The Breakthrough

The Breakthrough: Human Rights in the 1970s

Jan Eckel
Samuel Moyn
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    The Breakthrough
    Book Description:

    Between the 1960s and the 1980s, the human rights movement achieved unprecedented global prominence. Amnesty International attained striking visibility with its Campaign Against Torture; Soviet dissidents attracted a worldwide audience for their heroism in facing down a totalitarian state; the Helsinki Accords were signed, incorporating a "third basket" of human rights principles; and the Carter administration formally gave the United States a human rights policy. The Breakthrough is the first collection to examine this decisive era as a whole, tracing key developments in both Western and non-Western engagement with human rights and placing new emphasis on the role of human rights in the international history of the past century. Bringing together original essays from some of the field's leading scholars, this volume not only explores the transnational histories of international and nongovernmental human rights organizations but also analyzes the complex interplay between gender, sociology, and ideology in the making of human rights politics at the local level. Detailed case studies illuminate how a number of local movements-from the 1975 World Congress of Women in East Berlin to anti-apartheid activism in Britain, to protests in Latin America-affected international human rights discourse in the era as well as the ways these moments continue to influence current understanding of human rights history and advocacy. The global south-an area not usually treated as a scene of human rights politics-is also spotlighted in groundbreaking chapters on Biafran, South American, and Indonesian developments. In recovering the remarkable presence of global human rights talk and practice in the 1970s, The Breakthrough brings this pivotal decade to the forefront of contemporary scholarly debate. Contributors: Carl J. Bon Tempo, Gunter Dehnert, Celia Donert, Lasse Heerten, Patrick William Kelly, Benjamin Nathans, Ned Richardson-Little, Daniel Sargent, Brad Simpson, Lynsay Skiba, Simon Stevens.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0871-9
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Chapter 1 The Return of the Prodigal: The 1970s as a Turning Point in Human Rights History
    (pp. 1-14)
    Samuel Moyn

    The history of human rights is a new domain of inquiry. Until recently, this emerging field focused intently on distant origins, from the Bible to medieval philosophy, and from early modern natural rights theory to the age of democratic revolution. Above all other eras, it favored the 1940s, reasonably enough given the framing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), on which the historical literature has concentrated.¹ About the trajectory of human rights after its ancient, medieval, early modern, and midcentury phases, however, little has been written.

    When less rosy and more critical accounts of the emergence of human...

  4. Chapter 2 The Dystopia of Postcolonial Catastrophe: Self-Determination, the Biafran War of Secession, and the 1970s Human Rights Moment
    (pp. 15-32)
    Lasse Heerten

    In the summer months of 1968, media reports of human suffering in the Nigerian Civil War (1967–1970) began to disconcert the “conscience of the world.” Readers around the world were shocked when they were confronted with photographs of starving children in the secessionist Republic of Biafra.¹ Many contemporaries were soon convinced that genocide against Biafra’s Igbos² was impending; the specter of a West African “Auschwitz” loomed large on the postcolonial horizon.³ The war became the first postcolonial conflict to engender a transnational surge of humanitarian sentiment. A host of intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), principally the International Committee of...

  5. Chapter 3 The Disenchantment of Socialism: Soviet Dissidents, Human Rights, and the New Global Morality
    (pp. 33-48)
    Benjamin Nathans

    Since at least the eighteenth century, the hallowed story told about human rights is that human beings are born in possession of certain claims to moral worth that are bound up with the essence of being human and therefore are not limited to particular times, places, or political arrangements. Over the last several decades, historians of human rights, bound by the axioms of historicism and antiessentialism, have tempered this story by insisting that human rights were constructed, or even invented, by human actors responding to historically specific circumstances, whether the struggle between feudal aristocracies and overweening monarchs, the building of...

  6. Chapter 4 Dictatorship and Dissent: Human Rights in East Germany in the 1970s
    (pp. 49-67)
    Ned Richardson-Little

    Most accounts of the rise of human rights in East Germany (German Democratic Republic, or GDR) regard the 1975 Helsinki Accords as a crucial turning point that created the conditions for the events at the Berlin Wall in the fall of 1989.¹ This argument contends that by signing on to a major international treaty with human rights provisions, the ruling Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED) inadvertently ignited a dissident movement that would ultimately orchestrate the peaceful revolution and the end of the communist system in Germany in 1989.² While the Helsinki Accords and the proliferation of the idea...

  7. Chapter 5 Whose Utopia? Gender, Ideology, and Human Rights at the 1975 World Congress of Women in East Berlin
    (pp. 68-87)
    Celia Donert

    The United Nations Decade for Women (1976–1985) laid the foundations for a global campaign to recognize “women’s rights as human rights” that culminated at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.¹ During the 1970s the number and type of women’s nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) around the world increased exponentially, and their alliances, networks, and coalitions increasingly crossed Cold War ideological and geographical divides.² Marginalized within the UN human rights institutions since World War II, women’s rights moved center stage during this decade. Second-wave feminism, along with new social movements pressing for fundamental rights of economic and social development,...

