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"Free and equal": Human rights in the global imagination

Historian Prof Mark Philip Bradley examines the origins of the concept of human rights. He also discusses the development of a language around this construct. Presented by Elisabeth Lopez.

“The Reagan people weren't particularly interested in human rights at all but they begin to realise that human rights polls, well, that it can become a justification for policy and so quite quickly the Reagan people have a human rights policy.” — Prof Mark Philip Bradley




Prof Mark Philip Bradley
Prof Mark Philip Bradley

Mark Philip Bradley is the author of Imagining Vietnam and America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam (University of North Carolina Press, 2000), which won the Harry J. Benda Prize from the Association for Asian Studies, Vietnam at War (Oxford University Press, 2009) and is the co-editor of Making Sense of the Vietnam Wars (Oxford University Press, 2008) and Truth Claims: Representation and Human Rights (Rutgers University Press, 2001) and The Familiar Made Strange Iconic American Texts after the Transnational Turn (forthcoming 2015). His work has appeared in the Journal of American History, the Journal of World History, Diplomatic History and Dissent.  A recipient of fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Fulbright-Hays, Professor Bradley is currently completing a book that explores the place of the United States in the twentieth century global human rights imagination for Cambridge University Press. He is the past president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations and serves as a co-editor of the Cornell University Press book series The United States in the World.  Bradley is the Director of the Human Rights Program at the University of Chicago.

Credits

Host: Elisabeth Lopez
Producers: Eric van Bemmel, Kelvin Param
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Kelvin Param & Eric van Bemmel

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VOICEOVER 
This is Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia. 

ELISABETH LOPEZ 
Hi.  I’m Elisabeth Lopez.  Thanks for joining us.
In a world that is riven by conflict, poverty and religious difference many of us take for granted that there is one common denominator - our humanity.  The notion that all human beings are born free and equal has inspired political movements, public policy and even war.  The language of human rights underpins a powerful international framework of laws and agencies.
Yet our guest on Up Close argues that a global human rights consciousness is a fairly recent thing.  Mark Philip Bradley, Professor of International History at the University of Chicago is interested in how human rights came to be believable and he has identified two moments that cemented what he calls a global moral vocabulary - the 1940s and the 1970s.
Mark is author of the 2015 book "The United States and the Global Human Rights Imagination".  He is in Melbourne as a guest of the University of Melbourne School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, and the Melbourne School of Government.
Mark, welcome to Up Close.

MARK PHILIP BRADLEY
It's a pleasure to be here.  Thanks.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Let's start with the 1940s.  Why did political leaders start talking about human rights rather than the rights of a particular group of class or nation state?

MARK PHILIP BRADLEY
Human rights becomes the rhetoric by which policy makers are in some ways trying to sell World War II to their citizens at home and if you look at the Atlantic Charter for Instance or you look at the Declaration of the United Nations, which are the sort of formal establishing declarations that bring the allies into the war, human rights is the frame that gets used to talk about what's different about the United States, Great Britain, its allies and the totalitarian countries like Germany and Japan.  And it's very strange in some ways that they choose that as the language to start with.
World War I, nobody uses this language.  After World War I with the League of Nations, nobody uses this language and so one of the puzzles is why in 1941 did they think that human rights is going to resonate with people in ways that will encourage support for the war?

ELISABETH LOPEZ
So the rise of totalitarianism and fascism were obviously part of this, but was it an easy sell and who were leaders selling these ideas of human rights to?

