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The Breakthrough

Human Rights in the 1970s

Edited by Jan Eckel and Samuel Moyn

Publication Year: 2013

Between the 1960s and the 1980s, the human rights movement achieved unprecedented global prominence. Amnesty International attained striking visibility with its Campaign Against Torture; Soviet dissidents attracted a worldwide audience for their heroism in facing down a totalitarian state; the Helsinki Accords were signed, incorporating a "third basket" of human rights principles; and the Carter administration formally gave the United States a human rights policy.

The Breakthrough is the first collection to examine this decisive era as a whole, tracing key developments in both Western and non-Western engagement with human rights and placing new emphasis on the role of human rights in the international history of the past century. Bringing together original essays from some of the field's leading scholars, this volume not only explores the transnational histories of international and nongovernmental human rights organizations but also analyzes the complex interplay between gender, sociology, and ideology in the making of human rights politics at the local level. Detailed case studies illuminate how a number of local movements—from the 1975 World Congress of Women in East Berlin to anti-apartheid activism in Britain, to protests in Latin America—affected international human rights discourse in the era as well as the ways these moments continue to influence current understanding of human rights history and advocacy. The global south—an area not usually treated as a scene of human rights politics—is also spotlighted in groundbreaking chapters on Biafran, South American, and Indonesian developments. In recovering the remarkable presence of global human rights talk and practice in the 1970s, The Breakthrough brings this pivotal decade to the forefront of contemporary scholarly debate.

Contributors: Carl J. Bon Tempo, Gunter Dehnert, Celia Donert, Lasse Heerten, Patrick William Kelly, Benjamin Nathans, Ned Richardson-Little, Daniel Sargent, Brad Simpson, Lynsay Skiba, Simon Stevens.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-viii

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1. The Return of the Prodigal: The 1970s as a Turning Point in Human Rights History

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pp. 10-14

The history of human rights is a new domain of inquiry. Until recently, this emerging field focused intently on distant origins, from the Bible to medieval philosophy, and from early modern natural rights theory to the age of democratic revolution. Above all other eras, it favored the 1940s, reasonably enough given the framing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), on...

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2. The Dystopia of Postcolonial Catastrophe: Self-Determination, the Biafran War of Secession, and the 1970s Human Rights Moment

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pp. 15-32

In the summer months of 1968, media reports of human suffering in the Nigerian Civil War (1967–1970) began to disconcert the “conscience of the world.” Readers around the world were shocked when they were confronted with photographs of starving children in the secessionist Republic of Biafra.1 Many contemporaries were soon convinced that genocide against Biafra’s...

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3. The Disenchantment of Socialism: Soviet Dissidents, Human Rights, and the New Global Morality

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pp. 33-48

Since at least the eighteenth century, the hallowed story told about human rights is that human beings are born in possession of certain claims to moral worth that are bound up with the essence of being human and therefore are not limited to particular times, places, or political arrangements. Over the last several decades, historians of human rights, bound by the axioms of historicism...

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4. Dictatorship and Dissent: Human Rights in East Germany in the 1970s

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pp. 49-67

Most accounts of the rise of human rights in East Germany (German Democratic Republic, or GDR) regard the 1975 Helsinki Accords as a crucial turning point that created the conditions for the events at the Berlin Wall in the fall of 1989.1 This argument contends that by signing on to a major international treaty with human rights provisions, the ruling Socialist Unity Party...

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5. Whose Utopia? Gender, Ideology, and Human Rights at the 1975 World Congress of Women in East Berlin

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pp. 68-87

The United Nations Decade for Women (1976–1985) laid the foundations for a global campaign to recognize “women’s rights as human rights” that culminated at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.1 During the 1970s the number and type of women’s nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) around the world increased exponentially, and their alliances, networks...

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6. “Magic Words”: The Advent of Transnational Human Rights Activism in Latin America’s Southern Cone in the Long 1970s

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pp. 88-106

In March 1972, members of the Division for Latin America of the United States Catholic Conference, relying on information from Brazilian exiles, directed a letter to Brazilian president Emílio Médici that challenged the detention of “famed” peasant leader Manuel da Conceição. They urged the president to “allow an international team of impartial observers” into the country to “investigate...

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7. Shifting Sites of Argentine Advocacy and the Shape of 1970s Human Rights Debates

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pp. 107-124

Thirty years after testifying before the U.S. House Subcommittee on International Organizations in September 1976, Argentine lawyer Lucio Garzón Maceda recalled the hearings with satisfaction and surprise: satisfaction because he viewed the two-day proceedings on human rights conditions in Argentina as the first international defeat of the military junta, contributing to...

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8. Oasis in the Desert? America’s Human Rights Rediscovery

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pp. 125-145

An oasis in the Sonora desert begins with a fracture in the earth’s crust. If the groundwater is high enough, liquid under pressure will seep through the cracks. With time, these trickles may support vegetation, even animal life. For travelers, the oasis offers a respite from the heat of the California interior. For historians, its provenance may spur reflection. Like oases, human rights...

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9. Human Rights and the U.S. Republican Party in the Late 1970s

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pp. 146-165

Historians of the United States recently have turned their attention to the 1970s. In the words of one chronicler, “something happened” during this decade that shaped the United States for the rest of the twentieth century.1 As the essays in this book make clear, one of the things that happened in the 1970s—in the United States and around the globe—was a new emphasis on...

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10. The Polish Opposition, the Crisis of the Gierek Era, and the Helsinki Process

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pp. 166-185

When Edward Gierek succeeded Władysław Gomułka as first secretary of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PUWP) following the bloody suppression of the workers’ uprisings on the Polish Baltic coast in late 1970, living conditions in Poland temporarily improved to a considerable degree. The 45 dead and about 1,100 injured at Gdańsk and Szczecin were a...

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11. “Human Rights Are Like Coca-Cola”: Contested Human Rights Discourses in Suharto’s Indonesia, 1968–1980

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pp. 186-203

In April 1968, as students around the world were protesting their own governments and the Vietnam War, Iran hosted an international meeting to review progress made in promoting human rights, two decades after the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Tehran Conference has drawn justifiable criticism for being hosted and attended by authoritarian regimes...

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12. Why South Africa? The Politics of Anti-Apartheid Activism in Britain in the Long 1970s

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pp. 204-225

The global anti-apartheid movement, one scholar argues, “was the first successful transnational social movement in the era of globalization. . . . What is unique about the anti-apartheid movement is the extent of support it received from individuals, governments, and organizations on all continents. Few social movements garner anywhere near the international support mobilized...

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13. The Rebirth of Politics from the Spirit of Morality: Explaining the Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s

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pp. 226-260

In the past few years, the 1970s have rapidly moved to the center of scholarly interest. Interpretations have thrived at the same time as—and sometimes, it seems, even before—the contours of important events and developments are beginning to appear in research-based studies. Most historians have shaped the 1970s as a novel and distinctive phase in contemporary history and consequently...


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pp. 261-326

List of Contributors

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pp. 327-328


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pp. 329-338

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p. 339-339

The editors are grateful to the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies, and especially its former directors, Ulrich Herbert and Jörn Leonhard, for their kind funding and support. Along the way a number of scholars—Christian Albers, Frank Biess, Mark Philip Bradley, Dominique Clément, Benjamin Gilde, Michal Givoni, Veronika Heyde, Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, Barbara J. Keys, Konrad...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812208719
E-ISBN-10: 0812208714
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812245509
Print-ISBN-10: 0812245504

Page Count: 368
Illustrations: 1 illus.
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights