ten days, before he was returned to Brazil. In  1971, he was arrested once again and detained for eight months, during which he was frequently tortured.

“By some sort of irony”, recounts Guido, “one of the torturers hid his identity behind the pseudonym ‘Jesus Christ’”. He began to create sculptures that depicted the crucifixion of Christ. Interpreting the principles of Brazilian liberation theology, Guido’s sculptures were of a Christ that sided with the oppressed:

From that moment on, all the Christs I make have facial characteristics which simultaneously reflect the expressions of comrades that were murdered or tortured by the police, as well as the faces of poor peasants1

Their bodies were shaped to resemble the marginalised masses of the country’s dry Northeastern backlands, while the material they were made from, burned plaster, represented the regime’s use of electric shock torture.

On the eve of an exhibition of these sculptures, Guido was warned that he was in danger, and so fled once again with his partner, this time for Chile. It was not long after his arrival that the Chilean coup of September 1973 took place, and Guido was captured standing in line to enter the Argentine Embassy before being detained and tortured for another forty days. Connections in Switzerland eventually helped him to secure a special scholarship at the École des Beaux Artes, funded by the Canton of Geneva, allowing him to enter the country as a refugee.

In exile in 1975, Guido produced one of his signature pieces and donated it to the All Africa Council of Churches (AACC) in Nairobi. In July that year, it appeared on a poster produced by the Swiss Committee of Defence for the Political Prisoners of Chile; in September, the image was displayed during a discussion on toture held at the Parish of Saint Germain in Gevera; and in November, a print of the photo was presented to the World Council of Churches as a gesture of gratitude on behalf of refugees helped by the Church.

Sculpture by Guido Rocha, World Council of Churches Archive, Geneva, WCC 429.07.03 40

Guido’s story is just one of countless examples of how Brazilians reinterpreted the language of human rights based on situated concepts of their own, and then used them to appeal to and communicate with broader audiences in Western Europe. From there, Brazilians’ ideas were diffused both horizontally and vertically, eventually becoming incorporated into more mainstream discussions about human rights. My research has shown that from the early 1970s, national newspapers, public debates, and even television and radio production across countries like Italy, France, Switzerland, Belgium, and the UK increasingly reflected heightened concerns with social and economic inequality, the growth of multinational companies, and the impacts of development projects on marginalised groups in Latin America.

Towards a New History of Global Human Rights and Development

To return to the problem at hand: actors and ideas from the Global South are missing from mainstream narratives of human rights and development. And this is not because those actors were not involved in relevant debates and knowledge exchange, nor is it because their visions for social and economic justice or development projects belonged firmly in the camp of socialism. There are countless examples of how these spheres actively engaged with the language of human rights and development, not only to critique capitalism but to appropriate and redefine human rights in an attempt to translate the struggles and experiences of the Global South into more universal terms.

There are a multitude of networks, repertoires of action, visual artefacts, embodied practices, and situated knowledges at researchers’ disposal, all of which offer rich potential for unveiling the agency of Global South contributions to human rights and development paradigms. The challenge we face is drawing that agency out to the surface with the right methods and conceptual frameworks. For this to happen, researchers need to ground themselves in the reality of those underrepresented actors, initiate a truly equal dialogue with those underrepresented ideas, and take the lessons about human rights and development that they have to offer.


Keck, M. & Sikkink, K. (1998) Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Cornell University Press: Ithaca.

Moyn, S. (2010). The last utopia: Human rights in history. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Nelson, P.J. & Dorsey, E. (2008) New Rights Advocacy: Changing Strategies of Development and Human Rights NGOs. Georgetown University Press.

Slaughter, J. (2018). Hijacking Human Rights: Neoliberalism, the New Historiography, and the End of the Third World. Human Rights Quarterly 40.

Anna Grimaldi is Lecturer of Modern Latin American History at King’s College London. Her research focuses on the formation of transnational advocacy and solidarity networks and the spread of ideas about human rights and development from the Global South.

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