Article November 3, 2020

Roundtable Panel—Eric Weitz's A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States

 
 
The Toynbee Prize Foundation Presents
A Roundtable Panel Discussion on:
Eric Weitz, A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States (Princeton, 2019)

 

Introduction

Over the last decade, we have witnessed a sustained increase in the scholarship on the origins and history of human rights. Eric Weitz’s A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States deepens this historiographical corpus, presenting us with an expansive history that covers over three hundred years and spans the world. In the book, we are taken from the Greek rebellions in the late eighteenth century to postcolonial political struggles in Korea, from the emancipation movements in Brazil to debates on citizenship in postcolonial Rwanda and Africa, from the forced removal of indigenous people in the American North Country to the struggle over land and citizenship in modern Palestine. Through such wide-ranging study, the book examines the complex politics of human rights history. It exposes the paradoxical relationship between human rights and nation-states whereby states identify as guarantors of the rights of citizens while also exercising the power to exclude groups from the remit of such a guarantee.                                                                               

The scope of the book lends itself to rich discussion, as evidenced by the diversity of comments it elicited from the participants in this panel. In what follows, three eminent scholars of diverse historiographical interest reflect on the book’s central themes. This is followed by a response from Professor Weitz. We thank the participants for their time and engagement, and hope that readers benefit from this stimulating discussion.

—Zaib un Nisa Aziz, PhD Candidate, Department of History, Yale University

 

Participants

Kevin W. Fogg is the Associate Director of the Carolina Asia Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also holds a research associateship in the Faculty of History, University of Oxford. Professor Fogg researches the history of Muslims in Southeast Asia, with a special focus Indonesia during the twentieth century. His first book, Indonesia's Islamic Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2019), examines Islamic understandings and experiences of Indonesia's Revolution (1945-1949).

Neve Gordon is a professor of human rights and international humanitarian law at Queen Mary University of London. His first book, Israel's Occupation (University of California Press 2008), provided a structural history of Israel's mechanisms of control in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. His second book, The Human Right to Dominate (Oxford University Press, 2015) was written with Nicola Perugini and examines how human rights, which are generally conceived as tools for advancing emancipation, can also be used to enhance subjugation and dispossession. Most recently, he wrote with Perugini the first book on the legal and political history of human shielding: Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire (University of California Press 2020) follows the marginal and controversial figure of the human shield over a period of 150 years in order to interrogate the laws of war and how the ethics of humane violence is produced. Follow him @nevegordon

Emma Mackinnon is a university lecturer in the History Faculty at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Emmanuel College. Her research interests include contemporary political theory and the history of political thought. She has published work in various journals and edited volumes including Political Theory, Humanity, The Blackwell Companion to Arthur Danto, and Situating Contingency in the Course of International Law.

Eric D. Weitz is the Distinguished Professor of History at City College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He is the author of several significant books including Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy (2007; Weimar Centennial (third) edition 2018), A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation (2003; reprint with new foreword 2014), and Creating German Communism, 1890-1990: From Popular Protests to Socialist State (1997), all with Princeton University Press.

 

Reviewers’ Comments

 

Kevin W. Fogg, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Much great work has been done on the “what” of rights (or maybe this could be framed as “which”), the “how” of rights, and even the “when” of rights. Eric D. Weitz with this new book A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States is pushing us on the “who” of rights: historically, who has counted as having rights, even when those rights were well-defined? In particular, how has the political structure of a nation-state changed the way that individuals’ and communities’ rights have been recognized?

In order to do this, we have nine chapters worth of case studies (although some, like Ch. 5 on “Armenians and Jews: The Creation of Minorities” actually function as multiple case studies alongside each other). In most of these cases the central tension of human rights in the era of nation-states is how the nation recognizes its limits, with many people inside the geographical boundaries but outside of the sociological and legal ones. Thus, Greeks must assert rights against the Ottoman Empire (and, in so doing, become a nation-state that goes on not to recognize the rights of Turks), but enslaved people in Brazil, or Palestinians in Israel, or Tutsis in Hutu-dominated Rwanda are not protected by the human rights structures of those nation-states—they fall outside the lines.

