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Somewhere between 17 and 22 million soldiers and civilians perished in the Great War between 1914 and 1918. At least 20 million people, and perhaps as many as 50 million, died in the great influenza of 1918–1919. But somehow the deadliest twentieth-century pandemic has seemed uninteresting, as if it was acceptably forgotten, or as if there were little to say about it.
Tens of thousands of books about the Great War have been written in English, but fewer than fifty about the great influenza of 1918–1919. Appropriately, one of the best of those few books is entitled America’s Forgotten Pandemic. About the experience of most of the world beyond America and Europe in the most renowned global plague before our own moment, even less was retained.
The 1970 Friendly Relations Declaration is a peculiar document. This is so even by comparison to the battery of legally non-binding but rhetorically charged and politically resonant General Assembly resolutions with which the non-aligned world created through decolonisation attempted to craft a new international order in the decades after the Second World War. Consisting of seven basic concepts of contemporary international law, the 1970 resolution purports to map the rules, norms and practices that States and international lawyers are willing to recognise as necessary for a real commitment to ‘friendly relations’. It spells out with varying degrees of clarity and specificity a host of propositions, many of which had already found at least partial expression in multilateral treaties, UN resolutions and rules of customary international law prior to October 1970, when the resolution was finally adopted formally. The result is a lengthy and at times unwieldy document cobbled together through a series of complex negotiations – an instrument that is more a patch-and-mend aggregation of bits and pieces of conceptual furniture than it is a crystalline conceptual blueprint for the new world orders envisioned by the greater and lesser powers of the 1960s.
It often happens in the history of thought that philosophers come belatedly to a popular theme and attempt to make it serve new purposes. They volunteer to articulate intuitive sentiment and to make implicit dilemmas explicit. And they take what emerged as partisan slogans and determine whether to raise them to the level of philosophical claim. Just as regularly, however, the discourse that stimulated the thinkers proves stronger than their innovations. It is not, after all, as if the public noise around concepts, especially new ones, is stilled when the philosophers turn to canonize them. Hannah Arendt and Claude Lefort, the most serious theoreticians of what appeared to so many as a novel and unprecedented phenomenon of “totalitarianism” in the last century, attempted to make an extant discourse rigorous. They developed proprietary approaches that reshaped a popular intellectual discourse. To an impressive extent, however, their interventions did more to amplify the impact and to extend the longevity of the popular theories of “totalitarianism” they dearly hoped to reorient.
Since their emergence in the late eighteenth century, doctrines of universal individual rights have been variously criticized as philosophically confused, politically inefficacious, ideologically particular, and Eurocentric. Nevertheless, today the discourse of universal human rights is more internationally widespread and influential than ever. In Evidence for Hope, leading international relations scholar Kathryn Sikkink argues that this is because human rights laws and institutions work. Sikkink rejects the notion that human rights are a Western imposition and points to a wide range of evidence that she claims demonstrates the effectiveness of human rights in bringing about a world that is appreciably improved in many ways from what it was previously. We have invited a broad range of scholars to assess Sikkink’s challenging claims.
Louis Henkin (1917–2010) is remembered as the leading American legal advocate of human rights, and a prime or even the premier contributor to the international movement in their name. “There is no person on the planet,” observed his follower Harold Koh, dean of Yale Law School and later State Department legal adviser, late in Henkin’s life, “who has not found shelter or affirmation in his ideas.”
It is not unthinkable that in considering human rights law one might flirt with whether its norms or practices are a case of “Judaism terminable and interminable,” as Henkin’s colleague in Jewish history at Columbia University Yosef Yerushalmi famously described psychoanalysis, whatever the modern and secular trappings of both.
It is not clear what there is left for a commentator to say once a symposium has unfolded in such a way as to cancel itself out. But in case others read it differently than I do, I am happy to explain how I think this process occurs across the wonderful though self-canceling pages of the American Journal of International Law symposium on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and—through valedictory reflection on thoseenter prises—on contemporary international criminal law so far. The self-cancellation process, as I see it, takes place in the move from creation story and doctrinal evolution to impact measurement amidst legacy rhetoric. One might take this result as an index of where things stand (or whether anything stands) in the fascinating emergence of a prestigious enterprise—and what might come next.
In the course of 1948, the notion of human rights surged in western Europe, especially due to debates around the Universal Declaration, to be ratified by the United Nations in December of that year. While human rights did not rise so much as to define any live public option for politics in either the domestic or international spheres – notably, no movement in the service of human rights appeared — it is true that some people noticed.
One was the great German classicist Bruno Snell. When revising an essay for its inclusion in his still-renowned book The Discovery of the Mind as the debate proceeded, Snell added the following remarkable passage: “Euripides, in his Medea, is the first to portray a human being who excites pity by the mere fact of being a human being in torment,” Snell declared. He continued: “[A]s a barbarian she has no rights, but as a human being she has. This same Medea is also the first person in literature whose thinking and feeling are described in purely human terms . . . No sooner does man declare his independence of the gods, than he acclaims the authority of the free human spirit and the inviolability of human rights.” It is a remarkable set of assertions, and deserves to be placed in context. And it is helpful to define the conceptual task of writing the history of human rights even today, because it shows the need to depart from the model of the cosmopolitan discovery of humanity as a one-time breakthrough.