MARK PHILIP BRADLEY
I don't know that it's so much a question of whether it's an easy sell or a hard sell. I think it's more a question of why they choose those words and those ideas to frame what are fundamental ways of setting the war in motion.  For me, going back maybe 10 years into the 1930s and thinking about the way in which what we come to think of now as human rights would have begun to enter popular consciousness is ways that perhaps it hadn't before.
So one of the things that I have thought about is the circulation of photographs about social suffering in the 1930s.  In the United States, because we tend to be very exceptionalist about the ways in which we think about things, you know listeners may know Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" which has always been thought of in an American domestic context.  It's the sort of iconic photograph about The Great Depression in the United States.
But it turns out that photographs like "Migrant Mother" are being taken and are being circulated around the globe in the 1930s in very conscious ways; photographers talking, building on one another's work.  They are circulating around with a variety of publics and putting social suffering in people's imagination it seems to me in ways that it had not necessarily done before.  And some of that is about technology. I mean circulation of the mass press, the circulation of photographs is happening again in the 1930s in ways that it might not have happened before.
So there is a certain amount of pre-conditioning both with images and with text around again what we now really easily would say, oh that's human rights, but at that moment that wasn't necessarily the label or the language.
So I think what's happening in the early 1940s is people are trying to take a set of sensibilities that have been emergent in the 1930s and call them something that people can identify and that that gets a kind of traction during the war - that people hear that and say, oh that's what human rights means.  That's a way on concretising again this kind of rhetorical vagueness in some ways that comes out in speeches.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Did this first start as an American thing or how European might it have been?

MARK PHILIP BRADLEY
It's actually very trans-national it seems to me and I wouldn't say that it necessarily began as an American thing, although it's clear that the American State is pushing it in very strong ways during the wartime period.  But when I talk about something like you know photographs of social suffering or more generally reportage in the 1930s, this is being produced in Asia, it's being produced in Latin America, it's being produced in Western and Eastern Europe, it's being produced globally in a sense.
In the wartime period when people are starting to talk more about it in policy terms or legal terms, you know you have to remember in the wartime period is there's an incredible circulation of peoples who are being uprooted because of the war.  So émigrés who are coming from Latin America, from Europe, coming to the United States and are cental to many of the conversations that go on, but again begin to concretise what human rights might actually mean in a kind of global way.

ELISABETH LOPEZ 
Yeah the flows of lawyers as exiles responsible for drawing up documents like The Declaration of Human Rights is something that you have noted in your writing.

MARK PHILIP BRADLEY 
Yeah absolutely.  I think the most important thing to say historically about human rights - and has been the centre of the work that I've been trying to do - is what you said at the outset, this notion about how it becomes believable at particular times and particular places.
So the notion that human rights means the same thing in all contexts in all historical eras makes no sense, right?  It's again the meanings that get placed on it in particular times.  What happens in the World War II period is that rather than being seen as something that might be guaranteed by a State, you as a citizen would have certain rights that a State would protect, that the radical innovation that's going on in the World War II period the Atlantic Charter doesn't really prepare you for.  All that does is say human rights of one sort of or another.  
But what international lawyers are talking about, really for the first time in the World War II period, is how some kind of international apparatus might protect international human rights of individuals.  So that it wasn't that you as a group would have violations of rights.  I mean that's something that in the inner war period there were minority rights regimes, so people who were being discriminated against as a group, there were certain international mechanisms.  They worked only so much but they were there.
But the idea that the individual was an object of international law, the idea that the individual could petition beyond their own State for individual human rights violations, that's what global human rights, it seems to me means.  And the resonance  that it's had in the post '45 period, it's point of origin in thinking about individuals and their relationship to States and their relationship to some kind of international order; that's what begins to shift really radically in the World War II period and the immediate post-war period. 

ELISABETH LOPEZ
And that is, obviously as you have had said; quite a radical shift and you've noted that there has been deep scepticism attached to this emerging human rights discourse.  What were some of the things that made people sit up and think oh these are not just bits of paper?  

