Conference: Does Human Rights Have a History?

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About the Conference: Does human rights have a history? As late as 1998 not a single reference to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights had appeared in any article of the American Historical Review. But by 2006 the field had become prominent enough for the President of the American Historical Association to claim “we are all historians of human rights.” In this recent and very rapid development of the field, the fundamental premises of how we conceive of a history of human rights remain in flux and must be reconsidered:  when were “human rights” invented and what were the major stages of the evolution of their different elements? Rights talk emerged in early modern natural law theory, if not before, and played a famous role in early modern revolutions. But while humanitarian agendas sprouted throughout modern history, the international human rights regime began to take root only in the 1940s, and exploded to public prominence in the 1970s.


Do we then tell the longue durée of human rights history as an evolutionary narrative or one of sharp disjunctures and discontinuities? There are also critical substantive issues that remain unresolved. What counts as human rights history? What rights at particular times and places have been seen as human rights and what has made them visible in those moments? What leads ordinary people to band together to found initiatives to monitor human rights violations? When and under what conditions have states propounded and conformed to crucial cosmopolitan norms? Are human rights a Western discourse or are they rooted in a broader array of geographical, gendered and cultural contexts?

This conference draws together leading historians of human rights working across time and space to address these urgent questions. In doing so it honors the contributions of Michael Geyer, Samuel N. Harper Professor of German and European History and the College and a founder of the Human Rights Program at the University of Chicago, to the field of human rights history and to the development of interdisciplinary studies of human rights thought and practice at the University of Chicago.

Faculty Organizers PFCHR Faculty Director Mark Philip Bradley, Jane Dailey, Emily Osborn, Amy Dru Stanley, and Tara Zahra

Additional Support The University of Chicago Library, Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies (CEERES), Center for International Studies (CIS), Department of Anthropology, and Department of History

Conference Schedule See the presenter biographies here.

Registration Registration by Tuesday, April 7 is encouraged but not required. Click here to RSVP for both days of the conference.

Friday, April 10, 2015

9:00-9:30am | Registration and Coffee

9:30-10:00am | Welcome and Opening Remarks Mark Philip Bradley, University of Chicago

10:00am-12noon | Opening Plenary: Does Human Rights Have a History? Panel Chair: Monica McWilliams, University of Ulster

“In Search of Social and Economic Human Rights” Molly Nolan, New York University

“Conceptual change and Human Rights” Peter de Bolla, Cambridge University

“Yes…and no” Mark Philip Bradley, University of Chicago

“Is the Emergence of Humanitarian Intervention a Human Rights History?” Fabian Klose, Leibniz Institute of European History

12noon-1:00pm | Lunch (provided)

1:00-3:00pm | Humanity and Human Rights Panel Chair: Leora Auslander, University of Chicago

“By Virtue of Being Human: Slave Emancipation and the Revolutionizing of Human Rights” Amy Dru Stanley, University of Chicago

“Beyond Manumission: Slave emancipations in the quest for human rights” Julie Saville, University of Chicago

“Emigration, Ethnic Cleansing, and Humanitarianism in Interwar East Central Europe” Tara Zahra, University of Chicago

“What is the Nineteenth-Century Concept of ‘Humanity’ good for?” Michael Geyer, University of Chicago

3:00-3:15pm | Break and Refreshments

3:15-4:45pm | Crimes of War Panel Chair: Eleonora Gilburd, University of Chicago

“Crimes Against Humanity and the ‘Subsequent’ Nuremberg Trials, 1946-1949” Elizabeth Borgwardt, Washington University in St. Louis

“Between Idealism and Cynicism: The Nuremberg Trials and the Cold War Origins of Postwar Human Rights” Francine Hirsch, University of Wisconsin-Madison

“Human Rights and the Legalist Paradigm of War: Convergence and Divergence” Devin Pendas, Boston College

Saturday, April 11, 2015

8:30-9:00am | Registration and Coffee

9:00-11:00am | Civil Rights and Human Rights in America Panel Chair: Susan Gzesh, University of Chicago

“Of Theory and Practice: The Sacralization of Civil Rights in the United States” Jane Dailey, University of Chicago

“Malcolm X, Human Rights, and the Problem with Civil Rights” Moshik Temkin, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

“Sovereign Mediator: Ralph Bunche in the Void (between Self-Determination and Human Rights)” James Sparrow, University of Chicago

“A Double Standard Abroad and at Home?: The United States’ Response to Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence”? Sarah Snyder, American University

11:00-11:15am | Break and Refreshments

11:15am-1:15pm | Human Rights from South to North and East to West Panel Chair: Brodwyn Fischer, University of Chicago

“Anti-totalitarianism, Human Rights, and Democracy: On the French Left’s Strange Love Affair with Poland’s Solidarity Movement” Robert Brier, German Historical Institute (Warsaw, Poland)

“Situating the Southern Cone in Global Human Rights Politics in the 1970s” Patrick Kelly, University of Chicago

“Interactional Invention of Human Rights: Converging and Reformulated Global Human Rights Initiatives in South Korea in the Early 1970s” Ingu Hwang, University of Chicago

“Global meets Local: Amnesty International and Soviet Dissidents” Benjamin Nathans, University of Pennsylvania

1:15-2:30pm | Lunch (provided)

2:30-4:15pm | Legacies of Genocide in Rwanda and its Aftermath: Roundtable Panel Chair: Emily Osborn, University of Chicago

“Ignoring warning signs of massive human rights abuse in Rwanda, before, during, and after the genocide” Filip Reyntjens, University of Antwerp

“What we learn about the present in Rwanda while researching the past” Lee Ann Fujii, University of Toronto

“NGO Justice: African Rights as Pseudo-Prosecutor of the Rwandan Genocide” Luc Reydams, Notre Dame

4:15-4:30pm | Break and Refreshments

4:30-6:00pm | Contemporary Human Rights and the Global Condition Panel Chair: Jacqueline Bhabha, Harvard University

“Concluding Remarks” Martha Nussbaum, University of Chicago

“Why is the age of human rights the age of inequality?” Samuel Moyn, Harvard University

“Collective Rights as Human Rights: Economic Self-determination and Resource Sovereignty in Historical Perspective” Bradley Simpson, University of Connecticut

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