Human rights: Food for another thought about history
Human Rights Reader 471
Am I alone?
1. I do not want to know how things really happened in history, but why. This can be embarrassing, because when I start asking the whys I end up being really miserable. (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451)
2. The problem is that the ‘official’ historical narratives seduce you into thinking you really understand what was going on and why things happened. But most of it is guessing historian’s motives and their inner thoughts. It allays your curiosity and you are psychologically satisfied by the narrative. And since it connects the dots, you feel you are in the shoes of the historian whose narrative is being recorded. It has seduced you into a false account though, and now you think you understand… Many movements, like nationalism and intolerant religions, are driven by a historical narrative that is harmful and dangerous for humanity. Conventional history gets quite a few things wrong,* because it relies on things we can not know for sure. So how are we supposed to understand the whys of the real history? (Alex Rosenberg)
*: Conventional history, for instance, does not severely enough judge public figures that abandoned their people. (Jose Saramago, La Balsa de Piedra)
A historical period is a period with its own identity that distinguishes it from other periods
3. In the absence of another historical source, we have no alternative but to trust the historical information we get from conventional history books. It is up to evaluation if the chronicle is trustworthy/accurate. Historians have a method to evaluate their information: it is called histotriography. (Historiography is the study of the methods of historians in developing history as an academic discipline. The historiography of a specific topic covers how historians have studied that topic using particular sources, techniques, and theoretical approaches. The extent to which historians are influenced by their own groups and loyalties –such as to their nation state– is a debated question). (Wikipedia)
The question for the human rights movement then is: What does it mean ‘to reason historically’? (Donald de Raadt)
4. In order not to be totally cynic, everybody confuses history with historiography –and even that, selectively. For conventional historians, it too often seems that chronography of facts is history, i.e., with the conceptual framework of the narrator somehow interfering in their narration of the facts. (Should there not be a history without the biography of the historian interfering…?). Take, for example, Napoleon: Napoleon was a militaristic, imperialist, ruthless ruler that betrayed the French revolution. What is presented to us from history is Napoleon as a hero, because he killed many people and many peoples (that were as militaristic as him). The truly historic fact that betrayed the revolution is that monarchies were toppled by him and that, presto, they were directly replaced by the oligarchies riding behind him. And on we go with such trends… The greater participation of people in today’s societies, is an advancement, yes, but ‘the people’ are no further in their democratic quest than what they were 200+ years ago. One can ask oneself, are we really stuck in a history that does not really move forward in a democratic and HR manner when we have more money, less and less rich people (less in debt) and many, many more people rendered poor (much more in debt)? (Claudio Sepulveda)
5. So, the very fact that we promote a fresh start and new avenues in doing historiography of human rights (HR) is a great service to the mission of HR in these globally traumatic times. (Upendra Baxi) Why? Because there have indeed been important conquests in many social struggles throughout history –and many HR activists paid with their life their generous dedication to the cause. But gone are from the annals of conventional history and from our political subconscious so many of these anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and anti-colonial, anti-fascist struggles. (Boaventura de Sousa Santos)
The stories of the past should be told in the context of its violently racist past –that not everyone has wanted to hear (Spike Lee)
6. To look for, to rescue and to set right history implicates fighting against people forgetting past genocides and forgetting countless personal and collective traumas of the past –and the present… This, due to the fact that conventional history tries to promote a deliberate (?) social unconsciousness that anesthesizes us by controlling our thinking about history and about our critical and liberating ideas on the past. What it is now about is to revise the historical significance of an overlooked past of social leaders and popular social/political organizations so as to place them rightly and fairly in history.
7. Memory is not only about planted convictions, but also about silenced episodes of history that have remained in the dark. In short, the call is to rewrite history. The struggle for HR requires rebelling against the elites that have historically promoted and inspired massacres, persecutions and blatant violations of HR. In too many cases, conventional history has been an accomplice of systematic state racism, classism, patriarchy and machismo. ‘Denialism’ and the relativization of historical facts do neither heal the injustices committed nor the pains inflicted on humanity.** (Ricardo Klapp Santa Cruz)
**: Yes, many atrocities and attacks against the wellbeing of communities and peoples have been committed. The trouble is that, not infrequently, they have been perpetrated in the name of HR. (B. de Sousa Santos)
8. One gets used-to and believes anything; whole peoples do it even easier and faster. If part of history remains really invisible, if the more visible testimonies of history just give it the flimsy visibility we find in our textbooks, this in/visibility is actually hiding ‘the other history’. As usually is the case, average people accept this ‘reality’ not only for their own reasons, but also for the reasons of others –and this has been so since times immemorial. (J. Saramago)
9. Before ‘reentering’ history we have to mend it so that it stops being what it has always been told/related to us like. What was left out must be inserted because, otherwise, part of the historical truth is lost forever. (Jose Donoso, Casa de Campo)
Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City
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All previous 450+ Readers can be found in www.claudioschuftan.com
A bit about the past history of human rights itself (Samuel Moyn)
Human rights history is more accurate when it is viewed alongside the decolonization process. Decolonization had to close a chapter as a process in history, as well as to falter as an ideal in the minds of colonists for the contemporary enthusiasm for international HR to explode. We can try hard to place anti-colonialism and HR history together, but I think we should face up to the fact that in its heyday, the idea of HR had no movement to its name. There were simply no international HR prior to World War II. After 1918, one right mattered: the collective principle of self-determination. International HR focused on the individual were not the goal. Instead, collective self-determination was.*** So, after World War II, it was the nation state and not individual rights that scholars chose to globalize; the logic was there –only that it just was not one of individual rights.
***: Ho Chi Minh, who was begging his American interlocutors to live up to their promise of self-determination rather than allow the French to return, stopped asking them after receiving no response –and you know what happened after that. Moreover, UNESCO asked Gandhi what he made of HR since he did not celebrate them. And, of course, he was killed about a year before the Universal Declaration was finalized.
For Frantz Fanon, HR were, as he put it, “a question of starting a new history of man.” By the time of the 1948 vote on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 58 states were UN members and that grew by leaps and bounds obviously within a few short years as the Afro-Asian bloc grew in the General Assembly. They could now outvote the first-world powers with Soviet help, especially after 1960 and without that Soviet help a year later when 16 African nations entered the United Nations. From then on, HR were made equivalent to the very self-determination that had once been shunned by the great powers siding with colonialism.****
****: In October 1950, the Belgian representative to the UN said that HR could simply not have effects on empire: “Human rights rules,” he said, “presuppose a high degree of civilization and are incompatible with the ideas of people who have not reached a high degree of development. By imposing these rules on colonial peoples all at once, one runs the risk of destroying the very basis of their society. It would be attempting to lead them abruptly to the point which the civilized nations of today have reached only after a lengthy period of development.”
But the proposal to keep the proactive applicability of HR law out of empire did not carry the day. The General Assembly only went so far as to include articles that said all peoples shall have the right to self-determination. Nevertheless, HR changed their meaning on that day, at least interpreted as an individual entitlement that protects people. Interpretations began to emerge that asserted that collective empowerment was the premise for individual protection. This confirmed the almost equivalence of HR and self-determination. These elaborations became the focal point for HR activities in the UN when there was no HR movement yet in the world. Just think: Fifty years ago seems like a different world than that of ours today in which individual HR and sovereignty are the highest principles of the international order. Not to be forgotten is that now, HR do also imply economic, social and cultural rights!