MARK PHILIP BRADLEY
Well, again in the wartime period people could think up all kinds of ways that Bills of Rights might work, enforcement mechanisms might work, some more radical than others.  So this notion that an individual was guaranteed to be able to petition beyond his State, not everybody agreed with that necessarily.  That was the most kind of radical way of thinking about it.  Some people in more modest ways believed that an International Bill of Rights would have to be part of a municipal or State law and that that would give it traction back at home.  So there's a spectrum by which people are thinking about this.
What happens in 1948 with the Universal Declaration is that originally it was to have some kind of enforcement teeth.  It wasn't just to be a declaration. It was to be an international covenant or convention that would enshrine in international law guarantees of political, civil and social and economic rights.
By the time you get to 1948 the Cold War is beginning to emerge, the kinds of allied unity that had gone on in the World War II period are fraying in one form or another, and so what rights advocates believe is that the best that they can get by 1948 is a kind of aspirational declaration.
So you have 30 articles in the Universal Declaration, again that are proclaiming some kind of sense that an international body is guaranteeing those rights, but again without any necessarily legal form or enforcement.
So then the question becomes, because it's an aspirational declaration, does that mean it doesn’t mean anything at all or does that mean in fact it's going to have some kind of implication?  So in the '40s, again this is all before the Cold War really hits hard and also before decolonisation hits hard.  I mean those two things I think push this sort of individual human rights talk out of the international system by the mid 1950s.  But in the 1940's - beginning of the 1950's - there are all kinds of people who are trying to use global rights talk to make domestic claims at home.
So, for instance at the United Nations in 1946 the Indian delegation comes to the General Assembly and says that in South Africa they have recently passed a law that discriminates against Indians within South Africa.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
And the deep irony of that is that the South African Premier at the time, Jan Smuts, who was instrumental in drafting the Charter didn't envisage that it would quite quickly be used to overturn his own country's race laws.

MARK PHILIP BRADLEY
That's right.  There is talk in the preamble of the UN Charter and that's what Smuts writes, that you know this sort of notion that fundamental human rights are important in setting up this international body, but there are other articles that are dealing with human rights, but what was supposed to protect States in a way from this sort of thing was something called Article 2.6 which people know as the Domestic Jurisdiction Clause, and it's a clause that says if something is within the jurisdiction of a State then the UN can't act.
Well in this case, Smuts is on the floor of the General Assembly and he's saying, you know, there is the Domestic Jurisdiction Clause, you can't bring this to this body.  He loses.  There's a debate.  The Indians make a strong case for it and a majority of the General Assembly says, no in fact this isn't an issue that the Domestic Jurisdiction Clause can take off the table, and yes there can be some sort of international opinion at least expressed about it.
That's the first place that it happens in the United Nations, but it also starts happening in domestic courts in different places in the world, and the cases that I know best are in the United States.  For Americans, who see themselves as kind of exceptional upholders of human rights, you know, they don't need international instruments to tell them about human rights.  We have the Declaration, we have the Constitution, so it's very unusual for Americans to be using any kind of international law to make domestic claims.  But African Americans, Japanese Americans, Native Americans in the late 1940's and early 1950's bring a whole series of cases to State and Federal courts.  They're about rights to education, their rights to housing, a whole variety of things.  They use the Universal Declaration and they use the UN Charter in making those kinds of arguments.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
You're listening to Up Close. I'm Elisabeth Lopez and our guest is University of Chicago Historian, Professor Mark Philip Bradley.
Mark, one of those cases involved a Native American serviceman who died and his wife's application for him to be buried as knocked back on the basis that it was a segregated cemetery.  What happened there?

MARK PHILIP BRADLEY
That's an incredible case.  So John Rice, who's a decorated veteran of the Korean War, and he is from Iowa and they have brought his body home and they are going to bury him in the Sioux City Memorial Cemetery and they're putting him in the ground and the cemetery officials notice that there are an awful lot of Native American mourners who seem to be with the party.  His wife is white, not Native American, and that's who they have been talking to about the arrangements for the burial.  So after the service they approach her - Evelyn Rice - and say, looks like too many Native Americans here; and she says what do you mean too many Native Americans?  Well, we have a Caucasian only policy in this cemetery so you're going to have to dig your husband up and put him some place else.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
A bit of a Rosa Parks moment.

