Human Rights in Transition

Both human rights as a means of framing social injustice and transitional justice as the means of reckoning with past injustices experienced a period of relative inertia in the 20 or so years following the Nuremberg trials and the drafting of the UDHR and Genocide Convention. Although UN drafters worked slowly towards the development of the two human rights covenants (ICCPR, ICSECR), neither gained enough ratifications to come into effect until 1976. The Cold War loomed large over world politics during this time, holding east-west relations in a political and ideological stalemate. However, the latter half of the 1970s brought about a new era in human rights activism and consciousness. According to Moyn, the human rights discourse experienced a revival in the 1970s, as activists searched for an ideological ‘utopia’ amongst a general sense of disillusionment with revolutionary politics. Human rights succeeded as a ‘minimalist’ utopia where other ‘maximalist’ utopias had failed because the ideology lent itself to strategic coalition building and most importantly, was a means of framing injustices in terms of moral rather than political objections to the abuse of state power: their adoption by church activists in particular gave them the appearance of political neutrality combined with moral authority (Moyn 2012: 3). Arthur also writes of:

the global decline of the radical Left in the 1970s and a concomitant ideological shift in favour of human rights... Having abandoned the Soviet Union, Cuba, and many African socialist states as desirable models in the 1970s, many on the Left turned against political ideology and towards the moral framework of human rights. (Arthur 2009: 338)

Latin American Catholic activists in particular alluded to the apparent self evidence of human rights norms, the vocabulary of which ‘proved to be highly coalitional and ecumenical in providing a lingua franca for diverse voices’ (Moyn 2012: 144). At the same time, activists in the Soviet Bloc and Eastern Europe embraced rights as an alternative to political dissi- dence: human rights were seen as a way to transcend political divisions in the name of a greater common good. It is crucial to recognise that it was primarily civil society organisations within countries on the verge of political transition, who began to invoke the language of human rights norms, and these same communities were influential in the establishment of truth commissions once their countries had become functioning democracies. The revival of the human rights discourse is intimately connected with the development of truth and reconciliation strategies in transitional countries. The influence of theological interpretations of rights, which came from a largely Christian activist base can be seen in these approaches— with their emphasis on confession, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Transitional justice was to become a strategic approach for human rights activists as they sought new ways to engage with transitioning governments during what Samuel Huntington has described as ‘the third wave of democratisation’ (Huntington 1993). According to Arthur, activists moved into less antagonistic, more supportive interactions with new democracies, and one of the ways in which they negotiated this new role was through assisting countries to come to terms with a national history characterised by violence and the repression of political freedoms. Transitional justice, she writes, was a term ‘invented as a device to signal a new sort of human rights activity and as a response to concrete political dilemmas human rights activists faced in what they understood to be “transitional contexts”’ (Arthur 2009: 326). No longer were justice advocates presenting themselves as the antagonists of governments, but rather as a supporting national and international civil society network which would assist them to realise their newly formed democratic goals.

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