The case studies are not only beautifully written, but also provide a highly variable cross-section of different crises of human rights. While there are clear parallels and connections (Native Americans in Minnesota to the Herero of Namibia, for example), Weitz seems to have gone out of his way to bring different types of cases to bear. While in most cases the fault lines for rights appear racial or ethnic, in other instances (most notably the Soviet Union) the issue is not about a well-defined community being excluded, but a general exclusion. Perhaps most impressively, Weitz makes a workable case study from Korea, where he admits that the discourse of human rights was notably absent (in both the South and the North). These case studies are not frog marched through an argument, and often it takes some work by the reader to draw lessons from the engaging personal and national stories.

Indeed, Weitz has done the field a service by raising a brilliant question and tackling it through a broad, global history, but the book does not put forward a strong answer. In the conclusion, the reader might be somewhat deflated to find that the tensions between human rights (supposedly universal) and nation-states (contained, limited political entities) “are blatant and cannot easily be resolved, nor wished away. They are, in fact, irresolvable.” (p. 425) I cannot and do not disagree with this, but I am also not sure it moves our knowledge forward on how human rights function in a nation-state context, and especially how that has changed over time.

At the risk of playing Pollyanna, let me also posit that there may be more cause for hope in this global history than what Weitz describes. An unfortunate consequence of the study of human rights is that they are seen more clearly when they are breached than when they are honored, so it is easy not to celebrate the benefits—small, incomplete, and unfinished as they are—that have come from nation-states around the world accepting the idea of human rights over the course of two centuries. In Indonesia (the country that I study), the concept of human rights inspired national politicians from before the country proclaimed independence in 1945, and certain passages from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were copied verbatim into the temporary constitution promulgated in 1950. (Sadly, some of these were lost in the reversion to an earlier constitution after 1959, but some remained.) This has been the basis for minority religious communities to seek recognition from the state. Human rights have been the yardstick by which government performance in minority areas (most notably Aceh in the far west and Papua in the far east) has been judged. The fact that the Indonesian government has utterly failed in so many cases to protect indigenous religious communities or to respect marginalized ethnicities does not render the human rights in Indonesia’s constitution meaningless: the same violations were also present (and more) when Indonesia was under the Dutch empire or Japanese occupation, without any human rights protections. Instead, the lip-service that Indonesian law pays to human rights provides a foothold for oppressed communities, for those who fear their rights are threatened, to seek redress. The nation-state provides the primary structure in which to pursue remedy, even when sub-national and supra-national fora also exist. The fact that authoritarian regimes violated human rights terribly does not mean that the concept had no positive and formative impact on states. I would suggest that this is even an area that changed over time; as more and more nation-states committed themselves (in paper, at least) to human rights, it became harder and harder for them to deny those rights to individuals and communities who saw themselves as part of those nation-states. (Of course, this is also connected to the myriad other processes studied by others, such as the role of media and the growing accountability from international forces.)

Lastly, like any good book, Weitz’s work raises many more good questions. He has very deftly discussed how states deal with questions of race, ethnicity, and religion in drawing boundaries for who has rights. Towards the end of the book, we read more about women, another “who” fighting to be counted as having rights. But there are other categories, too, that have changed over time in the rights they are accorded, and these could be probed in further studies. Most obvious to me was the question of age. Must one be an adult to have rights? Surely not—no one is advocating stealing from, imprisoning, or even exterminating children! At the same time, different nations have taken different positions (many of them inflected by the history of that specific nation-state) as to when childhood ends and adulthood begins, or as to the special rights that youth have in the nation. Look, for example, at Timor-Leste, which after independence in 2002 reserved village council seats across the tiny island country for “young people,” recognizing that if power is dominated by older generations only it will violate the rights of the youth. This was also informed by the country’s struggle for independence from Indonesia, a struggle in which youth led the way.

What, then, can we take from Eric Weitz’s broad global history of the “who” of human rights? His focus on the nation-state as a key realm of contestation provides a very useful lens of analysis, especially in a study like this that is not limited to a single nation-state but examines them comparatively. The deft attention to how some people can be excluded from rights even as those rights are recognized by the government is also very useful for other studies. But the stickiest wicket—how inherently limited nation-states have evolved in promoting supposedly universal rights—remains elusive.

