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Human Rights and Memory

Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider


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Essays on Human Rights

Human Rights and Memory

Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider

“In this inspirational text about the impact of human-rights principles and normative cosmopolitanism on both the nation-state and international relations, Levy and Sznaider address the dominant moral problems of our time. Why should I care? Who is my brother? What should I remember? Through a defense of cosmopolitan ethics, they provide convincing answers to the perplexities of rights from Hannah Arendt onwards, namely, the specific rights of citizens versus the universal Rights of Man. Human rights matter because modern states can no longer abuse their own citizens with impunity in the name of national unity. Given the slide toward authoritarianism and state security, the task of defending both cosmopolitanism and human rights has a definite political urgency to which Human Rights and Memory offers a decisive response.”


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Memories of historical events like the Holocaust have played a key role in the internationalization of human rights. Their importance lies in their ability to bridge the universal and the particular—the universality of human values and the particularity of memories rooted in local human experiences. In Human Rights and Memory, Levy and Sznaider trace the growth of human rights discourse since World War II and interpret its deployment of memories as a new form of cosmopolitanism, exemplifying a dynamic through which global concerns become part of local experiences, and vice versa.
“In this inspirational text about the impact of human-rights principles and normative cosmopolitanism on both the nation-state and international relations, Levy and Sznaider address the dominant moral problems of our time. Why should I care? Who is my brother? What should I remember? Through a defense of cosmopolitan ethics, they provide convincing answers to the perplexities of rights from Hannah Arendt onwards, namely, the specific rights of citizens versus the universal Rights of Man. Human rights matter because modern states can no longer abuse their own citizens with impunity in the name of national unity. Given the slide toward authoritarianism and state security, the task of defending both cosmopolitanism and human rights has a definite political urgency to which Human Rights and Memory offers a decisive response.”
“This excellent book shows that the human rights regime gives rise to a geography of human rights that founds a new geography of power both within and between states. Within states it empowers powerless groups, and between states it empowers powerful states to intervene. This is part of a cosmopolitan realism that Levy and Sznaider are promoting and practicing very convincingly—a must-read.”
Human Rights and Memory is a useful contribution to the sociology of cosmopolitanism, rights and memory, and will prove to be a handy text for researchers and postgraduates in the field.”
“[Human Rights and Memory] raises new questions and should motivate rich lines of future empirical inquiry. I highly recommend it to scholars and graduate students in sociology, philosophy, law, political science, and history, to all who share an interest in memory and human rights.”

Daniel Levy is Associate Professor of Sociology at Stony Brook University.

Natan Sznaider is Professor of Sociology in the School of Behavioral Sciences at the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo, Israel.



1. The Ubiquity of Human Rights in a Cosmopolitan Age

2. Sociology and Human Rights

3. Sovereignty and Human Rights: The Hobbesian Challenge

4. International Law and the Formation of Nation-States

5. From Minority to Human: The Changing Face of Rights

6. The Cold War Period: More Than One Universalism 7. The Post–Cold War Period: Globalization and the Cosmopolitan Turn

8. Human Rights and the Clash of Memories: The Politics of Forgiveness

9 East Meets West: Europe and Its Others

10. A Sociology of Human Rights and Sovereignty After 9/11




Chapter 1

The Ubiquity of Human Rights in a Cosmopolitan Age

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,

Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:

We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

This excerpt from a poem by W. H. Auden, written shortly before the outbreak of World War II, is a poet’s outcry for a more humane world, for a world without cruelty. It is a poet’s wish that his words can make for a better world by displaying compassion for others. Today, this outcry is couched in the language of human rights, which seem to be everywhere. Human rights mean much to many, but also many different things. As a new universal language, they have been surprisingly underconceptualized. Are we talking politics? If so, what kind of political implications do human rights have? Or are we talking aesthetics, which implies a kind of “human rights experience” without a great many political consequences? This brings us full circle to the outcries of poets and intellectuals.

Nevertheless, everyone seems to agree that human rights matter. Contemporary societies are suffused with images making just this point. Imagine yourself watching TV or on the Internet. Pictures of brutal beatings, people being forcibly evicted from their homes, or soldiers assaulting innocent civilians parade before your eyes. This is no movie clip, but rather actual images from realities nearby or far away. What do we make of these pictures? Do we have a language that can make sense of them? All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Thus states Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These are noble words, but do they have political meaning, and, if so, what are their implications? Are they consequential?

The language of human rights provides us with a framework to begin to understand why pictures of strangers being beaten and tortured by other strangers concern us. Why do we care? Should we care? What is it about the power of human rights that makes us find these scenes revolting? Has this always been the case? If not, does this mean that our relation to human suffering, our passion for human rights, is not a given but is historically contingent? If so, what historical contingencies have made us more responsive to the sufferings of strangers? Human rights and allegiance to them is a rather recent phenomenon. Who can afford to be against human rights? At least rhetorically, human rights have become a kind of universal currency in politics. Clearly, this alone does not guarantee a world without violations. Even when viewed as simply a Western ideological move or just another sophisticated form of colonial imposition, human rights have turned into a global phenomenon that must be reckoned with. This book is an attempt to show why this should be so.

One of the most serious obstacles to fulfilling the ideals of human rights is the proclaimed sovereignty of nations. Human rights declarations are formulated as a set of rules, regulations, and norms challenging sovereignty. The principle of “noninterference” in so-called internal affairs is exactly the opposite of the human rights regime, which claims that there is no such thing as “internal affairs.” When it comes to certain types of abuses, human rights are about humans and not about members of specific states. The end of the cold war in 1989 and the emergence of global interdependencies have highlighted the tensions between the imperatives of a human rights regime and the prerogatives of sovereignty. This means that sovereignty—the prerogatives of the bounded state, the political community, the bounded “we”—has taken precedence over the unbounded universal “we.”

With the fall of the “Iron Curtain,” one of the most important divisions of the latter half of the twentieth century collapsed: the world was no longer split into the “free world” and “Iron Curtain” countries. This division, however, has been superseded by another dichotomy: those who violate human rights and those who do not. National and ethnic conflicts such as those in the former Yugoslavia and in the Middle East are being interpreted by a global audience as human rights problems rather than as existential and ethnic divisions. Attempts to reverse this development have had little impact on international politics. For instance, in his first response to the violent repression of the Tibetan opposition in the spring of 2008, Chinese president Hu Jintau unsuccessfully sought to sever the two, stating, “Our conflict with the Dalai clique is not an ethnic problem, not a religious problem, nor a human rights problem. It is a problem either to safeguard national unification or to split the motherland” (New York Times, April 13, 2008, 10). This attempt at suasion, which would have attracted scant attention in the first three postwar decades, did little to change the focus on human rights that dominated the media coverage of the Tibet protests, the ensuing calls to boycott the Olympic Games, and political leaders’ decisions to stay away from the opening ceremony.

Human rights have become a principle of political legitimacy, inaugurating a new kind of politics (Forsythe 2000; Henkin 1999). Although the rights revolution of the past two decades has not always deterred human rights abuses, it has created strong normative and institutional foundations with weapons to penetrate the shield of sovereign impunity. Increasingly, compliance with a set of human rights norms—such as dignity and rights for all—is circumscribing the legitimacy of unacceptable state actions. Adherence to a minimal set of human rights ideals has become a significant, albeit uneven, factor in global politics and a prerequisite to preserving legitimacy (Rosas 1995).

One factor that has led to divisions between particular (national) identifications and universal (human rights) orientations is the decoupling of nationhood and state. The state is now considered a neutral institution that regulates the affairs of its citizens without necessarily providing them with a strong sense of belonging and identity. Clearly states have retained most of their sovereign functions, but the basis for their legitimacy is no longer primarily conditioned by a contract with a bounded nation. It is also determined by a state’s adherence to a set of nation-transcending human rights ideals. Thus legitimacy is mediated by the extent to which states engage in (or commit to) an emerging human rights regime and an “internal” affair can easily become an “external” one.

How exactly does the relationship between human rights and sovereignty work in contemporary politics? Has the human rights regime become a parallel universe to the existing system of nation-states? What are the implications of these historical developments for the conceptualization of statehood and the balance of particular (national) identifications and universal orientations? We examine the link between human rights and sovereignty through the analytic prism of historical memories. Historical memories refer to shared understandings of and responsibilities for the significance the past has for the present concerns of a community. Through memory, a political community validates challenges and reproduces itself. More specifically, we argue that historical memories of past failures to prevent human rights abuses have become a primary mechanism through which the institutionalization of human rights idioms and their legal inscription during the past two decades have transformed sovereignty. The global proliferation of human rights norms is driven by the public and frequent ritualistic attention to memories of their persistent violations. The emergence of this global cultural “memory imperative” finds its expression in a set of political and normative expectations to engage with past injustices.

