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.Read More »