 

Neve Gordon, Queen Mary University

In his 1790 essay Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke, a Whig Member of Parliament from Ireland, famously criticized the abstract notion of rights enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man.  Referring back to the 1628 Petition of Right, he noted that the English parliament had demanded a series of rights from King Charles I, but claimed that these rights were not understood as “abstract principles ‘as the rights of men,’ but rather as the rights of Englishmen.” Rights, Burke concluded, exist and are bestowed upon people as a result of their membership in a nation.[1]

A century and a half later, Hannah Arendt invoked Burke’s claim that rights spring “from within the nation” in her masterpiece The Origins of Totalitarianism. Writing about the refugee crises plaguing Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War, she explained that the question of human rights was inextricably tied to the question of national emancipation and wrote that “only the emancipated sovereignty of the people, of one's own people, seemed to be able to insure them.”[2] When people no longer belong to a political community and “become human beings in general,” she clarified, namely, when people most need the protections rights offer since all they have left is their humanness, at that very moment they become rightless, having lost their “right to have rights.” Rights, she inferred, are conferred and safeguarded not by some natural law, but by the nation-state. For her, this was both an empirical and theoretical observation.

Although Eric Weitz does not mention Burke and refers to Arendt only in passing, in many ways A World Divided aims to corroborate their assertion that human rights are bound up with the nation-state. “Never are people only individuals,” Weitz writes half way through the book, “their national and racial identities, sometimes freely chosen, sometimes imposed by state and society, follow them everywhere, and especially into that most critical arena, the right to have rights.” As he traces how demands for rights—primarily of marginalized groups—were co-terminous with the creation of nation-states, Weitz intimates that the connection between rights and the state is both a boon and a curse.

One cannot but admire the sheer breadth of Weitz’s erudition, as he takes his readers on a fascinating journey: from the struggle for independence in early nineteenth century Greece through the dispossession of Native Americans in the United States to forms of slavery resistance in Brazil; from the plight of Armenian and Jewish minorities in Europe through the German genocidal project in Namibia to the brutal repression of Koreans by Japanese colonizers; and from the struggle for rights in the Soviet Union through the battles for statehood among Zionists and Palestinians to the fight for liberation in Rwanda and Burundi, A World Divided  is a momentous undertaking.

But just as Weitz’s archival work and historical descriptions are breathtaking in scope, his analysis is perplexing. In the first chapter, for instance, Weitz offers an illuminating discussion of nineteenth century traveler accounts to expose what he defines as a series of “fractures” informing European imperial power. Citing Bayard Taylor, an American traveler in India, he provides an example of one such fracture. Taylor, Weitz notes, was “appalled at the ‘contemptuous manner’ in which the English treated Indians of all classes. At the same time, [Taylor] asserted that the English had brought prosperity and British law and order to the subcontinent. Indians, he claimed, received more equitable treatment in British courts than in whatever kind of justice native rulers doled out.”

Weitz appears to agree with the assessment that although colonialists treated the indigenous population in a questionable manner colonialism had also benefited the natives, and in the following paragraph he goes on to draw a connection between colonialism and human rights, claiming that “Just as Toussaint Louverture turned French revolutionary ideas into demands for slave emancipation, the Indian national movement, founded later in the nineteenth century, would turn British ideas of justice against British domination.” In such passages A World Divided unwittingly promulgates certain elements of the civilizing mission.[3] The narrative structure is straightforward: colonialism was brutal, but ideas of justice and/or human rights disseminated by white westerners served as the central tools of indigenous resistance. Colonizers oppressed the natives, but also gave them the vocabulary of liberation. In the concluding chapter, for example, Weitz lifts one line out of Nelson Mandela’s memoir in order to present his struggle against Apartheid as having been motivated by the 1941 Atlantic Charter signed by Roosevelt and Churchill. “Consider Nelson Mandela,” he writes, “born in Mvezo in Southern Africa to a royal Xhosa family, hearing about the Atlantic Charter some seven thousand miles from Newfoundland (where Churchill and Roosevelt met and signed the document), and then becoming the icon of the South African liberation struggle and a global symbol of social justice.”