MARK PHILIP BRADLEY
In a way yeah.  So this very fast goes to Washington.  President Truman intervenes and says; well he'll be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  Mrs Rice could have let it be.  I mean in a way the President has done the right thing in this case, but she apparently was a very very feisty person and decides to take the cemetery to court - first to Iowa State Court and eventually to the US Supreme Court - and she does it partly on US Constitutional grounds, but at the same time she makes an argument that says that the UN Charter is a treaty that the United States has agreed to - Articles 55 and 56 and 57 of that Treaty all mention that human rights need to be protected without respect to race or to gender.  That's part of the brief that she's using and her lawyers are using for the Supreme Court.  So that's one of several dozen cases that come though in this period of time and some judges hear them favourably and some don't.
So again this isn't a moment where there's one kind of US Supreme Court ruling that says absolutely human rights as an international guarantee means that we have to change these things.  Some judges don't want to pay any attention to it at all.  They want to stick with Constitutional claims, but what to me is interesting again is this kind of conditions of possibility in the 1940's and early 1950's where some judges hear those cases quite favourably and say, that's absolutely right.
So the most famous of them is a racial covenants case.  So this about housing discrimination against African Americans.  Only Caucasians could buy and sell in certain neighbourhoods; so similar to the burial but this is about residential patterns.  That case goes to the Supreme Court.  The majority opinion does not deal with these Charter issues, but three of the concurring opinions do in quite dramatic terms, arguing that given the way the war was fought and given the guarantees that were made during the war, given the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration, that those are operative in thinking about whether in fact discrimination is taking place in the United States.
Again, for listeners who are not American, this may all seem you know not so surprising that one would make this bow to international law, but I can tell you in an American context it's almost extraordinary that people would point outside of domestic law to make these kinds of claims.
By the middle of the 1950's it's all done though and that really is about the Cold War and particularly about McCarthyism in the United States and the International becomes toxic in a way.  So the UN is big government and it's socialism and it's you know all of these things and what's interesting is that the African American community, particularly the NAACP, they evacuate the language.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.

MARK PHILIP BRADLEY
Of Coloured People, that's right. They're done.  The Japanese American groups that have been doing land rights cases on it, they abandon it largely too.  The only groups in the United States that continue to use a kind of global human rights language to make rights claims arguments are Native Americans.  That continues all the way through to today.
By the 1950's Native American rights advocates in the United States are starting to be involved with communities elsewhere in the world and I think again it's not the United States taking the lead, it's coming to these communities and other places and trying to get a sense about what international indigenous rights might mean for them.
Gay rights is the other place in the United States where human rights has had a certain amount of traction. It just didn't for the civil rights movement after the mid 1950's.  It didn't much for the women's movement, so again the big social movements in the United States in the '60s and '70s, human rights is in a very minor key.  For gay rights advocates, their dispute's within the gay rights community about whether to use human rights or gay rights.  For people who wanted to kind of normalise the gay rights movement, they argued that human rights was a better frame.  If you said gay, that then you had to deal with that, but if you talked about it as human rights then you took sexuality out of it in a way, then somehow that would open up people.
So Human Rights Campaign, which is the major human rights group now in the United States, is framed that way.  In the moment, in the 1970's as the Gay Rights Movement is emerging, radical members of the Gay Rights Movement were absolutely opposed to using human rights because they felt somehow that…

ELISABETH LOPEZ
It was such a hard won identity that to…

MARK PHILIP BRADLEY
That's right.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
…step back from…

MARK PHILIP BRADLEY
To sort of push it in a different kind of way they saw as a sort of threat.  So again, interesting that the conservatives in that movement were seen as the human rights advocates, as opposed to gay rights advocates who were seen as the more radical.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
It's interesting that in your book which comes out in 2015, you talk about the Human Rights Imagination.  Why imagination, because so much of what we know about human rights internationally does revolve around these incredibly important documents and legal frameworks and institutions and conventions.  What role does imagination play?

