A global human rights imagination?

Paddy Coleridge in conversation with Mark Bradley
In this interview, Professor Mark Bradley explains what he means by a human rights “imagination” and shares some more general thoughts on popular vernaculars, art and history, and why it is that historians are only now starting to talk about rights. Professor Bradley is the Bernadotte E. Schmitt Professor of International History at the University of Chicago. His book, The United States and the Global Human Rights Imagination, will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2015.

Right Now: You’ve written, “once at the margins, human rights and its historiography are at the intellectual vanguard of international and diplomatic history.” How recent is the historical interest in human rights?

Professor Mark Bradley: It’s incredibly recent. It always surprises me but it’s really only in the last decade that historians have talked about a human rights history. To be fair, historians have talked about the rights of man and the enlightenment and 18th century rights questions for ages – so it isn’t to say that nobody’s ever paid any attention to rights. But the notion of human rights in the sort of globalised way in which we came to think of them in the 20th century – not at all. The leading historical journal in the United States, the American Historical Review, didn’t publish an article with “human rights” in its title until 1998 and it wasn’t until 2004 that an article dealing with modern human rights appeared. Again, that’s changed really, really rapidly but I think it’s quite amazing that fifteen years out, no one was thinking about rights from a historical perspective.

How could human rights belong so squarely to the 20th century and yet not appear in its history?

We don’t like to think that historical problems are perceived from the present, but that’s often the case. Before 1989 the ways in which international historians thought about what was important as an object of study in global politics was dictated by the cold war – how did the cold war start? What was the middle of the cold war? How would the cold war end? From that perspective human rights were kind of an auxiliary sideshow to what the main chance was. Even as people started thinking more about human rights questions in the 1970s the initial wave of scholarship was all about the relationship between human rights and the cold war. People couldn’t think outside that frame. Post ‘89, people could start thinking in different kinds of ways. This is good, of course – the historical imagination gets broader – but there are dangers in this too, that you too much transpose a set of present day understandings onto the past. So things are gained and things are lost by the ways in which people frame problems and this applies equally to the new human rights histories, I think.

What does a historian study when he or she studies human rights?

Even in these first ten years there’s been a sort of first and second wave in human rights history. In the first wave it was about trying to figure out the history of global or transnational human rights norms and human rights law. How was it that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came into being? What were the historical processes that allowed that to happen? Why was it aspirational? What about the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950? How could there be a Genocide convention in 1948? How could there be revisions to the Geneva Convention in 1949 that directed attention to non-combatants, rather than combatants? So I think a lot of what was going on in the initial phase was trying to think about how this was crafted. Then people started to turn their attention to the 1970s and there it was non-state actors that mattered. How do you account for the rise of Amnesty International? You know, 1961 Amnesty appears on the scene, it is a very small organisation and it takes a while for it to gain traction. By 1977 it’s winning the Nobel peace prize. How do you explain that? How do you explain how it’s captured imaginations? And amnesty’s just one example of the kinds of social movements, social processes, that aren’t happening at that rarefied UN level. So I think people are going to that as another historical subject – where does it come from, how does it become believable?

You’ve referred to the ‘take no prisoners competitive sweepstakes between the 1940’s and the 1970’s’, which is a great send up of the historiography. But you take issue with both approaches in a way; you note that both camps bring a similar conception of time and narrative to their projects. What problem do you identify with the way they’ve begun to tell a history of human rights?

Well, one of the problems with the linear narratives – and I think this is where the 70s people make a good point – is that there was a tendency in the first wave of human rights history, as there is, I think, in the first wave of almost any new way of thinking about the past, of uncritically trying to recover something that had been obscured. Nobody had thought about these questions – how do you just put them in people’s consciousnesses? But that tends to slip into a celebratory mode – an “it’s getting better” mode – and what you end up seeing over historical time is a sort of movement toward a Kantian perpetual peace. Now, circa 2014 it doesn’t feel like we’re living in a brave new Human Rights world. So how do you begin to talk about the fact that norms and practice are different and do so without letting go of the reality of the norms? That’s where saying it’s all about one or other decade doesn’t really help us – there’s a messy historical reality in any of those decades.

You’ve referred to the literary scholar Frank Kermode’s analogy of the ticking of the clock?

Oh I love that. He has this wonderful way of thinking about how we think about time. You think about time and its tick and then tock – for me it’s always a grandfather clock and you’re watching the pendulum swing back and forth – and Kermode points out that it’s we who insist on the fictional beginning (tick) and the fictional end (tock) – that if its tick-tock then we ignore the critical interval between tock and tick.

So is that how you set about telling a history of rights – telling the tock-tick narrative?

I think it is. Again, it’s a metaphor for a larger set of real historical processes and a way of being attentive to the messiness of what’s actually happening on the ground in a way that a progressive narrative elides. Everybody has their special burden as a historian – but the special burden with human rights is, well, how can you think human rights are a bad thing? You know? How do you write a critical history of human rights when in a sense you think that human rights are a good thing? And yet there are all kinds of tensions and contradictions. So it’s a delicate balance of being empathetic and simultaneously critical. It’s very easy to point to the anomalies or be dismissive. It’s always been partial, it’s always been about some rights and not other rights, it’s always been about particular rights at particular times, or in particular places. So it’s partial and it’s worth pointing that out, but that might also just be a part of the baggage that comes with this particular way of thinking and framing the world, rather than being a problem that can be superseded in one form or another.