The fact that Toussaint Louverture and the revolution in Haiti had actually inspired G.M.F. Hegel when he wrote The Phenomenology of the Spirit is not registered in Weitz’s book nor is Amnesty International’s refusal to adopt Nelson Mandela as a political prisoner because he rejected the forms of “legitimate resistance” accepted by the liberal west.[4]  One can only wonder how the inclusion of these historical facts would have complicated the image Weitz creates. Indeed, at the end of the day, the historical narrative Weitz offers is contaminated by colonial tropes, even as it criticizes colonialism. Consider the title of the book’s third chapter which focuses on indigenous resistance to settler colonialism in 1860s Minnesota: “America: Indian Removals in the North Country.”  Leaving aside the word America, I wonder why Weitz decided to use in this chapter the colonial term Indian instead of Native American, and why use the euphemism “removal” taken directly from the “Indian Removal Act” of 1830 instead of genocide. Describing the settlers’ expansionist drive (an expression he does not use) in Minnesota, Weitz tells his readers “Total, mass killings of Indians did not, in fact, take place. There was no genocide, as California Indians endured.” Coming from someone who has written a book about genocide, this is a mysterious claim, particularly given that Weitz approvingly cites Patrick Wolfe who explains that settler colonialism is not an event, but rather a structure whose ultimate objective is the natives’ elimination.[5]  What does Wolfe’s distinction between event and structure mean for Weitz?

Weitz’s claim is even more mysterious considering that his descriptions actually portray the structure of the genocidal violence used against Native Americans. He points to the dispossession of large swaths of land, the segregation of the indigenous population in remote, small and harsh territories, the destruction of basic resources, and ongoing killings, including massacres. These are precisely the ingredients of genocide, which as Daniel Feierstein has shown, unfold over time, beginning with stigmatization, harassment and isolation, followed by systematic weakening, physical extermination, and symbolic enactment.[6] This process also emerges in Nick Estes’s brilliant book Our History is the Future, where he describes the same events Weitz does, but without whitewashing the settlers’ genocidal drive.

Both Weitz and Estes depict, for example, how settlers killed and mutilated Little Crow, one of the Native American leaders who led the indigenous resistance against settlers in Minnesota, but only Estes points out that after the settlers collected $500 for Little Crow’s scalp and decapitated head, the Minnesota Historical Society put the head on public display and kept it there for half a century. The gruesome display of a dead leader’s head is significant since it was a “symbolic enactment” of the genocide, or as Estes puts it: the severed head was displayed as “a grim trophy to remind settlers exactly how they ‘won’ the land.”[7] This symbolic enactment, Estes further implies, continues until this day through the ongoing elision of Native Americans, who are, in fact, similar in numbers to the Jewish population in the United States, and who are allowed to enter the public imagination only when they push-back to resist the cycle of dispossession, as the Standing Rock protests made blatantly clear.

In the chapter entitled “Palestine and Israel,” my field of expertise, something similar happens. Here too Weitz’s scholarly abilities are apparent, and while he attempts to offer a well-rounded perspective regarding the Zionist and Palestinian struggle for land and statehood, about half way through the chapter suddenly the Palestinian—who are mostly referred to as “Arabs,” erasing their nationality and conflating them with all the other Arabic speaking populations of the Middle East—perspective disappears and Weitz’s lens focuses solely on the Zionist struggle for statehood. The Palestinian standpoint reemerges in the chapter’s final pages when Weitz discusses the publication of three fairly recent documents—The Haifa Declaration, the Democratic Constitution, and the Future Vision—which draw upon international human rights law to demand equal individual and collective rights for the Palestinians in Israel. On the one hand, Weitz describes the Palestinian demand for equality as “radical,” while, on the other hand, he criticizes the Palestinians because they are “unable to get beyond the nation-state as the basis of citizenship rights,” thus suggesting that whatever Palestinians do they cannot get it right. He concludes the chapter with a rather trivial statement about the second-class status of Palestinian citizens of Israel: Palestine and Israel reveal in stark terms the conundrum that has marked the history of nation-states and human rights. Only membership in the nation gives an individual full access to rights. Recognition and protection as a minority may improve one’s lot. But minority status in a nation-state always carries a stigma.