MARK PHILIP BRADLEY
I think one of the things that I was most curious about was how this would be manifested by ordinary people on the ground.  So much of the work that's gone on about human rights - and historians are very late in the day to get to human rights as a topic to begin with - so much of it has been by legal scholars, public policy scholars, all of it operating around you know what were the debates that brought particular conventions, particular covenants into being; all operating in this sort of distant trans-national space that I don't think most people - even people who are sympathetic - can really feel that much.  
So the question is how did these things that are happening so far away from people's consciousness get appropriated in ways that they think they can do political work with it in one for or another?  That's where I think there is a kind of popular imagination around human rights that gives it shape and meaning to people at particular times and places and those meanings shift over time and where those meanings come from change over time as well.
Again, my effort throughout much of the book is to try to push the United States into more of a global framework and to take the kind of American exceptionalism out of the picture.  So the 1970's for instance is important to me because usually people say, oh the 1970's, Jimmy Carter, human rights, the Americans, right?

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Was Jimmy Carter espousing human rights in the context of the Cold War?

MARK PHILIP BRADLEY
Not so much in the context of the Cold War.  What's been striking to me is that Jimmy Carter never talks about human rights until really the last two weeks of the Presidential campaign.  So it hasn't been a kind of considered policy of the Carter people.  The Carter people are very sophisticated about polling and his pollsters tell him that every time he mentions human rights - which he has done very infrequently - it polls well, and they tell him to keep doing it.  So in the Fall general election campaign it goes from minor key to quite major key.
So the question is, you know, an entire policy built around human rights, which is partly what the Carter people are trying to do, couldn't just be invented in the last couple of weeks of a campaign, how come it polled?  Again the believability question - why was that a magic word to say?  Why was the American electorate attentive to that word?  What meaning did they make of that word?  And to do that I think you have to understand how people were thinking about human rights, where those influences were coming from and they were coming from Latin America and they were coming from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  
What people began to understand about dissident movements in amongst the Soviet's and amongst Eastern Europeans about torture and disappearance in Latin America, that was the vocabulary of human rights that people understood so that when Carter finally starts to talk about it, they have a sense in their head of what it is.  It's just a question of, kind of as a historian trying to figure out what was in somebody's head in 1976 when they heard that word.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
I'm Elisabeth Lopez and you're listening to Up Close.  In this episode I'm discussing the emergence of the Global Human Rights Imagination with Professor Mark Philip Bradley of the University of Chicago.
Mark, the 70's was the decade where we saw the emergence of Amnesty International and the organisation won a Nobel Prize in 1977.


MARK PHILIP BRADLEY
Mm-hm.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Is that one of the great human rights success stories in terms of a non-State actor?


MARK PHILIP BRADLEY
Yeah. I mean Amnesty becomes the prototype for the human rights non-governmental juggernaut that would emerge, you know, out of the 1970's and into the present day.  Amnesty for my purposes in thinking about the relationship between the United States and human rights; I like to think of as an importation. I mean Amnesty is founded in London. It's very much a kind of Western European and British organisation in the 1960's and into the 1970's.  The Nobel Prize isn't coming to Amnesty USA it's coming to Amnesty International in Europe, right, so that the ways in which this pioneering NGO is thinking about how to do non-State human rights politics has very little to do with the United States.  The United States comes to play an important role in Amnesty over time, but again the influence is coming from some place else.
What's different about Amnesty than many of the rights groups that emerge afterwards is the balance between a kind of grassroots membership base and a professionalised staff.  And one of the big criticisms I think of the human rights movement that's emerged most recently - Stephen Hopgood at the LSE (London School of Economics and Politcal Science) has this wonderful book called "Endtimes of Human Rights" where he talks about a kind of over-professionalisation of the human rights movement, and I would say that that over-professionalisation has its origins sort of towards the end of the 1970's, beginning of the 1980's.  
Amnesty was a kind of social movement.  You know you had little chapters and those little chapters would be assigned prisoners in various places and they idea was to cut across the Cold War so you'd have three prisoners, one in the first world, one in what was called the second world, one in the third world.  People don't use terms any more, but so you know one in the west, one in what would have been the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and then the third world is kind of today's global south,  I guess. To show that you weren't partisan in one way or another about how you were thinking about human rights, which Amnesty thought was very important.  How did you have credibility if you were pushing on human rights in one kind of political system and not in others?
So all of these little groups have these three prisoners that they're given and over time are writing them letters; are writing letters to governments to free them and again, a very local grassroots way of thinking about human rights problems.
At the same time Amnesty has a bigger and bigger professional staff because somebody has to figure out where are these prisoners and how do we know about these prisoners and you know how do people contact them and what kinds of information would you need?