Historically, this is a European phenomenon that emerged against the backdrop of memories of World War II and the Holocaust (Levy and Sznaider 2001, 2005). Memories of the Holocaust have evolved into a universal code that is now synonymous with an imperative to address past injustices (both legally as well as in commemorative terms). Although the “memory imperative” originated with the centrality of Holocaust memories during the 1990s, it has by now become a decontextualized code for human rights abuses as such. Rather than challenge the primacy of human rights, most opposition to injustice is now articulated through the categorical denial and remedial efforts of rights violations instead of prospective visions for a just society. The victims of the present can no longer find salvation in the future but must be redeemed by connecting their experience to an iconographic past of human rights violations. Nation-states engage (or are expected to) with their own history in a skeptical fashion. This dynamic, we argue, explains both the importance of human rights norms as a globally available repertoire of legitimate claim making and the differential appropriation of this universal script.

The purpose of this book is to examine how, at different historical junctures and through the proliferation of memories of past injustices, the discourse of human rights has developed into a powerful idiom vested with legitimacy. We analyze how the discourse of human rights has developed into a cultural and political force that is substantially reconfiguring the basis of legitimate sovereignty, the scope of political responsibility, and forms of belonging. The accretion of political, cultural, and institutional capital in the form of a human rights regime has resulted in a substantial reconfiguration of state sovereignty and an extension of political responsibility, as well as in forms of solidarity beyond the realm of nationhood. Rather than start from an abstract notion of political interests (grounded, for instance, in power or capital), we probe how, once institutionalized, human rights idioms themselves constitute political interests that shape power balances and, by extension, the contours of sovereignty and solidarity. Memory politics of human rights has become a new form of political rationality and a prerequisite for state legitimacy. Sovereign rhetoric is increasingly evaluated by the extent to which it is related to the legal recognition of human rights. Memory clashes abound and provide ample evidence that the prominence of human rights does not imply the end of the national and at times even raises the specter of renationalization or retribalization. However, the prevalence of human rights, the mediated proliferation of memories of human rights abuses, and their association with particularistic politics do signify the diminishing normative return of nationalism.

For a full grasp of the ways in which the contested relationship between sovereignty and human rights discourse unfolds, we thus bring two hitherto largely unconnected fields—namely, rights and memory studies—to bear upon each other. Our approach departs, however, from the otherwise nation-centric treatment of memory politics that is characteristic of the social sciences, where the nation and the state are frequently treated as interchangeable terms, thus masking the historically conditioned nature of political sovereignty. Contrary to conventional approaches that associate memory with national identifications, we argue for a cosmopolitan conception of memory that focuses on the simultaneity of universal and particular outlooks. We do not treat universalism and particularism as superior or inferior moral choices but rather look at them as modes of existence that can change over time. We historicize these notions, thereby de-moralizing them, while retaining them as valuable sociological tools. This has consequences for the study of memory. The cosmopolitanization of memories refers to practices that shift attention away from the territorialized nation-state and the ethnically bound frameworks that are commonly associated with the notion of collective memory (Levy and Sznaider 2001, 2005). Rather than presuppose the congruity of nation, territory, and polity, cosmopolitanized memories are based on and contribute to nation-transcending idioms, spanning territorial and national borders.

