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Reviewed by:
  • Advocating Dignity: Human Rights Mobilizations in Global Politics
  • Lora Wildenthal (bio)
Jean H. Quataert , Advocating Dignity: Human Rights Mobilizations in Global Politics (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press 2009), 355 pages, ISBN 9780812241631.

Historian Jean Quataert has written a survey of human rights in the twentieth century, creating a new option for instructors alongside much-used survey texts such as Paul Gordon Lauren's The Evolution of International Human Rights and Jack Donnelly's International Human Rights.1 Quataert's is not the first survey of the human rights movement since 1945 by a historian—Lauren is a diplomatic historian—but it is one of a number of recent publications that seek to bring a historical disciplinary self-consciousness to the subject matter of human rights.

Quataert is a well-known social historian of modern Germany. Her early work focused on women, work, and socialist movements. She then turned to projects [End Page 1037] situating women's and gender history in the writing and teaching of world history. In 2001 she published a monograph on nineteenth-century German women's patriotic nursing organizations, which drew her attention to the Red Cross and international humanitarian law. She published a long essay, The Gendering of Human Rights in the International Systems of Law in the Twentieth Century, in an American Historical Association pamphlet series showcasing new historical approaches. Meanwhile, as a current co-editor of the Journal of Women's History and an active author, Quataert continues her scholarly focus on German women's history. Her longstanding engagement in the history of women, gender, and work in international perspective makes her an ideal author for a book such as the one under review here. Gender has moved to the top of the human rights agenda—it itself the sign of an interesting historical moment. Meanwhile, scholars working on the history of human rights are showing ever more clearly how the twentieth-century human rights movement arose both as a rival to socialist traditions and communist states and in interaction with them. The reader is in good hands with Quataert.

Advocating Dignity handles the problem of how to cover the vast amount of material by taking an institutional approach for the early years (1900-1949)2 and a thematic approach for the years after the 1940s. These themes are: the anti-apartheid campaign; Soviet dissidents; disappearances and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo; women's human rights; development, social and economic rights, and migrants' rights; ethnicized wars and humanitarian interventions; and the World Conference against Racism in the context of the "war on terror." Gender, social rights, and migration in particular are themes that have put pressure on traditional distinctions between public and private, between the state and civil society (or the market), and between states' claims and individuals' realities.

Quataert refers frequently to the United Nations and periodically to regional human rights regimes as institutional frameworks in all these chapters. Her main goal, however, is to shine the spotlight on individual activists and NGOs as she surveys globally-dispersed human rights mobilizations since 1945. The book highlights the impact of ordinary people who participate in human rights debates: whether at "people's tribunals" and NGO forums at the big UN conferences, as litigants before international courts, or in the everyday public spaces where they live. This relatively recent and still-growing opportunity for participation of laypeople who are using the terminology of human rights, and yet are neither UN officials nor legal experts, has driven the transformation of the meanings of human rights as applied by the human rights establishment. Popular participation, Quataert shows, has challenged bureaucratic orthodoxies and put pressure on narrow interpretations of existing norms. To capture the popular face of human rights is, as Quataert sees it, the contribution of a social historian:

Human rights tragedies are tangible events about people with faces, names, families, and histories. They must be placed in their specific historical contexts. Approaching human rights as a powerful language of resistance, this "new" social history assesses individual and group agency embedded in discursive and structural contexts . . . [End Page 1038] it demonstrates how social structures are built up from transnational interactions.3

Of course, the...


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