Sunday 13 May 2012

Samuel Moyn, Peng-chun Chang and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

It isn’t every day that the name of Peng-Chun Chang appears in the New York Times. But there it is, in today’s newspaper, in an op-ed written by Columbia University historian Samuel Moyn. Professor Moyn is the author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, which was published a couple of years ago.
Peng-chun Chang and Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948.
The occasion for Moyn’s article is the release of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng a few days ago. Professor Moyn mentions Peng-Chun Chang because he uses the recent events to return to the thesis he sets out in his book about the insignificance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Chang was the Chinese representative on the Commission on Human Rights when the Universal Declaration was being drafted in 1947 and 1948. He has been described as one of the intellectual heavyweights of the Commission at the time. His contributions to the drafting of the Universal Declaration were enormous.
(On visits to China in recent years, I’ve frequently referred to Chang as the person responsible for the vital Chinese contribution to the Universal Declaration. Chinese colleagues often dismiss Chang as a ‘nationalist Chinese’ – as does Moyn, by the way – without recognizing that Change was, at the time, the representative of ‘one China’. I think China should today be proud of Chang and his role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration.)
In today’s New York Times, Professor Moyn repeats his unfortunate and rather simplistic analysis of the Universal Declaration: ‘The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights — which Peng-Chun Chang, a representative of Nationalist China, helped draft — had virtually no impact on world politics in its time.’ Professor Moyn says human rights did not become a significant factor in international relations until the mid-1970s, when the activities of Soviet dissidents, the election of Jimmy Carter, and the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Amnesty International transformed the situation. He is dismissive of writers who have spoken of the importance of the Declaration and of its drafters, like Mary Ann Glendon, Johannes Morsink, Elizabeth Borgwaldt and Paul Gordon Lauren, for being ‘celebratory’.
But one can acknowledge the significance of the 1970s in terms of the development of international human rights without denigrating the richness of the late 1940s. This is where Professor Moyn is in error. He also suffers from the same celebratory fervour of those he criticizes in failing to recognize the ambiguities of the 1970s.
His analysis is also a bit too US-centric. It does not, for example, acknowledge the 1970s as a period when human rights in Europe improved dramatically, and pulled ahead of the United States, which was heading into the tailspin that led to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Take as an example the issue of capital punishment, still practised in France and Spain in the 1970s, at a time when it had been abolished judicially in the United States. Europe went on to universal abolition while the United States Supreme Court reversed itself and reinstated the practice.
By focussing on the United States, as he does, Professor Moyn also does not adequately assess the role of the ‘third world’ in the development of modern human rights. There is a tendency – still prevalent today – to view international human rights as a gift from the Global North to the Global South, exported by modern day missionaries from the civilized to the uncivilized.
But the history of human rights within the United Nations indicates a very important role for the newly independent countries who joined the organization in the 1960s and who set the elimination of apartheid at the top of their agenda. At the time, Europe and America were running interference for the racist regime in Pretoria, providing it political, economic and moral support. Important breakthroughs in terms of the legal clout of international human rights norms and institutions flowed from the insistence of the ‘third world’ on dealing with this blight. The first efforts to pierce the veil of state sovereignty were about apartheid, and they were driven by the Global South.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was produced in the ferment of the post-Second World War lawmaking process. It was not alone. Other important legal developments took place, including the adoption of the 1948 Genocide Convention and the 1949 Geneva Conventions, not to mention the immense progress manifested in the Charter of the United Nations itself, and the international trials at Nuremberg and Tokyo.
The Cold War intervened to prevent further developments. That is not the fault of the Universal Declaration. Indeed, the Declaration is like many legal instruments that are adopted in periods of change and unrest. They are like seeds in a spring garden, and require water and warmth to germinate and grow. That there is a period of apparent dormancy until this process takes place does not mean that nothing is going on. One could say the same about the fourteenth amendment to the United States constitution, which was adopted in the aftermath of the Civil War but which only delivered its promise in the 1950s and 1960s.
Samuel Moyn has very pertinent observations about developments in human rights in the 1970s, but they do not need to be premised on downgrading the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the period in which it was drafted. The 1940s were a period of huge tension and contradiction. The world was struggling to bury a past characterized by colonialism and global warfare. Out of this crucible emerged developments of immense importance, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He should adopt a more nuanced and subtle understanding of the development of human rights, one in which there is room for recognition of the significance of both the 1940s and the 1970s.
For the sake of full disclosure, my current writing project is a compilation of the drafting history of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The materials consist of more than a million words. They are organized chronologically accompanied by annotations and indexes that should make these relatively obscure materials much more accessible to scholars. Within the coming weeks I expect to see page proofs of this three-volume collection of the travaux préparatoires of the Declaration. It is to be published by Cambridge University Press early in 2013. The documents reveal the richness of the debates, the significance of the text, and the inspired brilliance of many of the Declaration’s drafters, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Peng-chun Chang.

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