We consider the recent proliferation of human rights ideals as a new form of cosmopolitanism, exemplifying a dynamic through which global concerns become part of local experiences. The choice of “cosmopolitanism” as a new moral and political idiom in this connection is not arbitrary. It relates to political and intellectual forms predating the era of the nation-state. Crucially, it has resurfaced at a time when the basic premises of the nation-state have been challenged and the shape of its sovereignty is being transformed. Naturally, this does not mean that cultural and ethnic nations are merely illusions or that the identities they provide are nothing more than mistakes or delusions. If that were the case, the concept of cosmopolitanism would be no different from a reproduction of a virulent universalism. Rather, we need to differentiate the social modalities that deal with difference, such as universalism, relativism, ethnicity, nationalism, cosmopolitanism, and multiculturalism. Universalism obliges us to respect others as equals as a matter of principle, yet for that very reason it does not involve any requirement that would arouse curiosity or respect for what makes others different. On the contrary, the particularity of others is sacrificed to a postulate of universal equality that denies its own context of emergence and interests. We suggest a different approach to cosmopolitanism that presupposes a “universalistic minimum” involving a number of substantive norms that must be upheld at all costs. These substantive norms include the sanctity of the body and the avoidance of unnecessary cruelty. We use the term “cosmopolitan common sense” when we have good reasons to assume that most individuals would be willing to defend this minimum (Beck and Sznaider 2006, 19). Therefore, our cosmopolitan reading of human rights is not part of a postmodern deconstruction of all master narratives—including those of human rights—but continues the project of modernity by retaining some of its normative quests for a better and a just life, the sanctity of the body being one of them.

The turn of the twenty-first century has been marked by fundamental global transformations that challenge some of the paradigmatic assumptions of a methodological nationalism bound up with the presupposition that the “national” remains the key principle and yardstick for the study of social, economic, political, and cultural processes. The shortcoming of this perspective is not the predictable finding that national memories remain dominant, but rather the reluctance to problematize the concept of the nation itself. We do not question the continuous relevance of national orientations. The value of country-specific experiences does not consist of explaining how the national remains dominant, however, but instead how global referents (such as human rights ideals) are incorporated into the political-cultural scripts of nations.

In contrast to the normative universalism of the Enlightenment (Kant) or many philosophers (see Nussbaum 2002), the analytic approach to cosmopolitanization refers to a process in which universalism and particularism are no longer exclusive “either/or” categories but instead a coexisting pair. Ulrich Beck defines cosmopolitanization as “a non-linear, dialectical process in which the universal and particular, the similar and the dissimilar, the global and the local are to be conceived not as cultural polarities, but as interconnected and reciprocally interpenetrating principles” (2006, 72–73). The starting point for this cosmopolitan research trajectory is a critique of methodological nationalism. This suggests a shift beyond a nation-state-centric methodology. In short, a critique of methodological nationalism in the context of globalization research demonstrates that a national ontology can no longer serve as a self-evident point of departure.

A cosmopolitan perspective offers a distinctive methodological approach by which to study the preconditions of and resistances to the emergence of new sociocultural entities that challenge the “national” as the privileged associational principle. To be sure, the potential emergence of cosmopolitan orientations should not be misconstrued as an end to national identity. Rather, it suggests a reflexive interrogation of the validity of a historically specific and thus malleable conceptualization of the national itself. From this point of view, globalization cannot be reduced to external relations between increasingly interconnected national societies but must be seen as a vehicle for transforming the inner grammar of cultural and political identities. In order to specify the distinctiveness of such processes of “globalization from within,” a cosmopolitan perspective seeks to overcome the habit of theorizing globalization through an either/or logic that relies on oppositions between the “inside” and “outside” or the “exogenous” and “endogenous.” The notion of cosmopolitanization implies an interactive relationship between the global and the local by highlighting the transformative emergence of new, denationalized social spaces and cultural imaginaries through their interaction.

Much of the debate on cosmopolitanism revolves around implicit or contested understandings of belonging. This is doubtless compounded by the vagueness of the concept of identity itself (Brubaker and Cooper 2000). For most social scientists, strong forms of belonging are predicated on a naturalized image of the nation, with manifestations such as communitarianism and ethno-nationalism, to name two possibilities. Cosmopolitanism, by contrast, is often characterized (both in its normative version and by its nationalist opposition) as the breakdown of boundaries, referring to humans rather than embedded people. Underlying this dualistic perception is the assumption that belonging operates primarily (or sometimes even exclusively) in the context of communal allegiance expressive of thick solidarities. Conversely, Craig Calhoun reminds us that we need not succumb to the opposite fallacy, which presents cosmopolitan identity “as freedom from social belonging rather than a special form of belonging, a view from nowhere or everywhere, rather than from particular social spaces” (2003, 532). We thus employ a notion of cosmopolitanism that not only demands a universalistic minimum but also presupposes a particularistic one that recognizes the existence of communal fate and attachment. The respective balance of particularism and universal modes, we suggest, can be identified in changing forms of memories and sovereignty.

