Moyn and How Memory Made Way for the Movement we Know Today

By Shayla Beauchamp
French President of Council Vincent Auriol delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the third United Nations Assembly at the close of which, on 10 December 1948, was adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris.

Samuel Moyn is currently a professor of Jurisprudence and History at Yale University. His areas of interest in legal scholarship include international law, human rights, the law of war, and legal thought. As an intellectual historian, he has worked on many subjects but focuses on twentieth-century European moral and political theory. His article “Human Rights and the Uses of History” argues that human rights did not stem from the atrocities performed in the Holocaust but instead from the concept of national welfarism as a reaction to depression and war. It is only later that atrocity prevention became the focus of the human rights movement and that there are consequences from this belief.

Moyn believes there are three stages to human rights. The first having a focus on welfarism while not risking the loss of empire by ensuring not to include self-determination even in the Universal Declaration itself in 1948. Moyn states that historians have found it hard to find any evidence, except a few, who have spoken about human rights outside a welfarist perspective in the 1940’s. He brings up an example by pointing out that “no diplomats of any nationality mentioned the Holocaust during the yearlong debate around the Universal Declaration.” Moyn believes the declaration was a response to an experience of war and depression and not one for atrocity and genocide. National welfarism seemed to most a good way to move forward, something to strive for with the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They wanted to create a new future and not dwell on the past.

Stage two, the 1950s to 1970s, turns to a want for decolonization. Anticolonial sentiments grew and with it came global movements to end empire. It was a global representation of the national welfarist paradigm. Though this stage does not hold the human rights movement we know today. There was still an attachment to nationalism and sovereignty, and systems in place where human rights did not apply in imperial spaces. Eventually, self-determination was added to the premise of human rights. Instances of this being in UN General Assembly Resolutions 1514, 2131 and 2625 in the years 1960, 1965 and 1970 respectively.

He defines the third stage as the 1970s, particularly, post-Cold War. He deems this the stage where a humanitarian-based human rights arose to surpass the earlier versions. This stage differed from the previous ones by making atrocity prevention, not welfare promotion the core of the human rights movement and a will to keep those in power incapable of intervening. This is where Moyn brings in Holocaust memory. He believes that although the Holocaust did not drive the first two stages of human rights, its memory did drive the last. He thinks this connection has possibly made a difference in peoples lives and if not then has at least made way for a population less complacent with atrocities though there are consequences. Moyn deems the worst consequence to be that it allows people to think that the only alternative to human rights and humanitarian framework is genocidal violence or immoral complacency. He believes this puts human rights in competition with other reform projects and does not allow for a creation of something better.

This article gives us an interesting reflection on how the Holocaust influenced the human rights movement we know today. The problem I have with the article is that I do not believe the beginning of human rights simply came out of the 1940’s but from a longer history of people fighting for rights. Though if we simply understand this article in the parameters of the movement we know today then I think he makes a curious point. It could not have only been the Holocaust that pushed people to advocate for human rights, which is where I agree with him that human rights also stemmed from the collective experience through war, depression and the memory or active colonial practices. Though I do not think we can completely discount the Holocaust as a reason for the creation of the declaration as he even states that the Universal Declaration does refer to the “disregard and contempt for human rights [that] have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscious of mankind.” I think it enhances the conversation surrounding human rights as it gives us an alternative to its creation. It demonstrates that the concept of human rights fluctuates, specifically where people have strayed from welfarism to that of humanitarianism. Also, it questions where the movement is today and asks if we could be doing something that causes a better outcome.

My questions for you are:

  • Do you agree with his conclusion that the Holocaust only became entangled with human rights in the 1970’s and onwards through its memory? Why or why not?
  • Does the claim that the Holocaust did not immediately have an impact on human rights change the way we view the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? If so, how?
  • How does even considering the Holocaust or the 1940’s as a marking point for the beginning of human rights effect peoples perception on previous forms of activism for rights?

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