The Human Rights Restoration-Revolution

by | Sep 3, 2013

Much of the work in the now burgeoning subfield of human rights history traces the causes and consequences of the ‘human rights revolution’ on international law, foreign policy and transnational activism. Few scholars, however, have reflected on why the spectacular efflorescence of human rights movements and norms over the past century should be considered revolutionary in the first place.

Certainly the past decades have witnessed a radical global transformation in the technical apparatuses structuring human rights advocacy networks and institutions. Yet could this be an example of old wine in new bottles, a revolution in forms that masks underlying continuities in substance? For as Tancredi tells his uncle in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, ‘If we want everything to remain as it is, it will be necessary for everything to change.’

The sixtieth anniversary of the entry into force of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) offers a convenient perch from which to illustrate how this dictum applies to the origins of European human rights law. My research into the history of the ECHR has revealed how the ‘human rights revolution’ became a vehicle for rearticulating, recasting and rehabilitating discredited political agendas in postwar Europe. Marginalized right-wing advocates of free-market economics in the British Conservative Party, for example, played a pivotal role in championing and framing European human rights law after 1945. This was a response to the momentary anxieties of a party in political opposition, some of whose members genuinely feared what they decried as the ‘totalitarian’ powers of the British Labour government. The omission of economic and social rights from the ECHR reflected the hostility of leading Conservative politicians such as Winston Churchill and David Maxwell Fyfe towards Labour’s economic and social policies.

Another influential group of postwar ‘human rights revolutionaries’ were French Catholics who before 1945 had been affiliated with French Christian Democracy, the Paris-based intellectual movement known as personalism and/or the think tanks of the authoritarian Vichy regime. French Christian Democrats looked to European human rights law as an international safeguard for the rights of the family in the domain of education, particularly as concerned private Catholic schooling. In the case of personalist intellectuals and Vichy theorists of corporatism, they hoped that the ECHR would catalyze a radical restructuring of French society along medieval (corporatist) lines as well as protect the civil liberties of those accused of collaboration with the Axis enemy.

This is not to deny that many ‘human rights revolutionaries’ traced their lineage from the revolutionary tradition to interwar internationalism, wartime anti-fascism, the postwar restoration of Western European liberal democracy and the postwar (re)construction of social democracy. But we need to recognize that others waxed nostalgic for an idealized anti-statist social order of premodern times or for the bourgeois liberal state of the nineteenth century. In this sense, the creation of the European human rights regime was as much a restoration as a revolution.

Dr Marco Duranti received his PhD from Yale University in 2009 and now teaches history at the University of Sydney.  He is currently writing a book on the genesis of European human rights law for Oxford University Press.

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  1. Vivek

    Dr.Duranti underplays the significance of the Articles guaranteeing robust Trade Union rights in the 1950 Articles. The right to private property (with many caveats) appears in the protocols of 1952. Atlee’s Labour Govt. which nationalized the ‘commanding heights of the economy’ and remained committed to public ownership of the means of production, saw no difficulty in signing up to the Charter. It is noteworthy that the article on Freedom of Religion offered no difficulty for anti-clerical elements on the Continent (or in Northern Ireland) because of the way it was worded.
    Maxwell Fyfe was later accused of harboring an anti-Union agenda but the truth is the ‘Butskellite’ mainstream was in no mood to take on the Unions till much later on.
    Teitgen and Robert Schumann, though Catholics and Centrists, were in the Resistance and thus had no sympathy for the sort of Vichy reactionaries Duranti is referring to.
    Given the atmosphere of the time, collaborators were too busy trying to save their own skin and thus in no position to use the ECHR as some sort of Crypto-Fascist Trojan Horse.
    It is quite true that Catholicism was seen as being a useful counterpoise to the Communists and the story of American involvement in French and Italian politics is well known. However, it was Stalin’s brutality more than anything else which caused people to see things like Religion and Family and Private Property as bulwarks against Totalitarianism and thus as contributing to the Rule of Law. Orwell was scarcely a Catholic reactionary. His warnings against totalitarian collectivism remain resonant to this day. Arthur Koestler, too, was influential at that time.
    People like Hayek & von Mises did have their admirers but weren’t anywhere near as influential as was later claimed. The truth is, Industry needed Government support. The Financial Sector had no muscles left to flex.
    Dr.Duranti makes great play with the fact that no Right to Education and Housing and Employment and so on was put into the Convention. Yet, it is a fact that the Governments of Western Europe were devoting scarce resources to these ends and, what’s more, running ‘over-full’ employment.
    The real importance of ECHR lies in the notion that National Law can become defeasible by reason of an International Convention. This, I believe, was something genuinely new.

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