In both national and cosmopolitan cases, the success of identification with distant others is ultimately predicated on a balanced notion of thick attachments with concrete others (e.g., kin, local) and thinner versions of solidarity (e.g., the nation, the global). The point is not that we dispense with thick forms of belonging, but rather that we explore identities as the coexistence of thick attachments and thin orientations. This view is premised on the notion that meaningful identities are predicated on particular attachments, as our identity is always embedded in the story of the communities from which we construct our identities. Particularism becomes a prerequisite for a cosmopolitan orientation. Rather than treat cosmopolitanism as negating nationalism, we see national attachments as potential mediators between the individual and the global horizons against which identifications unfold. Particular identities are thus not an obstruction to cosmopolitan identities but in many ways are mutually constitutive.

In sum, a cosmopolitan perspective does not entail a denial of the persistent reality of the nation for social actors. It suggests, rather, that the contemporary nation-state itself and new forms of nationalism are best understood if the social-scientific observer adopts a cosmopolitan perspective. In this light, a cosmopolitan methodological shift derives its analytical force from elucidating the relationship between processes of actual cosmopolitanization and the persistence or resurgence of political self-descriptions that are tied to a nationalist normativity.

Studying cosmopolitanized memories provides a diagnostic prism that allows us to historicize the balance of particular and universal perceptions rather than stipulate their mutual exclusiveness or a universal trajectory. These developments are not merely epiphenomenal but are integral to how memories of human rights operate. Accordingly, we attempt to highlight two dimensions of memory politics that strike us as particularly important for theorizing the prominence of human rights and the transformation of sovereignty, and by extension the interactive relationship of universal orientations and particular attachments. These are the fragmentation of memories and the decontextualization that facilitates the abstraction of concrete historical suffering.

That memories are no longer beholden exclusively to the idea of the nation-state is of central importance. Today there is a pervasive trend toward national and global introspection that has prompted numerous countries around the world to come to terms with their past (Levy and Sznaider 2005). “Inventions of nationhood” during the nineteenth century were based on heroic conceptions and formative myths transmitted by “traditional” and “exemplary” forms of narrativity. In contrast, the history of western European nation-states during the last quarter of the twentieth century was characterized by a self-critical narrative of their national pasts. While traditional and exemplary narratives deploy historical events to promote foundational myths, skeptical narratives also incorporate events that focus on past injustices committed by one’s own nation.

Given the centrality of western Europe for the articulation and dissemination of human rights discourse, a closer look at how memories of human rights abuses are articulated in the context of Europeanization is instructive. Despite its declarative commitments to openness and diversity, underneath much European cosmopolitanism remains a thick veneer of European particularism masquerading as universalism. As such, this universalism adheres to a long tradition of cosmopolitan thought in Europe that goes back to Kant (1795/1991) and other Enlightenment thinkers, one that attracted renewed ideological and political attention in the aftermath of World War II. It is a tradition marked by a strong sense of universal mission that emanated from the center of Europe and flowed outward. Europeanism here essentially refers to a western European model that took shape during the first postwar decade in the context of Franco-German reconciliation and joint economic projects, and against the backdrop of the emerging cold war. Nevertheless, Europe is in many ways a captive of its own cosmopolitan human rights rhetoric.

Its shortcomings notwithstanding, the European case is paradigmatic, as it serves as both an empirical and an analytical laboratory: empirically, its policies of integration and the resulting demographic diversification facilitate and necessitate the formation of new forms of belonging; consequently, these changes pose the kind of analytical challenges for which methodological nationalism is no longer equipped. Lastly, the European case has modular functions beyond its borders, if only because of its political and economic centrality in the global age.

Lately this cosmopolitan trend has developed beyond western Europe—for instance, to former Communist countries that investigate their “sinful” past. For many, the model has been South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This reckoning with the past and the accompanying “politics of regret” (Olick 2007) is an internal affair, but it is steered and fueled by external acts and attitudes. The proliferation of historical commissions and the active role of human rights organizations in public debates about usable pasts are but one example of this trend (Barkan and Karn 2006). What were once considered “normal” practices of nation building and routines of power, even when based on violence and warlike conduct, are now being reconceptualized as illegitimate human rights violations, for example, so-called ethnic cleansing (Diner 2007; Minow 1998). This is especially true for countries in central and eastern Europe whose borders were delineated on the principle of ethnic homogeneity after World War II, having failed to homogenize after World War I. Memories of ethnic assimilation and dissimilation are historically inscribed in the European experience. The key interpretive issue here is the transition from heroic nation-states to a form of statehood that establishes internal and external legitimacy through its support for skeptical narratives. Cosmopolitanized memories thus evolve in the context of remembered continuities that view the past of the nation through its willingness to come to terms with injustices committed in its name. The “normal” has turned into a crime, while at the same time criminals responsible for mass murder or genocide are turned into “normal” human beings.

