On the night of November 9, 1989, it was apparent to everyone on the scene in Berlin, and to spectators across the world, watching on TV, that history had reached a turning point. The ramifications of the opening of the Berlin Wall, as was also widely understood at the time, would not be limited to central Europe, but would reverberate around the globe. A little less than a year later, U.S. president George H.W. Bush, addressing Congress, articulated this understanding in calling for a ‘new world order.’ Separating this phrase both from its rhetoric of Cold War triumphalism and the various conspiracy theories that have grown up around it, I would suggest that the 1990s actually did see the development—tentative, hesitating, contradictory and incomplete—of a new world order, one reflecting the turbulent events of 1989 across the Eurasian land-mass, as well as the aspirations that propelled these events, the promises of 1989. But by the end of that decade and the beginning of the new millennium, a reaction to that order was beginning to emerge, which would strengthen across the early years of the twenty-first century. The two political upheavals of 2016, the Brexit vote, and the election of Donald Trump as American President, are major signs of the triumph of that reaction, the end of the new world order, and the failure of the promises of 1989.
Tag: human rights
This essay is being written at the end of 2016, with the topic stimulating a series of reactions: bewilderment, then bemusement, then apprehension, then uncertainty, and, finally, curiosity. If President-elect Donald Trump himself knows what he truly plans to do – as opposed to what he would truly like to do – he has hidden it from the rest of us. Although the British government has a long tradition of adjustment to whichever government is in power in any given country of interest, adjustment needs an object or action or policy to which to adjust. Thus far, Trump has not felt the need to provide any of them. And so, we prognosticate in the dark. One only hopes that it is the dark before the dawn.
The international human rights system, with its diverse global movements, is epoch-making, allowing stigma to be applied to errant states on matters of crucial global concern. But promoting its exclusive relevance in the face of injustice, as if the alternative were apathy or despair, is simply not going to cut it.
Don’t tell me it doesn’t work—torture works,” then presidential candidate Donald Trump said at a February 2016 campaign event in Bluffton, South Carolina. “Okay, folks, Torture—you know, half these guys [say]: ‘Torture doesn’t work.’ Believe me, it works, Okay?” Whether or not the President-elect’s promise of a return to Bush era waterboarding (or forced deportations or building his “beautiful wall”) will be realized is anybody’s guess, but the Trump presidency is unlikely to be remembered for its vigorous championing of human rights. Perhaps more surprising is the ever-diminishing place of the United States in the making of a global human rights order long before Donald Trump appeared on the political scene.
Samuel Moyn’s study of human rights movements is a path-breaking book. It moves the study of human rights out of the realm of virtue and into the realm of politics. By desacralizing the subject, he has historicized it, and thereby has enabled us to measure the claims of human rights against other political claims and projects. Trained both as a lawyer and as an intellectual historian, Moyn tilts the chronology of human rights history towards a bifurcation, between a period of failed activism prior to 1970 and of successful mobilization in the form of a set of popular trans-national movements after that date. Why the divide? Because prior to 1970, other utopias, especially the Marxist one in Europe and elsewhere, as well as its anti-colonial variants in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, still commanded the loyalty and commitment of millions. After that date anti-colonialism had more or less completed its historical mission, and Marxism, as a theory of action and as a political movement, slowly and then spectacularly collapsed. Into the vacuum rushed human rights as a political weapon of choice.
In “Commerce and Complicity,” Elizabeth Borgwardt exhumes the elided history, distorted memory, and unpredictable legal legacy of the Nuremberg trials. By tracing the evolution of three critical principles long associated with those trials—universal jurisdiction, crimes against humanity, and individual status within the international community—she provides a nuanced explanation for Nuremberg’s relevance to the emergence of postwar human rights that helps explain why postwar human rights were both so attenuated and so unexpectedly resilient. Her essay begins to provide an answer to the question of how historians should evaluate human rights efforts that “seem simultaneously to be losing the battle but winning the war” (639).