You’ve also said that your concern isn’t so much with the State or great power politics. What is the focus?

Well, if I can tell it as a sort of story. In the United States in the 1970s the common way that historians have thought about human rights entering onto the American political stage is Jimmy Carter. Carter human rights policy was a break from the past – it’s only towards the end of his presidential campaign that he mentions Human Rights and when he does that’s largely because his pollsters tell him that when he speaks about rights it polls well. This rolls into his famous inaugural address. So the question was why did it poll well? What was it about mentioning human rights – which seemed at the time to be almost random – that a pollster would come back and say people hear that? What did they hear? And where did what they heard come from? So a lot of the project for me, particularly in the 1970s, has been looking outwards from the United States – everybody else in the world is talking about human rights – dissidents in the Soviet Union, in Eastern Europe, protesters in Military Regimes in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, they’re vernacularising global human rights and using them for very particular political purposes. It’s those vernaculars that begin to filter into the United States and I think help people to understand what human rights are. So when Carter goes there, that’s what’s polling – a set of understandings that have been imported from someplace else and which Americans themselves begin to vernacularise.

In a way I think we’ve arrived at the subject of your book. What is the global human rights imagination?

My interest is in a kind of popular vernacular, an imaginary of what rights are about and what they are for. Where it came from, what inflected it, or changed it in one way or another. The answers to those questions are very historically conditioned. Human rights are so hard to define. I mean, if I said “you tell me, what are human rights?” we could have a long philosophical conversation that might not actually come to much. But it sits there as a moral vocabulary for people. So my interest is in what that moral language is, and where it comes from.

Your focus is primarily on the United States but you also call this a global human rights imagination. Is this a shared enterprise? Is there only one global human rights imagination? Or is it a set of national imaginations of a global issue?

I like the word vernaculars, in a way, because I think there is a sort of master language that’s operating out there. There is a real global rights lexicon that from the mid-1940’s onwards that gives these vernaculars shape and form. Then it’s a question of how that language gets appropriated and transformed and deployed in a variety of national, regional, local contexts. This vernacularisation happens everywhere. So in part normalising the United States is to say that we too operate with a kind of a vernacular of a global imaginary. We don’t create the global imaginary – that’s a distinctive American way of thinking about rights questions, that we somehow own the franchise. But what a soviet dissident is doing with human rights and the language of human rights in the late 1960s and early 1970s is essentially vernacularising a global vocabulary for their own political purposes at home. And so do we do that in the 1970s as well; it’s just a different way of looking at it. The global human rights project of the 1970s is not a project of Jimmy Carter – we didn’t get there first. For an Australian audience maybe people just say, well, of course they didn’t – for an American audience that’s a harder sell.

The focus on rights imaginations or vernaculars has also involved a shift in focus to other historical sources. You refer to a number of exhibitions in the period during and immediately following the second war. What was their significance?

Well, if you’re trying to figure out how people imagine something it seems to me that there are just different ways into that kind of problem. Text is the default mode for most historians. But visuality is another way into these kinds of questions. Particularly with something as elusive as rights, visual sources evoke something that political and legal texts elide. They give a visceral quality to what people are thinking about or imagining. And they don’t just illustrate. Historians often use visual culture to illustrate historical narratives – ok here’s a picture of Roosevelt giving the four freedoms address – a “helper-picture” that gets you through a text. So my thought has been: can the visual text be read in the way we read documents, rather than just illustrate what’s in the documents? So, in my work, I’ve focussed on things like the iconic photograph of Dorothea Lange, The Migrant Mother – alright, everybody’s seen this, that’s depression era America during the new deal, but that’s just the best known of thousands of images through which people were confronting social suffering in one form or another in the 1930s. What kind of political and emotional work were those images doing? How were they helping people think about how the suffering of strangers could come to matter as much as their own? They are the essential questions I think. What I realised was that Migrant Mother, the iconic American depression-era symbol, is really part of a transnational practice of reportage in the 1930s that was happening everywhere, in Latin America, in Europe, in Asia. In each of these countries people were using the medium of photography to think about social suffering. And they were directly in dialogue in one form or another. Walker Evans, another American photographer well-known for his work in the 1930s, went to Cuba before he repatriated to Alabama to take his iconic depression era photographs. If you were to map the developments in his photography the pivot would be then and there, on the streets of Havana, photographing poor Cuban families. So again, this notion that people are both in and out of a domestic space when they engage a rights imagination. Where the kind of work I do is really easy to criticise is that there’s no causality here. There’s no Migrant Mother à Viewer sees Migrant Mother à Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So it’s about trying to create something of something else, something nebulous, and to gain a sense of how, collectively, they things might have mattered.

One final question before we conclude. People are increasingly sceptical about human rights. They’re perceived to be instrumental. International human rights institutions – the international court of justice, the international criminal court – are perceived to be inefficient, highly politicised. Are you more optimistic about the future of the global human rights imagination?

The notion of it being too soon to tell seems to me to be a reasonable one. Whether you want to pick 1945 or you want to pick 1948, whether you want to pick the Charter or you want to pick the Universal Declaration of Human rights – we’re really not that far out. It’s a little premature, 60 years on, to say that it’s a stunning success or it’s a spectacular failure. If you had asked the question pre-Iraq war, pre afghan war when everyone was in that glorious moment of the potential of human rights, you might have said yes, its going to prevail in ways that fundamentally transform the international system. Now, maybe the international system is transforming human rights.