Emma Mackinnon – A Promise of Human Rights

Human rights are something we all have simply by virtue of our existence. Natural and universal, they are timeless.

But as a growing literature in the field demonstrates, ‘human rights’ also have a history, and our ability to think of ourselves as having rights is partly a product of this. Correspondingly, their purported universality and naturalness is at once both self-evident and also in need of establishment.

When I began my current research as a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, I was interested in understanding the politics of the idea of human rights. I was studying political theory; in that field, there was a common conception of ‘human rights’ as a language that enabled a wide array of claims, from both ‘above’ and ‘below’. While the idea might be used hypocritically, to provide ideological cover for various unsavoury practices, it could also be used to contest those practices. But was it infinitely malleable? What distinguished claims from ‘above’ from those from ‘below’: was it just a matter of the position of the person making the claim, or something about the claim itself? As I saw it, this was not only a philosophical question, or even simply an empirical one, but one that required understanding the concept’s relation to its own history.

I decided to focus on the ways eighteenth-century French and American declarations of rights – one supposed starting point for ideas of human rights – were used in mid-twentieth century debates in France and the United States. The period I chose was one when ideas of human rights were becoming more widespread, but before what historians describe as their ‘breakthrough’ into popular conscience in the 1970s. In the decades before that moment, how were political actors theorising human rights? And how were they connecting their claims to those earlier eighteenth-century ideas?

I wanted to understand not only what counted as a human right, but also how earlier commitments could be mobilised to contest, and to justify, forms of exclusion: disputes over bringing practices into line with ideals. I chose to look at the rhetoric of human rights in the US and France from the 1940s to the 1960s, focusing on its place in demands for racial equality in the US and in the politics of decolonisation in France.

My project starts from the drafting of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This was presented as an inheritor of those eighteenth-century declarations, carrying forward and articulating what Eleanor Roosevelt described as ‘the promise of human rights’. She and the French delegate to the drafting committee, René Cassin, explained human rights as something into which people were being gradually educated, coming to see themselves as possessing, as well as something that nations were becoming more capable of providing.

That view of a promise to be gradually fulfilled, as people learned to regard themselves as having rights, fits closely with many historical accounts. But here, that story was being used politically: in the US, it was compatible with claims that segregation and racism were a domestic problem, one to be addressed through gradual persuasion; in France, it was used by Cassin to justify French colonial violence in Algeria. Treating rights as a ‘promise’ implied certain claims about who promised what to whom, and how that promise might be fulfilled over time.

To see how that idea of a ‘promise’ of rights had itself been contested, I look at how others had used claims about human rights. I focus on Ferhat Abbas, one of the leaders of the Algerian resistance, and on Malcolm X, both of whom were particularly drawn to the language of human rights. I use archival work to track how they each made use of those earlier eighteenth-century declarations, not simply to claim inclusion in that past promise, but also to critique how that promise was caught up with forms of exclusion, and to challenge what it might mean to fulfil it.

Since arriving at Emmanuel, I’ve been expanding and revising the manuscript of a book on the subject, as well as developing some side projects touching on history, international law and political theory. Most generally, I’m interested in how big concepts, seemingly universal and abstract, can be used politically, and how their history itself becomes an object of contest; in my next project, I’m hoping to explore similar questions through a consideration of the politics of conscience. And in January, I’ll take up a post as a lecturer in the history faculty here at Cambridge, teaching the history of political thought since 1900.

Each year we elect three or four fully funded Research Fellows, to join the Fellowship at Emma for three years and embark on post-doctoral studies. Emma Mackinnon joined us in October 2017, and we are delighted that we’ve been able to appoint her as an Official Fellow from January 2020 in association with her appointment to a University post.