There are many other much more poignant inferences he could have drawn following an analysis of Palestine and Israel, but when I reached the book’s final chapter I understood that for Weitz this was the crux of the matter. After nine meticulously researched case studies, he concludes that “those who somehow differ from a dominant group may be subordinated, driven out, or killed, or they may be recognized as fellow humans and accorded the same rights as everyone else—without being required to dispense with their identities.” Reading these lines, I asked myself, what, analytically speaking, can one learn from A World Divided that Edmund Burke and Hannah Arendt had not taught us many years ago? What, in other words, is Weitz’s contribution to our understanding of human rights?

Several scholars have gone beyond Burke’s and Arendt’s insights to show how human rights reproduce colonial power relations,[8] how they are implicated in imperial projects,[9] how they help elide oppressive political structures,[10] and how human rights became a moral mouthpiece for neoliberal priests,[11] but these kinds of analytical frames are not mentioned at all and Weitz makes no effort to reference them even if only to enter into a conversation with dominant critiques of human rights. Instead, Weitz concludes the book by asserting: “For all the partial advances, for all the contradictions, all the sheer opposition—human rights remain our best hope for the future.” This utterance is presented as self-evident, with no explanation or proof, no discussion of alternative forms of resistance, and no effort to stretch the reader’s imagination. After over 500 pages of history containing fascinating information and detail, we are, unfortunately, left with no new analytical insights.

 

Emma Mackinnon, University of Cambridge

Eric Weitz’s A World Divided is, in one sense, a global history. But like most good ‘big histories’, it is also a series of smaller histories—or as he puts it, of cases, considered for their complexity rather than treated simply as examples of larger trends. The chapters function as a kind of atlas. Taken together, they offer not deductive proof of a central thesis, but explorations of the contradictions and tensions that animate the history of the concept of human rights. Yes, A World Divided is yet another entry in the genre of the long history of human rights, and it does align itself with the more triumphant of the long histories. At the same time, it charts an unusual course, and the chapters work to complicate the more romantic story that the introduction and conclusion tell.

In its framing, the book offers a history of human rights as a story of an idea on the march. Not unlike Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights, A World Divided tracks the idea of rights as a guiding ideal or promise which, while often contradicted in practice, ultimately enables its own realization. Human rights, once proclaimed, would necessarily expand as more people laid claim to the idea. Weitz states repeatedly that human rights were a kind of “genie” that, once released, couldn’t be put back in the bottle (284, 304). The introduction and conclusion carry the heaviest normative stance, and are where Weitz aligns himself with human rights activists themselves.

For Hunt and for Weitz, the idea’s self-realizing trajectory is in part a product of its universality; while coincident with forms of exclusion, the universalism of the concept also points beyond its present instantiation and toward ever greater inclusion. The book’s chapters bear this out. There, human rights are more often defined more through its opposites: slavery (p. 208, for example), though also hierarchy more generally (p. 248); ethno-nationalism and race (p. 372 and p. 392); violence, brutality, and war (p. 424). One benefit of this broad view is that it lets Weitz track human rights as an animating concept that is not tethered to its verbal articulation, but present in material practices as well. And yet at times he does present rights as an ideal with a logic of its own, separable from the less pleasant “facts on the ground” (pp. 61, 72). In these moments, “human rights” can seem to just mean modernity—or more troublingly, modernity’s good parts, with the bad treated as some residual past form.

Even as it offers a romantic picture of the concept in some places, however, Weitz’s book also provides a more critical history. Weitz presents rights as resting on inclusion in political community, the primary guarantor of that certain right-to-have-rights. The book at times feels like a grand story about the expansion of liberal forms, including both rights and nations (I mean liberal extremely loosely here; Weitz’s opposition between human rights and slavery already undercuts the idea that the idea of rights is strictly liberal rather than republican). But Weitz also understands delimited political community as necessarily a source of exclusion as well. In this sense, the expansion of the idea of human rights has been necessarily caught up with an expansion of the exclusionary and hierarchical forms that he simultaneously defines as rights’ opposite.

Weitz asserts repeatedly that the relationship between human rights and the nation state is a “paradoxical” one. This means slightly different things in different places. Sometimes, the idea is that the nation has been a defender of human rights, but that nations-gone-bad have also been rights’ primary violators. Now, this may be ironic, but it is not a paradox. Human rights are still good; the challenge is for nations to be better, which is to say to be truer to ideas of rights. This is the grand promise story, in which both the nation and human rights represent promises yet to be fulfilled. It is also compatible with a more cosmopolitan vein, in which the nation itself might eventually be transcended, or if not entirely overcome then at least subject to transnational mechanisms of enforcement (and he praises international legal mechanisms that aim for just this).

But sometimes, what Weitz means is a bit different: that the nation is necessarily exclusionary, and that actual-existing nations are built on ideas of ethnic and territorial community that are at odds not just with rights’ universalism, but with their premise of equality. Yet it is precisely that notion of community that is what provides for rights in the first place. Now that is a paradox. This paradox resembles closely—as he cites in the introduction—a mash up of the views of two of Heidegger’s students, Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas: ‘human rights’ means both the right to have rights and the capacity to look into the face of the other. Weitz’s book, as history, reiterates and underscores the tensions and difficulties both Arendt and Levinas described.

By zooming in and out on different times and places, the book allows us to understand that paradox as a lived conundrum. It combines methods of transnational history, taking individual travellers as a guide; it also delves into microhistory in places, particularly in the chapter on Namibia (also the only place, other than the conclusion, where I noticed Weitz use the first person singular; see p. 239). In the background other histories are built in, too: a history of travel; of the petition as a form; of the concept of minority.

When it zooms back out, the transition to generalization can be awkward at times (“the unfortunate truths about ethnic cleansings,” p. 359, for example). There were two places in particular where I wished Weitz had zoomed out less urgently, and allowed us to sit with complexity for a bit longer. This was not always about zooming from micro to macro, but about a push to categorize.

The book, laudably, makes Ralph Bunche a major character in the twentieth century history of human rights. At times, though, we get a version of Bunche as a straightforward anticolonial thinker. I agree with Weitz’s effort to defend Bunche from Stokely Carmichael’s infamous charge against him (recounted in another moment of first-person narration on p. 409). But Bunche’s politics were deeply complicated, and do more, I think, to illustrate rather than resolve the challenges of relating human rights, nation, and empire. Note, for example, that Bunche’s doctoral dissertation, referenced on p. 350, was a comparative study of alternative methods of colonial administration, looking at Dahomey as French colony in contrast to the French mandate of Togoland. Or think of Bunche’s own comment in 1947: “Those impatient voices which urge that all that is needed is a willingness on the part of the colonial powers to ‘free’ their colonies are, to put it kindly, naive in the extreme.”[12]

Another issue where efforts at categorization and generalization seems at odds with the more deeply textured story Weitz had actually told has to do with gender. Across the chapters, one of the histories that emerges, implicitly, is about the sexual and reproductive labor of women, including slaves, and the persistence of sexual violence in the construction of race and nation. (I’d note this is repeatedly discussed, somewhat jarringly though not necessarily inaccurately, through the language of male desire; see p. 141 and p. 237, for example.) What is going on in those chapters bears little resemblance to the reification and compartmentalization of “women’s rights” that Hillary Clinton performed precisely as she appeared to denounce (Clinton is discussed in the conclusion). It is good, in my view, that the book does not repeat that reification by separating “women’s rights” into its own chapter. Yet, the conclusion seems to work against the more complex picture that emerged across the chapters themselves, which had portrayed in some detail the lived interrelationships between race, gender, and labor (also see p. 276 on this point).

On gender in particular, the book closes by reverting back to the story about ever-expanding inclusion into the promise of both rights and the nation as a form. If nations and rights are in tension, in this story, it is because they haven’t yet been fully realized in their ideal forms. Yet the intervening chapters do not actually validate that kind of romantic historical narrative. Instead, they illustrate the work, both good and bad, that such romantic conceptions of rights and nations have done, and the paradoxes that emerge when we treat those concepts not as ideals separable from practice, but as defined in and through their history.

 

Author’s Response by Eric D Weitz, City College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York:
Human Rights and the Complexities of History

 

I am grateful to the three reviewers who have given A World Divided such a close reading and to Zaib un Nisa Aziz for organizing this forum.