This focus on memories of past injustices is accompanied by another tendency, namely, the transition from history politics, which is characterized by a state-centric dynamic (through official commemorations, textbooks, etc.), to memory history, which corresponds to the fragmentation of memory and its privatization. This transformation manifests itself in the changing relationship between memory and history. The difference between memory history and conventional historical narratives is instructive. History is a particularized idea of temporal sequences articulating some form of (national) development. Memory, on the other hand, represents a coexistence of simultaneous phenomena and a multitude of pasts. (National) history politics corresponds to the telos of modernity (as a kind of secularized, or civic, religion). Memory can dissolve this sequence, which is a constitutive part of history. Memory history is a particular mnemonic mode that moves away from state-supported (and state-supporting) national history.

The state’s previous (attempted) monopoly on shaping collective pasts has given way to a fragmentation of memories borne by private, individual, scientific, ethnic, religious, and other mnemonic agents. Although the state continues to play an important role in how we remember its history, it now shares the field of meaning production with a host of other players. Modes of collective memory are being cosmopolitanized and also exist on supra- and subnational levels. The formation of cosmopolitan human rights memories does not eliminate the national perspective, but it makes nationhood one of several options of collective identification. As the state loses its privileged command over the production of collective values (e.g., nationalism), human rights memories become politically and culturally more consequential.

In both the national and the global cases, the success of identification with distant others is predicated on two conditions: (1) a changed notion from thick attachments with concrete others (kin, tribal) to thinner versions of solidarity (with the nation and its symbolic personifications), and (2) the ability to produce shared memories that at once generate concrete references (to heroic deeds of the nation or particular human rights atrocities) and make it possible to draw abstract identifications from them (the need to forget the misdeeds of the nation, as Ernest Renan put it, and remember selectively, as the uneven pursuit of human rights appears to indicate).

The claim that the nation-state is an unproblematic container for solidarity is profoundly ahistorical. Ironically, when national cultures were invented, they were open to the same criticisms as those directed at global culture today. They were dismissed as superficial and inauthentic substitutes for local cultures that were once rich in tradition, and they were taken to task for being much too large and alienating. Surely, it was argued, nobody would ever identify with the impersonal image of the nation. As history has shown, this prediction was wrong. In his seminal 1983 treatise on the origins of nationalism, Benedict Anderson quips about the limits of solidarity when he poses the rhetorical question “Who would be willing to die for the European Community?” This comes as something of a surprise, given Anderson’s constructivist approach, which stipulates that all communities, and especially nations, are entities that are fundamentally imagined. The very belief that there is something fundamental at their root is the result of a conscious myth-building process. To come into existence, the nation-state at the fin de siècle depended on a process by which existing societies used representations to turn themselves into new wholes that would act immediately on people’s feelings and on which they could base their identities—in short, making them into groups with which individuals could identify. The essential point of Anderson’s thesis, which is often overlooked, is that a new system of values requiring self-sacrifice and willingness to live together is necessary in the transition to nationhood. In the premodern era, solidarity was based primarily on direct contact with the “Other” (ethical boundaries corresponded to village boundaries); with the “nationalization of the masses,” it became necessary to identify with many other people via an “imagined community” whom one could not possibly get to know personally. We do not know each other, and yet we feel united as citizens of the same country.

This nation-building process, we suggest, parallels the course of globalization at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The ability of representations to give a sense to life is not ontologically but sociologically determined. If the nation is the basis for authentic feelings and collective memory, as the critics of global culture seem almost unanimous in maintaining, then it cannot be argued that representations are a superficial substitute for authentic experience. The nation is literally inconceivable without an imagined community (Anderson 1983). Representations are the basis of this authenticity, and there is nothing theoretically or empirically inconceivable about their providing such a basis on a global level.

