The Emergence of Human Rights in Colombia: Revolutionary Promise or Survival Strategy?

Abstract: This essay assesses two recent books that consider the rise of human rights activism in Colombia’s oil capital (the city of Barrancabermeja) during the 1970s and 1980s. Lesley Gill (Vanderbilt University) and Luis van Isschot (University of Toronto) give two interpretations of the political and social role of human rights ideals in the midst of a brutal armed conflict. The two accounts differ in the relationship that the authors find between the rise of neoliberalism and human rights. While Gill shows that human rights was a last resort defensive strategy for radical activists threatened by the violence of a new economic system, Van Isschot underscores the importance of human rights activism as a way to make violence legible for different actors in a specific local scenario. Although the article highlights the importance of local narratives, in this case from a particular city, it also calls for a more nuanced integration between local and national narratives in human rights history, for the purpose of either completing or challenging international law-based narratives of human rights ideas.

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