Three issues animate the book:

1. In our world of 193 nation-states, who truly has the “right to have rights,” as Hannah Arendt asked in 1951 in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, and a century and a half before her, the German Enlightenment philosopher, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, proclaimed when he wrote that “the one true right that belongs to the human being as such [is]: the right to be able to acquire rights.”

2. What do we mean by human rights? We tend to think that the answer is simple. It is anything but simple.

3. How do we actually obtain rights? We honour heroic actors—Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But is it by their actions alone that we make progress (when we make progress, and we don't always) in the realm of human rights?

To address these three issues, the book, as the reviewers note, moves through nine historical cases over the last two hundred and fifty years, cases drawn from virtually every continent. The book starts with the Greek struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s, moves on to the removal of Native Americans from Minnesota, goes on to slavery and emancipation in Brazil, the creation of minorities—minorities a phenomenon of the nation-state, namely, Armenians and Jews, genocide and the rebuilding of shattered communities in Namibia, Korean movements for independence and democracy, the Soviet Union, Palestine/Israel, and decolonization and independence in Rwanda and Burundi.

The three reviewers focus on the first of these issues. Who, in concrete historical circumstances, has the “right to have rights” is, indeed, a driving focus of A World Divided. But I find it strange that all three reviewers neglect the other two critical matters, which are taken up in case after case.

I am grateful that Kevin Fogg recognizes the range and quality of the research and writing. I learned some things about Indonesia even from a brief review. But he, like the other reviewers, wants a clear and simple answer when the whole point of the book is to lay bare the inherent conflicts and contradictions in human rights when they are, first and foremost, rooted in national citizenship.

Neve Gordon chides me for reinstating certain colonial tropes and even for using the term "American Indian." I was on the faculty at the University of Minnesota for thirteen years. That institution was the first university in the country to establish, in 1969, a department of American Indian Studies. The department still proudly carries that name. Many of the faculty members, from whom I generally have learned a great deal, are tribal members. If the term "American Indian" is good enough for them, it is good enough for me.

Moreover, anyone who reads my chapters on Namibia, Palestine/Israel, or Rwanda and Burundi could hardly think I overlook the nefarious sides of colonialism. Nor can one overlook the fact that anticolonial activists did adopt aspects of Western political ideas, including human rights, in their struggles against the colonizers. In the process, they adapted and altered that tradition. What does he think all those people who would go on to become nationalist leaders after 1945 were doing in Paris and London in the 1920s and 1930s? A lot of things, but mostly engaging with the Western political tradition, absorbing, critiquing, and adapting it amid the cross-currents of pan-Africanism, socialism and communism, and nationalism. As I write repeatedly, the countries of the Global South played a key role in expanding our conception of human rights to include social and economic rights. Gordon also wants simple answers: colonialism is bad, anticolonialism is good. But colonialism, whenever we locate its origins, whether around 1500 or from 1880, was a huge, complex phenomenon, and the political and intellectual interactions are a major part of that history.

It is much too simple and one-sided, in my view, to indict human rights for “reproduc[ing] colonial power structures” and for being “implicated in imperial projects.” That has certainly been the case, but only in part. Just one example:  One of the very first human rights actions at the United Nations was the resolution submitted on behalf of India by Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, the sister of Jawaharlal Nehru, condemning South Africa for its apartheid policies. The example could be multiplied thousands of times. Yes, human rights are sometimes instrumentalized for imperial and authoritarian goals. But to see only that is to miss the essence of what human rights mean.

Gordon contends that my chapter on Palestine/Israel ends with a rather trivial comment about the second-class status of Palestinians, and criticizes my argument that even Palestinians searching for a new political orientation cannot get beyond the framework of the nations-state. Well, that is the central argument of the book: the overwhelming fact of the nation-state as the predominant political form of the modern era, and its complex impact on human rights. As I write, the nation-state is both the first port of call for those demanding rights, and it is the supreme violator of human rights. If Gordon has a way out of this conundrum, I would like to read it. My way out, and it is only partial because those are the circumstances with which we live, comes when I argue in the conclusion that any movement of human rights protection to the international level marks an advance.

