Conjunctions: Life Narratives in the Field of Human Rights
Schaffer, Kay, Smith, Sidonie, Biography
The last decades of the twentieth century witnessed the unprecedented rise in genres of life writing, narratives published primarily in the West (1) but circulated widely around the globe. This "memoir boom" has certainly occurred in English-speaking countries, from Australia to Jamaica, from England to South Africa, and in European countries, especially France and Germany. (2) However, there has been a relative boom in personal narratives coming from elsewhere in the world as well. In many global locations, in post-Maoist China and Latin America, in North Africa and the Philippines, in Northern and Eastern Europe, life narratives have been told, transcribed, published, and translated, gaining both local and international audiences.
This rise in the popularity of published life narratives has taken place in the midst of global transformations, both cataclysmic and gradual, that have occurred in the decades since the end of World War II: a succession of wars of prolonged and short duration; repeated instances of mass genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and elsewhere; violent and nonviolent decolonization movements in South America and Africa; the intensification and dissipation of the Cold War in Europe; mass migrations of peoples; and the speed of change and the fragmentation of contemporary life. These geopolitical and temporal transformations form not so much a backdrop, but rather a fractured web of intersecting geographic, historical, and cultural contingencies out of which personal narratives have emerged and within which they are produced, received, and circulated. These global transformations have spurred developments in the field of human rights as well, developments that demand, for their recognition in the international community, multiple forms of remembrance of and witnessing to abuse.
To situate the contemporary interest in life narratives in the field of human rights, it is necessary to recall briefly the origins of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the contentious and passionate debates of the mid-twentieth century. At the end of World War II, the incontrovertible evidence of the violence unleashed in the Japanese and German war efforts and of Nazi mass killings created an international climate of moral indignation. As this moral indignation attached itself to the modernist values and principles of the victors, the international community renewed its commitment to a "United Nations" of peoples dedicated to the pursuit of peace and the protection of human rights. In relatively swift succession came the signing of the Charter of the United Nations in 1945, the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials in 1945--46 and 1946--48 respectively, and the ratification by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The Nuremberg trials in particular issued a call to the world community to remember crimes against humanity. As an expression of ideals, the Universal Declaration became the point of origin binding an international community together in service to a more just future.
Debates about, refinements of, and votes on the Universal Declaration and its accompanying Covenants--one on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and a second on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)--took place in the two decades following 1948 through movements of decolonization and Cold War politics. Whether violent or relatively peaceful, movements of national liberation from colonial rule, founded on the right to the self-determination of peoples laid out in the ICCPR, involved complex negotiations, by states, communities, and individuals, of the psychological, political, economic, and cultural legacies of a colonial past that had to be remembered, made, and remade for the sake of national futures. For its part, the Cold War effectively remapped the globe through spheres of influence that displaced earlier spheres of colonialism. Cold War politics also sparked contentious debates within the United Nations about the nature of rights, particularly the relative priority of "negative" rights that protect individuals from the state and "positive" rights that pertain to aspirational goals and an enabling standard of living that might extend human dignity and freedom for everyone. …