  8. Chapter 6 “Magic Words”: The Advent of Transnational Human Rights Activism in Latin America’s Southern Cone in the Long 1970s
    (pp. 88-106)
    Patrick William Kelly

    In March 1972, members of the Division for Latin America of the United States Catholic Conference, relying on information from Brazilian exiles, directed a letter to Brazilian president Emílio Médici that challenged the detention of “famed” peasant leader Manuel da Conceição. They urged the president to “allow an international team of impartial observers” into the country to “investigate the long-standing and widespread charges of systemic repression, torture and violation of basic human rights.”¹ A mere two years later, a collection of Latin American and European activists used a comparable discourse when they formed the International Commission of Enquiry into the...

  9. Chapter 7 Shifting Sites of Argentine Advocacy and the Shape of 1970s Human Rights Debates
    (pp. 107-124)
    Lynsay Skiba

    Thirty years after testifying before the U.S. House Subcommittee on International Organizations in September 1976, Argentine lawyer Lucio Garzón Maceda recalled the hearings with satisfaction and surprise: satisfaction because he viewed the two-day proceedings on human rights conditions in Argentina as the first international defeat of the military junta, contributing to its subsequent loss of U.S. military aid and turning the tide of world opinion. Surprise because he and his fellow Argentine witness and lawyer, Gustavo Roca, never imagined that they would confront the junta from the capital of its most powerful supporter.¹ Three years later, the astonishment on the...

  10. Chapter 8 Oasis in the Desert? America’s Human Rights Rediscovery
    (pp. 125-145)
    Daniel Sargent

    An oasis in the Sonora desert begins with a fracture in the earth’s crust. If the groundwater is high enough, liquid under pressure will seep through the cracks. With time, these trickles may support vegetation, even animal life. For travelers, the oasis offers a respite from the heat of the California interior. For historians, its provenance may spur reflection. Like oases, human rights breakthroughs are rare. In the expanses of world history, the idea of human rights has had limited relevance for most people. Yet ruptures do occur, as in the 1970s, and the oasis evokes the dynamics that create...

  11. Chapter 9 Human Rights and the U.S. Republican Party in the Late 1970s
    (pp. 146-165)
    Carl J. Bon Tempo

    Historians of the United States recently have turned their attention to the 1970s. In the words of one chronicler, “something happened” during this decade that shaped the United States for the rest of the twentieth century.¹ As the essays in this book make clear, one of the things that happened in the 1970s—in the United States and around the globe—was a new emphasis on human rights. This is not to say that human rights emerged sui generis in the 1970s, but instead that human rights principles, politics, and policies enjoyed a greater standing, wider audience, and new meanings.²...

  12. Chapter 10 The Polish Opposition, the Crisis of the Gierek Era, and the Helsinki Process
    (pp. 166-185)
    Gunter Dehnert

    When Edward Gierek succeeded Władysław Gomułka as first secretary of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PUWP) following the bloody suppression of the workers’ uprisings on the Polish Baltic coast in late 1970, living conditions in Poland temporarily improved to a considerable degree. The 45 dead and about 1,100 injured at Gdańsk and Szczecin were a horrific way of conceding failure by Gomułka, who had returned as a beacon of hope to head the party in October 1956.¹ The revolts on December 13, 1970, came as a response to the drastic raising of food prices, which the...

  13. Chapter 11 “Human Rights Are Like Coca-Cola”: Contested Human Rights Discourses in Suharto’s Indonesia, 1968–1980
    (pp. 186-203)
    Brad Simpson

    In April 1968, as students around the world were protesting their own governments and the Vietnam War, Iran hosted an international meeting to review progress made in promoting human rights, two decades after the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Tehran Conference has drawn justifiable criticism for being hosted and attended by authoritarian regimes whose commitment to human rights was dubious at best. In Indonesia, however, the Tehran meeting provoked wide discussion, with a variety of voices seeking to mobilize the gathering for their own ends. Officials with the National Family Planning Institute, seeking to assuage opponents...

  14. Chapter 12 Why South Africa? The Politics of Anti-Apartheid Activism in Britain in the Long 1970s
    (pp. 204-225)
    Simon Stevens

    The global anti-apartheid movement, one scholar argues, “was the first successful transnational social movement in the era of globalization. . . . What is unique about the anti-apartheid movement is the extent of support it received from individuals, governments, and organizations on all continents. Few social movements garner anywhere near the international support mobilized against the racist apartheid regime in South Africa.”¹ Such claims reflect the considerable interest scholars have recently begun to take in anti-apartheid activism. Despite this interest, however, and scholars’ emphasis on “the extent of support” that the anti-apartheid movement received, historians have so far shown only...

  15. Chapter 13 The Rebirth of Politics from the Spirit of Morality: Explaining the Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s
    (pp. 226-260)
    Jan Eckel

    In the past few years, the 1970s have rapidly moved to the center of scholarly interest. Interpretations have thrived at the same time as—and sometimes, it seems, even before—the contours of important events and developments are beginning to appear in research-based studies. Most historians have shaped the 1970s as a novel and distinctive phase in contemporary history and consequently accentuated the historical breaks that marked the transition from the 1960s to the following decade. Eric Hobsbawm many years ago diagnosed the “end of the golden age,” which in his view inaugurated an era of long-term problems.¹ Those trends...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 261-326)
  17. List of Contributors
    (pp. 327-328)
  18. Index
    (pp. 329-338)
  19. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 339-339)