A World Divided is not just a “story of an idea [human rights] on the march,” as Emma Mackinnon claims. It is also a history of the politics of human rights. There was nothing “self-realizing” about it. Whenever advances in human rights were made, however partial, they came about through hard political struggle. While human rights were liberal in their origins, I spend a lot of time showing other sides to it, notably in the Soviet Union. Nor am I certain that the book is “romantic” in character. Yes, I do support human rights. But since every chapter shows also the partialities, the atrocities, the complexities that accompanied every advance in human rights, I am not quite certain how the book can be read as “romantic.” I do think progress, hardly linear in character, has been made, and certainly one way has been the ever-expanding circle of rights-bearing citizens. In the nineteenth century rights were largely reserved for propertied white men. Obviously, that is hardly the case today, and the inclusion of women has certainly been one of those great advances. 

I wish the reviewers had taken up other aspects of the book, as other readers have. I argue for the centrality of social movements in creating human rights, but also say that that factor alone cannot explain why human rights advances occur when they do. A fleeting confluence among social movements, state interests, and the international community was most often necessary. South Koreans’ persistent demonstrations against dictatorship were the most critical part of the equation that led to the final fall of dictatorships. But like it or not, so was the final realization by the United States that it would be better off with a democratic than with a bloodily authoritarian system. The first case I write about is the foundation of Greece as the first post-French Revolution, post-Napoleonic state in Europe. What began as a rather traditional rebellion against Ottoman oppression became, over the course of the 1820s, a nationalist revolt. The Greek rebels would not lose and the Ottomans could not win, forcing the Great Powers to intervene and accept a semi-independent Greece with some amount of rights for propertied men. Additionally, slave rebels and runaways in Brazil were absolutely key to the destruction of slavery, but so was a largely elite-led abolitionist movement tied into the international anti-slavery societies and the workings of the market, which had made the slave economy unprofitable in many parts of the country. All three reviewers pass over these complex historical processes. I wish the reviewers had also addressed the conundrum of collective versus individual rights (which I address especially in the chapter on Minnesota Indians) and the relationship of social and economic to political rights.

A World Divided is an affirmative—not triumphalist, but affirmative—history of human rights. It takes a stand against the many critics today who tell us that human rights are on the wane; have altogether failed; are utopian in character and therefore undermine the real and necessary world of politics, which has to be about limited goals; divert attention from more critical social issues, like inequality; or are western-based and therefore necessarily imperialist in character. That affirmative stance is rooted in research and writing that reaches virtually every continent over the last 250 years. With the accelerating climate crisis and a pandemic, both of which have laid bare the severe inequalities within societies like the United States and between the Global South and the Global North, and continued systemic racism, that affirmative stance is more necessary than ever.


[1] Burke, Edmund. "Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)." Everyman's Library (1986).

[2] Arendt, Hannah. The origins of totalitarianism. Vol. 244. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1973.

[3] Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Vintage, 1979.

[4] Buck-Morss, Susan. Hegel, Haiti, and universal history. University of Pittsburgh Pre, 2009; Mandela, Nelson. Long walk to freedom. Hachette UK, 2013.

[5] Weitz, Eric D. A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation-Updated Edition. Princeton University Press, 2015; Wolfe, Patrick. "Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native." Journal of genocide research 8, no. 4 (2006): 387-409.

[6] Feierstein, Daniel. Genocide as social practice: reorganizing society under the Nazis and Argentina's military juntas. Rutgers University Press, 2014.

[7] Estes, Nick. Our history is the future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the long tradition of indigenous resistance. Verso, 2019: 104.

[8] Mutua, Makau. "Savages, victims, and saviors: The metaphor of human rights." Harv. Int'l LJ 42 (2001): 201.

[9] Costas Douzinas, Human rights and empire: the political philosophy of cosmopolitanism. Routledge, 2007.

[10] Susan Marks, "Human rights and root causes." The Modern Law Review 74, no. 1 (2011): 57-78.

[11] Whyte, Jessica. The morals of the market: Human rights and the rise of neoliberalism. Verso Books, 2019.

[12] Ralph Bunche, “The United Nations and the Colonial Problem,” collected in “Imperialism Ancient and Modern,” Marshall Woods Lectures, Brown University, October and November 1947; see 54.

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