War and the Historical Sociology of Human Rights: Violent Entanglements


The Contentious History of the International Bill of Human Rights

Christopher N. J. Roberts

Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014

René Cassin and Human Rights: From the Great War to the Universal Declaration

Jay Winter and Antoine Prost

Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013

Rights and violence are so intertwined that their relationship can appear both self-evident and utterly obscure. Consider the work that rights do in the first historical sociology of the United States: they push democratic citizens to kill and to die. Near the end of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville speculated that a self-governing people might not resist military conquest, because political power in a democracy was too diffuse to merit the risks. “That is why it is necessary to give democratic peoples rights,” Tocqueville wrote.1 Political rights reattached individuals to power and moved them to fight as fiercely as threatened barons. This logic is jarringly at odds with contemporary rights talk. The human rights that won institutional expression after World War II were declared against the recurrent inhumanity of violent conflict, whether manifest in “the scourge of war” internationally or in repression that “compelled recourse . . . to rebellion” domestically (in the words of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights respectively).2 Human rights meant peace.

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