ELISABETH LOPEZ
And to maintain the energy levels.


MARK PHILIP BRADLEY
Absolutely.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
So there needs to be a constant stream of information about how the campaign is going.

MARK PHILIP BRADLEY
Absolutely.  With Amnesty the balance between grassroots and a kind of professional staff was maintained more, but now you know people would say Human Rights Watch is probably the largest international human rights organisation in the world.  It's an entirely professionalised organisation of largely lawyers who essentially are representing a kind of view about what are rights, where are they being denied, putting pressures on government through direct kinds of lobbying sorts of means.
But the only thing that members of Human Rights Watch have to do is send money.  Now they needed to send money to Amnesty as well, so you know both need it, but what that professionalisation comes not just for lawyers at the end of the 1970's but it comes in a number of interesting ways for a whole variety of professions who hadn't necessarily thought about human rights as something that they did - scientists for instance - and I think particularly for scientists, you know because they're supposed to have a kind of distance, right?  How can you have credibility as a scientist if you're too engaged in the world around you?  That kind of ways of thinking about professional norms and professional behaviour really began to shift in the 1970's so that scientific organisations are involved both in campaigns for particular scientists in particular places, often in the Soviet Union or in Latin America, but also being drawn in to how do you figure out what's going on in a particular country?
So it would be a team of a scientist, a lawyer and a journalist who might go into a country for Amnesty or for Human Rights Watch or for another group, who would use the very particular professionalised skills that they had to essentially prepare reports on what was happening in one place or another.  That professionalisation, the fact that people's identity begins to get bound up in human rights, I think is another place that you can see why would it have traction when an American President would talk about it or politicians in other places might talk about it?  Because it was an everyday part of what you did in your professional practice.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Where are we now?  Human rights have been invoked as reasons to go to war and the official name for the war in Afghanistan for instance was Operational Enduring Freedom, how comfortable are Americans and the rest of us in the wake of conflicts like this about the idea of universal human rights?

MARK PHILIP BRADLEY
I think it's a much more contested category than it was in the 1940's or the 1970's when in a way it was very difficult to have a critical distance to what an Amnesty was doing or what, you know, the framers of the Universal Declaration were doing, I mean who could be against the guarantees of rights, who could be against helping political prisoners in one place or another.
But gradually the language also gets co-opted, so it's co-opted by States.  I mean one of the things that happens in the United States in the transition between President Carter and President Reagan - the Reagan people weren't particularly interested in human rights at all but they begin to realise that human rights polls, well, that it can become a justification for policy and so quite quickly the Reagan people have a human rights policy.  It really looks like a kind of revival of the Cold War that's framed now in human rights terms, so it becomes a word that floats and people can grab it for a whole variety of purposes.  I think humanitarian intervention is the other one, right?
I mean if you think about how we thought about humanitarianism really from the mid 19th Century to you know the early 1970's, we didn't think in terms of military intervention for humanitarianism or not very often. It wasn't a justification for policy very often.  But it now too, along with human rights, becomes a justification for a whole variety of things and I think that makes people uneasy.  So how do you get back to thinking about human rights in a way that establishes a kind of critical distance from States, because it seems to me that's what the language was about, beginning in the 1940's.  If you were going to let individuals petition beyond a State, you had a little bit of suspicion that States perhaps weren't necessarily the right place to be ultimately around human rights questions.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Human rights mean different things at different times clearly. Is it worth striving for the perfect universal language of human rights or is that an impossible project?

MARK PHILIP BRADLEY
I think one thing that, you know these new histories of human rights since the 1940's helps us understand, is that comprehensive efforts to define what human rights are in a timeless sort of way that are going to address issues that come up across a variety of cultures, are almost doomed.
There is the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Project in 1947 that tries to do exactly that you know, at the sort of origin moment, and it rapidly just spins into something that people can't do or it becomes so abstract that it doesn't have a lot of meaning.
But I think what's important to say is that it's easy to overly celebrate the human rights moment in the 1940's and human rights more generally and their role in the world since 1945, and that it's a universal language that always operates in very particularistic sorts of places.  So human rights can matter in some places and not others even though the violations of rights are the same between those two places.  Certain kinds of rights violations have mattered more than others.  Some ways political and civil rights have been the ones that people have been most likely to contest; economic and social rights less so. 
So the sort of unevenness of human rights on the ground, but also the unevenness of advocacy for human rights and a kind of unevenness of what this Global Human Rights Imagination is all about, seems to come along with the project.
It's important to recognise that people who are celebratory of what it is are often uneasy about admitting that there are things embedded in rights talk that are inherently unequal and uneven.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Lastly, as the power balances in the world shift - and the United States is arguably losing a bit of its dominance of global politics and we're seeing the emergence of China which has a very different conception of what human rights are all about - is it the case that the way we see global human rights is really a reflection of what the most powerful nations on the planet, how they see themselves?

MARK PHILIP BRADLEY
I think that's a great question but I also think that it's a matter of how you want to frame the problem.  So that's a common formulation of the problem - what does it mean that you have a rising China that may think about human rights in a certain way, another hegemon who might be less powerful in one form or another, but that suggests that the concept was always fixed around that hegemon.
Again if you go back to the 1940's, the people who are sitting around the table who are talking about the Universal Declaration are American, they're also French, they're British, they're Chinese, they're Latin American, they're Egyptian, they're Indian; there is a larger language by a larger group of States and peoples who have thought in these terms.
I think the other thing to be said is if you look regionally the answer can seem quite different.  I mean the most robust human rights regime in the world right now is a regional one and it's in Europe.  So in the 1940's, in this kind of magic moment when global human rights first comes into being, the European Convention for Human Rights is adopted in 1950.  Part of what's in the Convention is this guarantee that an individual can go to a trans-national court if their rights have been violated and if their State has not addressed it in a particular way.  
That falls into abeyance until the 1980's.  The Europeans are worried about implementing the European Convention of Human Rights in part because decolonisation is happening and they're worried that the European Convention is going to be used by colonised peoples against them in all of that.  By 1975, you know, basically the world is decolonised and so that kind of fear is gone.
So it's in the 80's for the first time that that court begins to emerge and I think that court is the kind of unsung success story in at least regional human rights politics in the world. I mean thousands and thousands of cases have come before the court on a whole variety of issues since the 1980's, again where States have had to cede sovereignty to a trans-national body on these kinds of rights questions.  That's not the United States.  That's not China.  That's happening in a very particular regional context, but for those who believe that it could never happen beyond the nation State, the European case is one that you have to think through in some detail I think.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
Thank you very much for joining us.

MARK PHILIP BRADLEY
Yeah it was a pleasure. Thank you.

ELISABETH LOPEZ
That was Professor Mark Philip Bradley, the Bernadotte E. Schmitt Professor of International History at the University of Chicago.
His book "The United States and the Global Human Rights Imagination" is published by Cambridge University Press in 2015.
You will find more details on the Up Close website along with a full transcript of this program and all our other podcasts.
Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia, created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.
This episode was recorded on 9 May 2014 and produced by Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel.  Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer.
I'm Elisabeth Lopez.  Thanks for listening. Hope you can join us again soon.

VOICEOVER
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Copyright 2014 The University of Melbourne.


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