An introduction to the dossier on social rights.
Between the World Wars, Polish sociologists gathered thousands of autobiographies by workers, peasants, and other “ordinary” people. The resulting body of “social memoir” can be read as an argument about social rights: authors simultaneously drew on Enlightenment ideas of subjecthood to press for enfranchisement and portrayed the limits of liberal citizenship, insisting on the embodied experience of poverty. While World War II heightened the urgency of life-writing in Poland (e.g. as testimony), however, postwar personal narratives came to be embedded in new, transnational rights discourses, through which they lost traction as arguments about specifically social rights.
Kott considers the question of forced labor in the framework of human and social rights, as unfolding in the early Cold War period. A precise analysis of the discussion surrounding the convention on the abolition of forced labor within the International Labour Organization (ILO) between 1947 and 1957 forms a basis for her observations. The conflict between the two blocs, like the decolonization process, demarcated a favorable period for defining the juncture between human and social rights. The alliance between officials from southern and communist countries could have a catalyzing effect. Having had the intent of denouncing the Soviet labor camps at its inception, the convention in its final form reintroduced social rights as a condition of freedom of labor.
Allina examines how administrators in Mozambique engaged in the international debate over labor practices in colonial Africa. Although they worked within a regime of legalized forced labor, some expressed ambivalence over their position, criticizing both the principle and the practice of forced labor. These “men in the middle” held mindsets shaped both by awareness of the broader debate over what forms of labor were acceptable in “modern” empires and by interactions with the Africans over whom they ruled. Allina tracks the evolving debate around African labor rights from the 1920s to the 1940s, following discussions within the League of Nations, between Portuguese government departments, and across levels of administrative hierarchy within Mozambique.
Highlighting the pivotal role that British Conservatives played in championing and framing European human rights law in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Duranti argues that this postwar moment of Conservative enthusiasm for international human rights institutions 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 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) reflected the hostility of leading Conservative politicians such as Winston Churchill and David Maxwell Fyfe towards Labour’s economic and social policies.
The Soviet constitutions of 1936 and 1977 defined a wide range of social rights. Yet the Soviet Union was a dictatorship, and even in the 1970s internal and external critics alike denied the existence of any form of rights there. Smith seeks to explain how and why constitutional rights to welfare became an important element in Soviet public culture from 1936, but in the reality of citizens’ everyday lives only from 1953. He draws precise distinctions between the meaning of social rights in the dictatorships of the Stalinist and post-Stalinist eras.
Over the course of the Cold War and beyond, Western commentators tirelessly criticized the Soviet Union and its satellite states for ignoring and/or violating human rights in their national territories, despite lip service paid to these cherished ideals. Betts seeks to shift the focus by exploring how human rights were discussed and understood in the Eastern Bloc from the mid-1960s on, using the German Democratic Republic as a case study. Particular emphasis is placed on the ways in which socialist theorists—initially hostile to Western human rights talk—eventually found a way of accommodating human rights with socialist ideals. It is, Betts argues, the materialization of social rights (as opposed to the abstract civil rights of the West) that largely distinguished the socialist understanding of rights in East Germany, dovetailing as they did with broader notions of national sovereignty and socialist civilization.
Burke argues for the decisive influence of the Third World on the development of economic and social rights in the postwar human rights program. For states confronting extreme poverty and underdevelopment, the urgency of securing these rights was a constant refrain. Yet the challenge of delivering them in the context of immense resource constraints soon led to significant departures from the accepted formulation of the 1948 Universal Declaration, which held all rights in an organic unity. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Third World campaign would compromise their very character as “rights” wielded by the individual, transforming them instead into interstate claims far removed from the citizen.
UK international aid and development organisations such as Oxfam, Save the Children and Christian Aid have become some of the most prominent NGOs in the world. Born out of the humanitarian response to crisis, they have subsequently become significant players in the global debate about long-term development. From advocating an alternative path to development in the 1960s and 1970s they have come to articulate a rights-based approach in the 1990s. For NGOs, this was a logical consequence of “scaling up” their activities. However, as Hilton demonstrates, it was the result of more complex processes which have gradually brought these ever larger organisations into the development mainstream.
Concluding this collection, Cooper places the question of social and human rights in the context of the acute uncertainty about world politics in the years after World War II. Not least of the questions was the unit in which rights could be claimed: nation-state, empire, humanity as a whole. That issue was particularly open in the years after 1945 because of struggles over colonialism. Could the expanding notion of social rights in postwar England and France be confined to the metropole, especially as colonial powers needed to redefine their basis of legitimacy and as social and political movements in Africa were asserting political voice? Political movements in the colonies were not necessarily focused on independence, but on the right to claim rights—social as well as political—in an imperial polity. The locus of rights, as well as their contents, have remained in question ever since.