Putting Human Rights to the Test: Claims, Interventions and Contestations since 1990

Putting Human Rights to the Test: Claims, Interventions and Contestations since 1990

Arbeitskreis Menschenrechte im 20. Jahrhundert
Fritz Thyssen Stiftung, Apostelnkloster 13-15, 50672 Köln
Vom - Bis
16.05.2019 - 17.05.2019
Daniel Stahl

In the years since the end of the Cold War and the worldwide wave of democratization, the concept of human rights has profoundly shaped national and international policies. However, the past decades have clearly not seen a linear success story. While states, NGOs and International Organizations grounded important political projects or symbolic demands in human rights ideas, the principle remained heavily contested and was sometimes even strongly rejected. Emphatic hopes of a more just world order brought about by global human rights protection flourished in the early 90s only to fade away soon after. The international community watched as mass killings took their terrible toll, authoritarian regimes remained in power, and humanitarian interventions caused the breakdown of political and social order.

Historical research on this complex development has only just begun. Both empirical studies and overarching interpretations are currently lacking. Yet critical reflection on the recent history of human rights is essential for a better understanding of current world affairs. This observation provides the starting point for our conference, which brings together experts from different disciplines and world regions to advance the study of the history of human rights since the 1990s. The conference neither wants to reproduce the triumphalism of the 1990s nor the narrative of decline which has become dominant over the past years. Instead, it aims to sharpen our view of contradictory strands of development by focusing on a diverse array of actors: states, International Organizations, NGOs, politicians, scholars and experts.

Human rights did not have a breakthrough in the 1990s - they were already a well-established instrument of national and international policies. However, these years saw an extraordinary surge in the significance that national and international actors attributed to the concept. A growing number of activists and politicians began framing their concerns as human rights issues. The universal claim of human rights received unprecedented support and was adopted in interventionist practices, crossing national borders. Scholars made human rights a subject of research across the disciplines, impacting the practice of human rights activism and policies. At the same time – and often as a direct consequence of its new prominence – critics opposed the idea of universal human rights with an unprecedented fierceness. In the process, all these actors tested the limits of human rights policies.


Thursday, May 16, 2019, 10.00 a.m. –5.30 p.m.

Welcome: Norbert Frei
Keynote: Jan Eckel

Panel I: Expansion
Scott Straus (Madison): A Short History of Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention
Knud Andresen (Hamburg): Multinational Corporations after Apartheid in South Africa
Celia Donert (Liverpool): Women's Rights as Human Rights after 1990
Paul van Trigt (Leiden): The Fall of Utopia and the Integration of Disability in International Law

Panel II: Intervention
Stephen Wertheim (New York): Transformative Interventions: The Militarization of Humanitarianism in the United States
Markus Eikel (Den Haag): International Criminal Law and the Prosecution of Human Rights Violations
Barbara Keys (Melbourne): Targeting China through the Olympic Games, 1993-2001

6.30 p.m.
Dan Diner (Jerusalem): Public Lecture

Friday, May 17, 2019, 9.30 a.m. – 4.30 p.m.

Panel III: Contestations and Alternatives
Katrin Kinzelbach (Berlin): Asian Values versus Western Values – a False Dichotomy
Gudrun Krämer (Berlin): On Difference and Hierarchy: Islamic Debates about Equity and Equality
Averell Schmidt (Boston): Torture during the War on Terror: A Story of Contestation
Robert Horvath (Melbourne): Nationalising Human Rights in Russia

Panel IV: Human Rights and Scholarship
Annette Weinke (Jena): History und Transitional Justice – A Troubled Relationship
Matthias Koenig (Göttingen): Between Distance and Engagement – Human Rights in the Social Sciences
Heike Krieger (Berlin): From Euphoria to Skepticism: Human Rights Discourses in International Law

Observer statements
Michael Stolleis (Frankfurt a.M.)
Klaus Dicke (Jena)
Carola Sachse (Wien)



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