Book examines history of human rights


BINGHAMTON, NY – Average people have helped to shape the human rights movement, Jean Quataert says in a new book about the development and impact of rights after World War II.

Advocating Dignity: Human Rights Mobilizations in Global Politics, the latest book by the Binghamton University history professor, was released by the University of Pennsylvania Press. 

“One of the book’s major contributions is that it is a global study of the human rights machinery done essentially from the grass roots and through people’s movements,” Quataert said. “I wanted to show what a difference average people make in global politics.”

The book takes the reader from the mid-20th century into the early 21st century, from the emergence of the human rights system in 1945 to the replacement of the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission with the Human Rights Council in 2005. In between, Quataert embarks on an ambitious and thematic journey in which she establishes global contexts for the work of human rights advocates.

Case studies range from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa to the dissidents of the Soviet Union to advocacy for gender, citizenship and socio-economic rights.

“To me, human rights is not about states taking on human rights,” she said. “It’s about people devising the tools to influence the decision-makers.”

Quataert emphasized a quote from environmentalist/activist Patsy Ruth Oliver that opens the book’s concluding chapter: “So many people don’t think that one person can make a difference. But really, it has to start somewhere, so let it start with me.”

The reader is introduced to heroes who could have easily spoken the words of Oliver. There are Hebe de Bonafini and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, middle-aged and working-class women who entered the square in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1977 to protest the disappearance of family members during the Argentine government’s Dirty War. The Mothers’ principles and passion eventually made disappearance “a matter of international urgency,” while becoming a “symbol of defiance and truth,” Quataert writes. 

There is Gladys Tsolo, a South African activist who not only gave the world details of the nation’s inhumane system, but also discussed gender injustices there. “She was an indispensible part of making the women’s human rights movement truly global, by forcing a different perspective than the Western feminists’ into the global debate,” Quataert writes. 

Non-governmental organizations and people’s movements eventually affected decisions made by entities such as the United Nations, Quataert said.

“While not every person and every movement can affect a decision, collectively it is an impressive record,” she said.

Quataert began the book shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. “It was a form of catharsis for me,” she said. “It was a personal thing I felt I needed to do under trying and difficult times.”

Quataert, a pioneer in the field of women’s studies, admits that the book took her outside of her “comfort zone.”

“I thought, ‘Why not take some chances? Why not push the borders of knowledge? Why not see what a new perspective can bring to this subject?’”

The book, which also examines U.N. humanitarian interventions and criminal courts during the 1990s, makes the case that universal accountability is vital for the future of human rights.

“If international law is going to mean anything, you need universal accountability — accountability of the U.S. as a superpower as well as Sudan as a poor country,” she said. “What happens when a state as powerful as the U.S. egregiously breaks the law?”

Quataert, who contributed the various photos on the book’s cover, said it is likely that Advocating Dignity will be released in paperback this fall. She hopes academic readers will appreciate the historian’s perspective that is being brought to the human rights debate and would like lay readers to recognize how complex and important human rights are.

“The hope for human rights is people’s mobilizations,” she said. “You can make a difference. There are many ways to get involved – writing letters, joining organizations, giving money, speaking out. This does make a difference.”


Last Updated: 9/17/13