Hoffmann on Human Rights and History

Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann (UC-Berkeley) has an article in Past & Present, interpreting the history and historiography of human rights from the 1990s forward. From the introduction:


This essay . . . develops three interconnected arguments that seek to determine the place of human rights in the crises and conflicts of the recent past. First of all, I shall push the historiographical revisionism of Moyn and others even further and argue that we can first speak of individual human rights as a basic concept (Grundbegriff), that is, a contested, irreplaceable and consequential concept of global politics, only in the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War. . . . However, this does not mean, secondly, that ‘human rights’ have no deeper history; here I agree with Hunt and others. On the contrary, in many respects the human rights idealism of the 1990s appears as a strange return of the enlightened liberalism of the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century and its critics (of Immanuel Kant and Carl Schmitt, the two sources of inspiration and antipodes of the political and moral discourse of the 1990s), as does the enthusiasm for cosmopolitanism, civil society, free trade, humanitarian interventions and moral justifications of war within the new world (dis)order. I shall suggest, therefore, that we should bring the long nineteenth century back into human rights history, especially the histories of social and economic rights, women’s rights, humanitarianism and international law, to assess more precisely what is new about the human rights idealism of the late twentieth century. Conversely, I shall discuss which previous notions of international human rights were replaced or bypassed in the 1990s, especially collective rights claims that were of particular importance for the so-called Third World UN from the 1950s to the early 1990s. The unrecognized irony is that human rights have become not less but more Eurocentric in recent years.


Human rights are not a new (and certainly not the last) utopia. Rather, the question is whether the human rights idealism of the Euro-Atlantic world at the end of the twentieth century can be seen as utopian at all. It is other motifs that appear to be new: the self-evidence of individual human rights, which stand above the rights of states; the evocation of present and past suffering as a mobilizing source; and, finally, the global claims connected to human rights as well as the media presentism of their failed realization, that is, the ubiquity of crises and the state of emergency as a matter of course. . . . From this follows, thirdly, my concluding suggestion that the rise of human rights as the crisis semantics of a new fin de siècle can be understood in part as a result of the fracturing of the modern time regime, that is, the ways in which past, present and future are reflected in our experience of time. Not the future (or an idealized past) serves as the vanishing point, but rather the present, which appropriates past and future to validate the immediate. The new historiography of human rights also belongs, I think, in this context. It invents for our times a history of human rights conceived as individual and pre-state rights which are read into the past and future as if without alternatives.