The salience of universal (human) or particular (national) rights is mediated by, among other things, the extent to which memories of past human rights abuses are transmitted as concrete or abstract forms, the latter proliferating with the cosmopolitanization of memories. Human rights matter only to the extent that their universality is recognized. This recognition, in turn, is predicated on a process of decontextualization by which memories of concrete (particular) atrocities are transformed into abstract (universal) violations of humanity. Without this decontextualization it is difficult to recontextualize memories of human rights as abstract categories and thus ensure their recognition as universal lessons for humanity.

Moreover, this process of abstraction does little to change the fact that communities transmit different memories of the past, based largely on the extent to which memories of past abuses are a concrete part of shared experiences or whether they lack the kind of proximity (or distance) that allows them to become abstract principles. Accordingly, the strength of human rights principles in a given national context is the product of the tenuous balance between particular (concrete) and universal (decontextualized) memories. The latter are in essence a form of forgetting. The relationship between memory and forgetting has received significant attention in the literature (Ricoeur 1999). Contrary to most views, however, we do not treat memory as an antidote to forgetting. Instead we suggest that institutionalized memories of human rights abuses inexorably imply forgetting. The institutionalization of such memories, and thus their ability to mobilize legitimate political claims, is based largely on the process of decontextualization, which in turn requires a shift from concrete memories to abstract remembrance. In other words, there is a move away from the concrete (i.e., particular) experience toward a more abstract (i.e., universal) message. Consequently, we are witness to a shift consisting of the institutionalization of the remembrance of barbarous acts at the expense of memories of the barbarity of these acts.

The distinction between memory and remembrance is not incidental. Nor can it be reduced to the so-called instrumentalization of memories. Memory vacillating between the concrete and the abstract, and its implied decontextualization, can be related to three dimensions. It inheres in the course of action that gives memories their ritualistic strength. Ritualization depends on mediation, which by definition requires a certain form of abstraction. Considering the various channels through which memories of past human rights abuses are communicated, we consider this a process of mediated forgetting. Failure to remember is also implied insofar as proximity to that which is remembered can shape the relative political-cultural significance it has for a community. Put differently, the universality of human rights necessitates a certain distance from the actual events that are being remembered. Lastly, the immanence of this dynamic is not just the product of historical and geographic proximity; it is also the result of temporal distance from the events that are being remembered.

This temporal distance is captured in Jan Assmann’s distinction between communicative and cultural memory. Communicative memory refers to memories based on group-specific carriers and is expressed through the daily encounters and stories of people involved in the events that are being remembered. Cultural memory exists independent of its carriers and is reproduced through media and commemorative institutions. “What is at stake is the transformation of communicative, i.e., lived and witness-embodied, memory into cultural, i.e., institutionally shaped and sustained, memory, that is, into a ‘cultural mnemotechnique’” (Assmann 1991, 343). This transition corresponds to our argument about the inevitable shift from the concrete to the abstract. Cultural memory turns history into narrative and shifts attention from fact-driven (i.e., particular) history to remembered history (i.e., produced through ritualization and other forms of representation).

One way of looking at this phenomenon empirically is to focus on the decontextualization of memories of human rights abuses, which functions as a prerequisite for the spread of human rights as a universally recognized idiom. The decontextualization of particular memories of human rights abuses and their universal reappropriation can be addressed by distinguishing between who is remembering and what is remembered. Moreover, cosmopolitan memories of human rights abuses are circumscribed by the historical occurrence of a forgiveness narrative that has further contributed to the shift from memory to remembrance and a corresponding transition from concrete individual to more abstract collective dimensions. Memories of human rights violations have become a subject of public negotiations and have been subjected to the imperatives of forgiveness and reconciliation (Levy and Sznaider 2006a).

By historicizing human rights, we propose a political sociology of human rights that is not based on some universalized metaphysical appeal but is transmitted primarily through the proliferation of globally produced memories of failures to address human rights abuses. These mnemonic practices are firmly embodied in historical references and institutional manifestations. The main difference between the universalist origins of human rights and their recent cosmopolitan manifestations is that the latter unfold against the background of a globalized imagination. This does not imply convergence or homogenization but rather the emergence of a locally situated recognition that sees humanity as a meaningful category of membership, not in a normative but in a political, cultural, and legally consequential terminology that is in line with denationalized conceptions of membership. Exclusion from the nation is no longer synonymous with exclusion from the protection of the state. The continuous transposition of cosmopolitan memories about failures to prevent human rights abuses has changed the conditions of membership. The surplus of legitimacy that human rights conceptions currently enjoy is neither irreversible nor evenly distributed. This should not be a reason for despair but rather the starting point for a continuous reflexive engagement with and refinement of a theory of human rights.

