A World Divided. The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States

Weitz, Eric D.
Human Rights and Crimes Against Humanity
XX, 550 S.
$ 35.00; £ 27.00
Reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by
Steven L. B. Jensen, The Danish Institute for Human Rights, Copenhagen

Eric D. Weitz, Professor of History at City University of New York, has written a wide-ranging and ambitious book – with notable flaws – on a monumental topic. The ten chapters (plus introduction and conclusion) of A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States cover most of the world’s continents and a timespan of well over 200 years. The historical cases range from the Greek independence war in the 1820s to inter-ethnic violence in Rwanda and Burundi in the 1990s and 2000s, offering a broad geographic and temporal scope.

The book has two main themes: the brutal consolidations of emerging nation-states, based on paradigms of inclusion and exclusion, and human rights. Weitz highlights three animating questions for his study: “Who has access to rights? What do we mean by human rights? And how do we obtain rights?” These are very broadly framed questions. A “world history” of this kind is a tremendous undertaking, and the book is well-referenced, drawing on literature and sources in English, French, German and Portuguese.

Weitz emphasizes the need to think more about chronologies and capture diverse geographies – both important characteristics in the move towards a more representative human rights history in recent years. Throughout the book, he also returns to Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “right to have rights” which is a good theme for historical contextualization because it allows a focus on exclusions over time. Furthermore, exploring deep historical connections between the nation-state and human rights is a highly relevant undertaking as it can potentially reveal changing conceptions of the state and how human rights influenced these or not. The history of human rights is much more than internationalism, foreign policy and international organizations. A nuanced understanding of the interplays between the national and international is essential. Weitz makes clear that if there is one truth about human rights, it is that “they are dynamic” (p. 4).

The author argues interestingly that the history of genocides belongs to a history of nation-states and human rights. In Chapter 6, “Namibia: The Rights of Whites”, on Germany’s annihilation of the Herero and Nama peoples in 1904, he writes: “Genocide not only leaves in its wake countless corpses and traumatized survivors – it is also an act of political creation […]. Deliberate mass killings and repressions radically reshape the social landscape. In the aftermath of genocide, elites have new possibilities for structuring the political and economic order. In Southwest Africa, genocide opened the path for German colonial authorities to establish apartheid and racial capitalism.” (p. 208) It is through this and similar insightful observations in the historical case-studies that the book’s mix of global survey and synthesis functions best.

There are a number of problems with the approach taken. The book operates without any definition of human rights, which allows for a rather loose application of the concept. For Weitz, a variety of rights, such as minority rights, fall under the umbrella of human rights and their history. This does not seem fully coherent. At a minimum, the approach deserved more conceptual clarity and discussion. It is not enough to settle for human rights as “an angle of orientation” (p. 6) in a book that portends to be about the history of the relationship between nation-states and human rights over two centuries.

There is a strong focus on decolonization and self-determination as human rights – a book on “nation-state foundings and reformations” (p. 8) would veer in this direction – but this is a rather narrow framing of what human rights are. There is surprisingly little about other parts of the broader human rights framework – with freedom from slavery as the exception. In addition, there are some misleading statements. The right to property is called “the first right” (p. 200), but here the questions beckon: Who gets to decide that? Where does that come from? I find such a supposedly authoritative claim questionable and problematic in a global history of this kind. It is also misleading when Weitz writes that: “On the international plane, the USSR became a firm advocate of human rights, especially in regard to decolonization, self-determination, social rights and women’s rights.” (p. 284) The Soviet Union was by turns a principled, opportunistic, propagandistic, strategic and profoundly flawed actor in the field of human rights diplomacy – one that almost systematically opposed any international legal accountability for human rights. The USSR was never a “firm advocate.”

This mischaracterization of the Soviet Union spills over to another part of Weitz’s assessment as he writes, “Self-determination and social and economic rights are central aspects of human rights as we now know them because of the Soviet bloc-Global South alliance.” (p. 317) The problem here is two-fold. Firstly, the whole book up until this point has been about how nation-states’ quests for self-determination were an integral part of the human rights story for at least a century before the Soviet Union came into existence. However, at this point – more than three-quarters in – the Soviet Union, alongside a range of even younger states, is credited with making self-determination “central aspects of human rights as we now know them.” The author’s claim seems to undermine the historical argument around nation-states and human rights that has informed the whole book. The logic falters here in an unfortunate manner that unintendedly risks reducing the book to a kind of teleology. Secondly, human rights scholarship has shown that Western states also promoted social and economic rights – especially in the early post-war decades when the international human rights standards were defined. Advocating for social rights was not the sole terrain of the Soviet bloc and the Global South – which were by no means the homogeneous and united blocs Weitz implies. The author should have engaged more in discussion with the relevant scholarship, because it has brought tremendous nuance to our understanding of the historical dynamics that shaped the field of human rights, including a much more multi-faceted idea of Global South agency.1

It is also jarring to read in the opening sentence of the chapter on slavery in Brazil that “Brazil captivated every traveller who arrived on its shores” (p. 122) because of its natural beauty; on the following page, Weitz states that 5 million of the “12.5 million Africans transported as slaves to the New World between 1501 and 1867 […] were sent to Brazil” (p. 123). “Captivated” can of course have several meanings, but the writing here reflects an oversight regarding recognition of the experience and suffering of enslaved people.

These are unfortunate features in an otherwise sympathetic book project. The human rights historiography of the last decade has often operated with relatively short timespans – at times elevating certain decades as particular breakthroughs – in a post-1945 framing of international human rights. Weitz points us toward considering a much longer history and placing the nation-state in a much more central position in our histories. These are valuable points to keep in mind. This, however, cannot make up for the lack of deep engagement with the elements that constitute the human rights framework. The book has also not adequately dealt with the varied historical scholarship on human rights, which could have sharpened the overall framing and arguments put forward. The concluding chapter does not really succeed in bringing the elements together in a bigger whole. These aspects limit the extent to which A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States can make a lasting contribution to the rapidly growing field of human rights historiography. University students may, however, benefit from studying the diverse historical case-studies over the long timespan. Weitz’s book could therefore work as a course book in general human rights classes keen on stimulating debates on the importance of national settings in the histories of human rights politics.

1 For some of the existing research, see Daniel J. Whelan / Jack Donnelly, The West, Economic and Social Rights, and the Global Human Rights Regime. Setting the Record Straight, in: Human Rights Quarterly 29 (2007), pp. 908–949; Roland Burke, Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights, Philadelphia 2010; Małgorzata Mazurek / Paul Betts, Preface. When Rights Were Social, in: Humanity 3 (2012), pp. 291–295, (08.09.2020); Frederick Cooper, Afterword. Social Rights and Human Rights in the Time of Decolonization, in: Humanity 3 (2012), pp. 473–492, (08.09.2020); Steven L. B. Jensen, The Making of International Human Rights. The 1960s, Decolonization and the Reconstruction of Global Values, New York 2016. Most recent publications expanding on insights from the works above include Jean H. Quataert / Lora Wildenthal (eds.), The Routledge History of Human Rights, London 2020; A. Dirk Moses / Marco Duranti / Roland Burke (eds.), Decolonization, Self-Determination, and the Birth of Global Human Rights Politics, New York 2020.