Promise-Making and the History of Human Rights: Reading Arendt with Danto

Dear Mr. President: This is to draw attention to the cases of a group of colleagues of ours, historians well known in the academic community, all of whom are now in prison . . . Every scholar has a vested interest in this matter.

Faithfully, Hannah Arendt

(Letter to Augusto Pinochet, November 27, 1974, writing

at the urging of an Amnesty International chapter

in Brussels)1

Dear Dr. Kissinger: We noted with pleasure the implication in your conversation with Mr. Moyers that you are actively intervening in the release of political prisoners in Chile. We cannot completely agree that public knowledge of the fact would be detrimental in its success—after all you just have publicized it—and we cannot help but feel that in view of our dismal record in recent times on matters of human rights, a whiff of humanitarianism might earn us friends in the moral community. But in any case we look forward to news of actual releases in Chile, where our information is that the treatment of prisoners grows daily more horrendous.

Yours sincerely, Arthur C. Danto, Professor of Philosophy, and Ainslie Embree, Professor of History and Associate Dean, School of International Affairs

(Letter to Henry Kissinger, January 24, 1975)2

In her now classic history of human rights, Lynn Hunt describes what she calls the “promise” of the rights of man, a promise which, she claims, “can be denied, suppressed, or just remain unfulfilled, but . . . does not die.”3 While her critics rightly take issue with her claim that rights have a “logic,” their fulfillment a certain inevitability, they themselves also make use of the language of promise-making, accepting Hunt’s description of Enlightenment rights commitments but disputing whether later moments are in fact making claims, in a conceptually coherent way, against those particular earlier promises. Even Hunt’s most vocal detractor, Samuel Moyn, refers to the “broken promises” of human rights, arguing that anticolonial movements should not be considered part of the history of human rights because they opted to draw not on that promise but on a different one: that of collective liberation. He agrees with Hunt that universal promises are open to claims for fulfillment; he differs from her in thinking that such claims are inevitable, emphasizing that later actors have more agency than her account suggests. He writes: “The case of the decolonizing world shows clearly that not all universalistic promises spark seizures from below of their unrealized potential.”4

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