19-20 September 2019 at the Fritz-Thyssen-Foundation, Cologne
Conveners: Dr. Michael Homberg (Potsdam), Dr. Benjamin Möckel (Cologne), Dr. Daniel Stahl (Jena)
Modern technologies have become a major subject of human rights policy. Surveillance technology, the military use of drones, and the possibilities of Big Data analyses pose new challenges for the international human rights movement. At the same time, these techniques offer new ways to document and denounce violations of human rights and to promote mass mobilization. Although these debates are of topical interest, the ambivalent connection between human rights and technologies depicts a long-standing problem. Right from the start, the modern human rights system established in the 1940s and 1950s had to deal with challenges of technological innovations. The appropriation of new technologies in the service of political agendas goes back to these years. Thus, the main focus of this conference is on this ambivalent relation, that has until now scarcely been addressed in historical research.
Empirical case studies from different national and global contexts which focus on the years after 1945 are supposed to lend historical depth to these current debates. The conference analyzes how the spread of modern technologies both challenged and served human rights policies. How did technological innovations change structures, concepts, and practices of human rights policy? And how did these new norms, in turn, shape the way in which new technologies were implemented? Regarding these questions, presentations may take different groups and institutions into account: Governments, media, scientists, industrialists, NGOs and international organizations.
With this approach, the history of human rights can open up new vistas on global history. This is especially true for research on development aid, which hitherto hasn’t taken the historiography on human rights into due consideration. The subject of the conference offers an ideal starting-point: Technological modernization and progress have been promises of salvation by numerous initiatives for the “development” of the “third world”. At the same time, the right to development was of great importance in the debates on human rights. Still, it is important to highlight that such an approach should not only focus on tensions between technologies and human rights in developing countries but also in more developed, industrialized ones.
The conference focusses on five areas: 1) major infrastructure projects; 2) production methods in agriculture and industry; 3) changes in media cultures; 4) the societal impact of computerization; and 5) reproductive technologies. We define technologies as things, infrastructure, techniques, and know-how, which determine and influence social practices and interactions. Revisiting a social history (“Gesellschaftsgeschichte”) of technological change with regard to the transformation of global human rights regimes sheds new light on environmental and economic history approaches as well as the history of technology. Furthermore, it can take new perspectives on the history of migration, postcolonial nation-building, and international policy of the 20th century into account.