Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Samuel Moyn's "The Last Utopia"

Samuel Moyn is Professor of History at Columbia University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, and reported the following:
On page 99 of The Last Utopia, I am in the midst of a chapter on anticolonialism and human rights. I embarked on it because I had long been puzzled by the fact that, even though their most visible successes came precisely in the era of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and after, anticolonialists didn’t seem to define themselves as a “human rights movement.” Why not?

Some scholars have seen in the emancipation of the world’s peoples from colonial rule a straightforward precedent for the human rights movements of a later era, while other, more sophisticated historians have looked more carefully at whether and when anticolonialists actually invoked the Universal Declaration or the notion of human rights. (For a state of the art assessment of where the discussion stands, let me also recommend Jan Eckel’s fine article in the inaugural issue of Humanity, a new journal that some friends and I are launching this fall.)

In my opinion, the general conclusion has to be that the concept of human rights remained wholly peripheral to anticolonial ideology in its different versions, for a series of reasons my chapter lays out. First, anticolonialism was forged earlier than human rights. Second, and far more important, human rights did not emerge as a definitively anticolonial political language.

After all, not only did the chief energies in the construction of post-World War II human rights concepts originate in the then colonial powers – Britain and France but also Belgium and the Netherlands – but they substituted for the much more emphatically anticolonial concept of collective self-determination as this construction took place. Self-determination had been one of the most inspirational promises of wartime, especially in the famous Atlantic Charter of 1941, but it did not make it into the Universal Declaration, and this was no accident. You could have human rights, apparently, without self-rule.

Page 99 tells the story of how, once they fought and negotiated their way to sovereignty, and therefore to power in the United Nations General Assembly, the “new states” that had not been present in 1948 took their revenge: they invoked human rights as a corollary of self-determination:
Most obviously, the epoch-making Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples of 1960 confirmed the near equivalence of human rights and self-determination. According to its text, “faith in fundamental human rights” means the “inalienable right to complete freedom” of “all peoples.” Its essential significance was to make the UN a newly exciting forum for the fight against empire. “The colonial system ... is now an international crime,” Amilcar Cabral, Guinean scourge of Portuguese domination, exulted, in response. “Our struggle has lost its strictly national character and has moved to an international level.” Dramatically, this elevation of anticolonialism to the level of international institutions coincided with the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, which amplified the country’s stigmatization and led to a number of UN resolutions on human rights grounds.

These resolutions and other kindred events show that human rights were defined by antiracism and anticolonialism more generally, fully reversing the imperialist entanglements of the concept of human rights in the postwar moment. Indeed, even as Portuguese Angola came in for immediate attention, India cited the 1960 declaration explicitly in its own December 1961 invasion of Portuguese Goa. In 1962, explaining how best to honor the fifteenth anniversary of the Universal Declaration, the General Assembly approved a resolution effectively linking the celebration of the advancement of human rights with that of the attainment of independence from colonial rule: it defined the hope for the future realization of human rights as another “decisive step forward for the liberation of all peoples.” The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was proclaimed in the same spirit the following year, with a convention following two years later—the convention approved the same day as the Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention in the Domestic Affairs of States and the Protection of Their Independence and Sovereignty with its remarkable paean to self-determination.
In the larger structure of the book, these events form an essential part of the background of the unexpected rise of “human rights” in our own time. Though anticolonialism skirted human rights in its glory years, its redefinition of them at the United Nations in the vein of collective self-determination proved fateful all the same. Human rights would have to be redefined again later, to bear the meaning they have today – in which independence and “sovereignty” are no barriers to their global applicability. As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., put it in 1977, the breakthrough year of human rights, “States may meet all the criteria of national self-determination and still be blots on the planet. Human rights is the way of reaching the deeper principle, which is individual self-determination.”

Born by substituting for collective self-determination, human rights would depend on its suppression again to take on their meaning and role today. The circumstances in which that occurred are explored in the balance of my book.
Learn more about The Last Utopia at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue