From the Banality of Evil to the Ambivalence of Good: Discussing the History of Human Rights in International Politics with Jan Eckel

When, this past summer, the Russian Federation began sending so-called “humanitarian convoys” into the militarily occupied People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, it was not clear whether the gesture marked the ultimate success or failure of humanitarianism and human rights as an international discourse. Half a century prior to the conflict, activists around the world despaired that both decolonization and East-West détente had created a world in which states, whether capitalist or socialist, colonial or post-, were free to abuse or murder their citizens at will without international protests.

Over the next three decades, however, the concept of human rights–long present but often impotent–enjoyed a soaring takeoff in prestige, and by the mid-1990s governments were quick to speak of “humanitarian interventions” or humanitarian bombing campaigns. Most spectacularly, the concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has been bandied about as an international norm (if one rejected by China and Russia) to justify potential incursions into Libya or what remains of the Syrian state. In a world in which everything from familiar realpolitik clashes to debates over immigration policy (as many Kosovars seek asylum in Germany) expresses itself in a language of human rights, have only the costumes changed while the actors stay the same?

Eckel’s new monograph, “Die Ambivalenz des Guten. Menschenrechte in der internationalen Politik seit den 1940ern” (“The Ambivalence of Good. Human Rights in International Politics Since the 1940s”)

These are some of the questions that the work of our latest guest to the Global History Forum, Jan Eckel, addresses head-on in his weighty (936 page) tome, Die Ambivalenz des Guten: Menschenrechte in der internationalen Politik seit den 1940ern (English: The Ambivalence of Good: Human Rights in International Politics Since the 1940s), published this winter by German publishing house Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht. The work of Eckel, a Privatdozent at the University of Freiburg in southwestern Germany, represents a major contribution to what has been a real growth area in the historical profession in the last decade or so, namely the historiography of human rights.

Thanks to the work of Eckel and other colleagues, scholars have turned from seeing human rights as an unproblematic outgrowth of a Western tradition (whether one starting in Athens or the Bastille) to a complex ideological phenomenon whose career takes off (but does not necessarily start) in the twentieth century. Whether the subject is campaigns against apartheid to protests against the Shah’s secret police, human rights played an intense role in international politics of the 20th century, but to understand how precisely, it’s also essential to situate them along other, often since-forgotten ideological visions, like anti-colonialism or anti-imperialist socialism. Eckel’s book does that and more, which is why we were delighted to attend both a lecture of his at Berlin’s Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus, and to sit down for a more in-depth one-on-one interview about his work.

Sitting down with Eckel for coffee and breakfast, we discuss his path to the discipline. Born in Hannover in 1973, Eckel was raised in a family where people were interested in history and read historical works, but no one in the family had pursued a scholarly career. For Eckel, the choice to do history was more “out of reason (aus Vernunftsgründen)” than thanks to some long-held childhood passion. Studying Germanistik (German Studies) in Passau and Freiburg, Eckel discovered that he needed to add, in effect, a second major in order to graduate and decided, for strategic reasons, to pick history. Yet once in history seminars in Freiburg, Eckel notes, “I had my ‘a-ha’ moment and thought that this was actually pretty interesting.” Eckel had already felt a certain desire to turn away from “fiction” and towards “real life” (if in the past), and history seemed like the perfect discipline through which to do so.

Dr. Jan Eckel, author of “The Ambivalence of Good,” Privatdozent at the University of Freiburg, and our latest guest to the Global History Forum

“That,” jokes Eckel, “was the moment when I got on the history train.” Eckel’s earlier historical work, which focused on the in the intellectual biography of Hans Rothfels (a prominent historian who helped to establish Zeitgeschichte as a sub-discipline after the Second World War while he held a chair at Tübingen) was more obviously grounded in his background in specifically German topics, but when he decided to pursue a Habilitation (a second, more rigorous dissertation required for appointment as a full professor in German academia), he was forced to pick something totally different–something he views as a plus of the system.

Fortunately, when the time came to choose a topic, he caught wind of shifting tides in the historiography of human rights. Eckel had the good fortune to begin his Habilitation at precisely the time (2006) when human rights went from being a marginal research topic to one of the most lively subfields in the discipline–thanks in large part to Eckel’s contributions themselves. The field, however, attracted him not just for its novelty but also because it broadly seemed to deal with the question of how people imagine violence, and possible ways to overcome it. (Rothfels, the subject of some of Eckel’s earlier work, had at once fled Germany because of his Jewish origins, yet remained essentially committed to a conservative idea of German nationalism nonetheless freed of biological racism.) If Eckel’s earlier work had engaged more closely with “the dark side” of the twentieth century–catastrophe, war, and mass violence–studying human rights could give him an opportunity to engage with the other side of the century, namely “the many efforts that organizations, individuals, and states undertook to help ‘distant others’ and to stem violence.” The point, of course, was not just to lionize such actors as heroes of the twentieth century, but rather to underline “the ambivalence of good” that often characterized the human rights movement.

Soon, Eckel–along with a growing circle of scholars around the world interested in the topic–were tying a necessarily global and multifaceted story together. In 2010, Eckel and Samuel Moyn, then at Columbia University, organized a major conference in Freiburg, the results of which were later published as The Breakthrough: Human Rights in the 1970s. (Readers interested in a brief English-language introduction to Eckel’s work will note that The Breakthrough recently appeared in paperback.) The publication of Moyn’s The Last Utopia in the same year also helped to put the field on the map, but it still remained less than clear how one would actually “do” a history of human rights as an international history, employing archives from around the world and using sources in multiple languages. Indeed, participants at the conference had shown how human rights found expression everywhere from the anti-apartheid movement, to the opposition to the Pinochet regime, to East German state-sponsored attempts to portray the SED as a champion of human rights. Not only that, in many cases both well-known and lesser-known (the embrace of human rights as a cause by European governments, for example), there was a minimal existent secondary literature to guide Eckel ahead of his trips to the archives. How to tie this all together?

“The Breakthrough: Human Rights in the 1970s,” an edited volume and the result of a Freiburg conference organized by Eckel and Samuel Moyn (Harvard)

One place to start, in spite of the subject of the Freiburg conference, was the 1940s. Indeed, when we caught up with Eckel, it was the 66th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (December 10)–an anniversary that is not remembered with nearly the same intensity that, say, even the Frankfurt Trials or the liberation of Auschwitz are today in Germany. This fact partly formed the background for Eckel’s intervention–even as human rights were on the global menu in 1948, their instantiation through the UDHR was “a promise that could not be kept.” Indeed, noted Eckel, they belong more to an age in which the nation-state or the nation was seen as a prime bearer of rights, anachronistic if not overly chronologically distant from our present day. One option, therefore, for a history of human rights was to track the the way in which a “political field” created by 1948 seemed to, but then did not, create a global space for the discussion of human rights, only to seemingly deliver (or be supplanted by) an international human rights movement in the 1970s. Not only that, by the 1970s, Western governments, most famously under U.S. President Jimmy Carter, even made human rights a stated core part of their foreign policies.

This, naturally, raises the question of why the 1970s were such a crucial turning point. Indeed, to a large extent, and since the publication of Moyn’s The Last Utopia, much of the debate in the human rights historiography hinges around this question of to what extent that decade did indeed mark a major turning point for human rights. While stressing his agreement with Moyn on many matters, Eckel puts the rise of human rights in a longer context that sees the 1970s as nonetheless unusual. Most important, says Eckel, was the rise of global threats like the oil crisis and environmental problems–or, more precisely, the perception that such threats really were global and interconnected in nature, rather than being confined to the Persian Gulf or Three-Mile Island, say. One reason why this new global consciousness was possible was the extraordinary rise of global trade during the period. Not only businessmen but also ordinary people began to perceive international affairs in, say, Argentina, as linked with those in Japan, in a way that would have seemed quixotic as recently as the 1950s. For such a framework of thinking, “local” crises did not exist, since any notion of international order had assumed interconnection or globality.

The infrastructure for an ethics of interdependence? The humble fax machine, now usually found on the junk heap of office backlots, was one of the factors behind the increasing sense of globality and interdependence actors (among them human rights activists) felt in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

That said, it is important not to project an image of four decades of moral progress back onto the 1970s. The ideologies of then were not those of today. The Chilean coup d’état of 1973 led to international protests around the world, but, stresses Eckel, many of the protests were as much for ideological reasons–murdered Salvador Allende as a socialist overthrown by supposed fascists–as they were specifically for “human rights.” Many saw in Allende hope for removing basic injustices in the world economic system, a hope that Wall Street, the City of London, and CIA goons brutally snuffed out. The global campaign against the Pinochet regime may have later assumed a specifically human rights tenor, but its genesis was marked more by distrust towards the international capitalist economy than hatred of torture, for example.

Similar things could be said for the other usual turning point cited in accounts of the 1970s, namely the 1975 Helsinki Accords. In the deal, Soviet representatives acceded to a “third basket” of human rights monitoring arrangements in exchange for Western acceptance of their post-1945 European empire – i.e. total acceptance of Eastern European borders and the Warsaw Pact’s states’ territorial integrity. At the time, all sides saw the Accords’ recognition of postwar borders as the crucial piece to the agreement; for parties like East Germany, the Accords were crucial for its relationship with West Germany. At the time, not only the Soviets but also Henry Kissinger regarded Moscow as the clear victor of the arrangement. But over time, some have cited the emergence of Eastern European dissident movements and their ties with Western Helsinki Watch groups as an important factor in the decay of the Soviet Union and Soviet control over Eastern Europe. Here again, notes Eckel, it was the new interconnectedness of the “the 1970s” that came to matter. While the KGB exploited the territoriality of Helsinki and dismantled dissident groups inside of the USSR itself, it was the life of works like The Gulag Archipelago in a space outside the Soviet Union that helped to delegitimize Soviet socialism.

Indeed, it was in part due to this new media space that movements that seemed so impotent in the 1940s gained steam in the 1970s. Now forgotten or at best integrated into high-tech office copiers, the humble fax machine (patented by Xerox in 1964) allowed reporters in Argentina, Ethiopia, or Iran to transmit reports of brutalized protesters to wire offices in London, New York, or Frankfurt much more quickly than was possible before. Obviously, movements–often with their own quixotic and not infrequently post-colonial interests–played a big role, too. But once again, inevitable hierarchies and limited resources meant–and mean–that the human rights story is as much about the ambivalence of good as the triumph of morality. Amnesty International groups was more concerned with the abuses of a Western ally in the form of the Shah of Iran than it was later with the plight of hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing former Soviet republics for the Russian Federation in 1991-2, for example, exhibiting how dependent the “emergency-ness” of such crises can be dependent on visa access, fax machines, and imagined solidarities with far away peoples of whom we know little–think of Muslims in Burma, Uyghurs in China, or Dagestanis and Chechens in Russia’s North Caucasus.

One of the shattered glass lenses of murdered Chilean President Salvador Allende. Eckel’s book makes use of Chilean and European sources to explore the post-1973 campaign against the Pinochet dictatorship.

This mention of travel and connectivity ought to remind the reader of the sheer amount of work and travel that went into The Ambivalence of Good. Far more than simply surveying the debate on human rights through printed materials, Eckel traveled far and wide, working with materials from the files of the Pinochet regime, to discussions within the Carter Administration, to Dutch national archives. This breadth of material thus allows Eckel to piece out the nuances between, say, the human rights turn of the Dutch government under Joop den Uyl (1973-1977) and of the United Kingdom during the Foreign Ministership of David Owen (1977-1979). The reader is able to see, thanks to Eckel’s spread, the perplexed reaction of the Pinochet regime towards international human rights campaigns during the late 1970s, when economic growth (if at the cost of massive inequality) served as legitimation for the dictatorship. In short, while readers might first feel intimidated at the length of the book, it will reward the patient–particularly those interested in international history–insofar as many of its chapters in effect constitute original studies of major episodes in European and Cold War history, based on archival research in multiple countries and in multiple languages. The Chilean material reaches well into the late 1980s, perhaps making it of especial interest for researchers of Latin American history interested in extending the horizon of today’s international history literature beyond the late 1970s.

This concern itself gets back to a major question about periodization. Back in the flow of discussion, Eckel and I soon move beyond these debates about the centrality of “the 1970s”–a naming convention that reflects our base-ten numbering system and a default paradigm for asking historiographical questions–to get to broader questions of historiography. Was, I ask, the rise of human rights thinkable without their entanglement in the dual processes of the Cold War between the USSR and the United States, and the decolonization of European empires? And what is the place of these processes in a narrative centered around human rights?

Eckel stresses the entanglement of all of these factors. He notes that the Soviet-American conflict of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s was one major reason why efforts to turn the United Nations into a discussion forum for human rights abuses (however then conceived) remained half-baked. Not only did neither Washington nor Moscow want United Nations committees sending fact-finding missions to the American South or the internally exiled Chechen or Crimean Tatar nations. More than that, with relatively few member states at the United Nations, influential delegations like the Americans, Soviets, and others could simply deprive UN bodies of funding or authority to do anything substantial on the occasions when they did receive complaints. This was, Eckel stresses, not the only reason that the human rights cause stalled in the 1950s and 1960s, but it was one of them.

Granted, one has to be cautious when speaking of “the” human rights movement or projecting post-1970s concepts back upon the past: as Eckel notes, one of the causes that the American UN delegation did support, namely for a global right to information, was conceived of under the heading of “human rights.” Predictably, however, UN conferences directed towards freedom of information dissolved as parties from Stalin’s USSR to Mexico demanded qualifications to such a right, ranging from “public order” to the prevention of the dissemination of “fascist” propaganda.” One of the strengths of The Ambivalence of Good is that it has the patience to explore episodes like the abortive–yet today highly relevant–struggle for a right to the freedom of information, treating it as part of rather than separate from the ideological journey of “human rights.”

And what a journey it was. By the 1970s, however, not only had the number of nation-states represented at the United Nations increased significantly, but burnout with the causes of reform socialism, the New Left, or freedom and democracy (American-style) often led both post-colonial and Global North activists to embrace human rights causes. Détente was one way out of the classic Cold War, but a turn away from politics per se to anti-torture (to name one cause) was another, more decisive way, to reject the moral gulf dividing the capitalist world from the socialist world. The truth born by the human body locked in prison, thrown into a psychiatry clinic, or beaten by a jailer offered an alternative to the ideologies of Left and Right. If the search for certainty in political ideologies had led to broken friendships and broken hearts for intellectuals in search of global justice, human rights offered an alternative to defending the disgraces of Prague or South Vietnam.

But, stresses Eckel, this turn towards the language of human rights had ambiguous consequences. Given the rise in the number of post-colonial countries at the United Nations, “human rights” on the East River came to take on meanings that activists at organizations like Amnesty International would hesitate to endorse. Few and far between were the post-colonial leaders, like the little-known but fascinating Nnamdi Azikiwe, who propagated a vision of a parliamentary, democratic, post-colonial Nigeria that would, he hoped, participate in a post-colonial African federation defined by respect for human rights (which, then, meant something more along the lines of sovereignty than opposition to torture or state-conducted murder).

More often, as noted above, nationalists like Idi Amin or Muammar Gaddafi wrapped themselves in the language of “human rights” (meaning post-colonial sovereignty, decolonization, and economic rights) as a discourse to promote an agenda of anti-Westernism, anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. From 1989-2010, for example, Colonel Gaddafi endowed an International Prize for Human Rights awarded to (among others) the children of Palestine, Native Americans, and Louis Farrakhan. “Human rights” was supposed to provide an escape hatch from the bitterness of Left and Right, but, so Western defenders would argue, it was all too quickly embraced by tin pot dictators who swaddled themselves in an arguable perversion of the concept. Wasn’t the escape from politics precisely what the point of the turn towards human rights had been about in the first place?

The peripatetic career of the “human rights” concept: a lavishly-illustrated stamp collection of winners from the Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights, an institution made defunct, needless to say, by the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011.

Rather than engage in such narratives of a noble cause hijacked, however, The Ambivalence of Good shows how different visions of human rights–anti-colonial, state-centric, or individualistic–emerged together. Different readings of the same crisis could provoke very different interpretations of the concept, which is why ambivalence remains such a key word. Consider the case of Nigeria, where the aforementioned Azikiwe reigned. Azikiwe was overthrown by a military coup in 1966, which itself spawned the Biafra War, a galvanizing point for many Western activists. As neither the United States nor the Soviet Union helped Azikiwe’s secessionist Igbo people from attack by the Nigerian state, it became clear that neither the cynical counter-balancing of Moscow and Washington, nor the once-hailed post-colonial state, could guarantee the protection of human lives. The French group Médecins sans Frontières was one of many humanitarian organizations founded in the aftermath of the war, and later earned a Nobel Prize for its activity in running medical emergency missions everywhere from Afghanistan to Bosnia. The concept of human rights it came to champion is much more similar to our own that the alternatives (human rights as post-colonial sovereignty or part of “socialist rights”), and that may be why the triumphal narrative is so attractive.

But far from signifying the replacement of a state-centric, decolonization-focused concept of human rights by a “really” moral one centered around individuals and human pain, however, this evolution of a concept came with new ambiguities. This may be the point in Eckel’s monograph–human rights as ambiguous or even counterproductive–that causes the most consternation among readers. It’s also perhaps the most important. The point is not, as MSF’s Greek chapter made when MSF conducted operations in Kosovo in the late 1990s, that a sincere desire to help the wounded can bleed all too easily into complicity with NATO “humanitarian bombing” campaigns. Readers in Beijing or Moscow looking for a slam of MSF for their violation of state sovereignty should look elsewhere. The real point that Eckel is making is more subtle, namely that new concepts of subjectivity–the ways we think about our own consciousness and personhood–played an important but often ambiguous role in the human rights turn of the last third of the twentieth century. Looking over publications by Amnesty and other groups, stresses Eckel, it’s remarkable how great a role torture came to play in human rights campaigns. The core evil, as it were, of regimes in Uganda, Iran, Afghanistan, and Cambodia was that they tortured the human body, often to a point where even brave dissidents lost control of their physical functions, or were forced to admit to fake confessions. Such varieties of humanitarian protest, in short, focused less on political despotism, the lack of what were once called “bourgeois rights”, or the bankruptcy of Marxist-Leninist ideology, and more on violations of the somatic self as the key evil committed by regimes. For some disillusioned ex-Leftists, this turn to the body may have been just the point: bodily wounds were “objective” in a way ideological disagreement was not.

The logo of Amnesty International, one of the most influential human rights organizations and whose archives Eckel plumbed for “The Ambivalence of Good”

But, stressed Eckel, this turn towards torture as the key evil has had some ambiguous results. Arguably, the international public appetite whetted by anti-torture campaigns was one trained to see torture and state violence as a phenomenon independent of state ideology. “People could get the impression of an all-present violence,” says Eckel,” that is constantly expanding everywhere.” To take Amnesty International’s most recent advertising campaign as an example, the organizations posters stress extreme bodily duress: “Two electrodes. One on the finger, the other on the genitals. The voltage is increased. The voltage is increased. The voltage is increased. Until you do something.” Or: “Barefoot on concrete. Standing. Without sleep. Standing. Without a toilet. Standing. Without End. Standing. Standing. Standing.”

Both of these posters are for Amnesty’s international campaign against torture, no doubt a worthy cause, but they make little reference to the political ideologies that fueled such activity. Deng Xiaoping, F.W. DeKlerk and Leonid Brezhnev all managed regimes that practiced torture, but China, apartheid-era South Africa, and the Soviet Union presented challenges of mis-governance and maltreatment of their citizens that went beyond just torture. Moving beyond anti-Communism or anti-racism per se promised a wider audience to humanitarian activists exhausted with Cold War politics, but this move also threatened to dilute the specific nature of the moral bankruptcy of the regimes in question. Not only that, while torture may be despicable, in other words, there are also plenty of regimes that do not torture their citizens, but still lack decent judiciaries, protection of private property, independent media, and a professional civil service. Does a focus on the body, rather than a bigger “package” focused on civic self-government, distract from the broader ideological and institutional woes under which so much of the planet’s population still lives? The ambivalence of good, highlighted brilliantly here in its historical context by Jan Eckel, abides.

We’ve traveled a long way in our conversation with Eckel. We’ve moved from the earlier debates about “human rights,” animated by concerns over decolonization and the sovereignty of post-colonial nation-states, to today’s more familiar world of concerns about the rights of individuals living in war zones or fleeing them, whether by land or by boat. Yet passionate as such debates–R2P, asylum, Frontex–can become, it’s an essential task of the historian to provide context to the very terms and concepts that guide these debates. In spite of the temptation that writing about the subject sometimes brings out, the story of human rights is something less than a story of continual moral progress, if also something more than a cynical attempt to change the discursive object of “rights talk” from states in the Global South to individuals threatened by said states.

For all of these reasons, we’re glad that Eckel’s book has seen the light of day, and hope that it finds a wide readership not only in the original German, but also in translation as soon as possible, too. We thank Dr. Eckel for his participation in the interview, and look forward to following his future scholarly trajectory.

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