This book is intended to contribute to this effort by addressing the significance of human rights principles for both social and political theory and the shadow cast by historical memories over domestic and international politics. Given the national assumptions that inform most conceptualizations of (citizenship) rights, a theory of rights beyond the national frame has yet to be constructed. As we show in the next chapter, the aforementioned developments have spurred renewed attention to theories of rights. The contingent circumstances under which human rights affect state sovereignty also have immediate bearing on our ability to theorize about human rights. Previously trapped in a national cage, the epistemological context for advancing a social theory of human rights is now more favorable. This is not necessarily a function of the salience of the human rights regime itself, which is rather fragile, but is primarily the result of the decoupling of nation and state that both reflects and contributes to a nation-transcending conception of membership and solidarity. Globalization has propelled the ascendance of cosmopolitan norms embodied in the human rights regime and challenges the nation-centric foundations of sociology. The impact of memories of human rights failures on the transformation of sovereignty has not led to the erosion of the state. On the contrary, the human rights orientation has become a necessary condition for maintaining state legitimacy.

From a theoretical vantage point, this provides a formidable opportunity to move beyond the old dichotomy of universalism and particularism and the nation-centric focus, which has long been a major impediment to a sociology of human rights. A large part of the problem for social scientists is the quagmire of universalism and particularism, as they fear universal claims and are bound to claims of culture, nations, and classes. The opposition of the executive board of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1947 (American Anthropological Association 1947) was typical. The 1947 statement apparently caused much embarrassment to the association and its members and was amended—some forty years later (see Engle 2001)—thus highlighting its inability to escape the power of the human rights regime. Anthropologists, like other social scientists, recognize the normative power of human rights. In 1999 they declared their clear commitment to them while trying to preserve the notion of collective rights so dear to social scientists (see also Goodale 2007). The changing stance of the AAA captures the general dilemma social scientists must confront when dealing with human rights as a system of moral ideals—namely, how cultural pluralism and human diversity coupled with respect for culture can be combined with a commitment to norms and ideals binding for all mankind. This is one of the leading issues explored in this book.

The AAA did indeed believe that human rights are a kind of Western or colonial imposition on other cultures. This is why it affirmed that “respect for differences between cultures is validated by the scientific fact that no technique of qualitatively evaluating cultures has been discovered” (AAA 1947, 542). Furthermore, “standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive so that any attempt to formulate postulates that grow out of the beliefs or moral codes of one culture must to that extent detract from the applicability of any Declaration of Human Rights to mankind as a whole” (543). The AAA thus set the stage for the social-scientific community to look at human rights in terms of imposition and cultural arrogance. As anthropologists, they proposed cultural relativism over universalism. In many ways the human rights debate is still caught between these two poles. Is there a way out of the quagmire between universal ideals, as expressed in human rights, and respect for particularity, which often may serve as a cover for authorizing atrocities with impunity? The concept of cosmopolitanism can act as a linking mechanism between universalism and particularism that could lead to a better sociological grasp of human rights. In chapters 2 and 3 we develop the theoretical issues articulating a sociology of human rights and related conceptualizations of sovereignty.

Chapters 4 through 7 provide a historical sociology of how memories of past injustices crystallized into a human rights regime. Methodologically, we engage in a two-pronged approach. We look at the institutional developments but do so with a particular focus on memory. Both salience and malleability of memory are best assessed with a mnemo-historical approach. According to Jan Assmann (1997), mnemo-history is not about the exploration of the past per se but rather is concerned with how a particular past is remembered. Here the past is not merely subject to the kind of presentist instrumentalism where historical pasts serve the expediencies of the politics du jour; the past as such is invented, shaped, and reconstructed by the present. How histories are remembered (and by extension distorted over time) emerges as the main focus of our analytic pursuits. What matters here is not so much the factuality of these memories but their actuality.

We pay particular attention to how memories suffuse legal proceedings, especially trials that address human rights abuses. The transformative power of cosmopolitanized memories, we argue, is evidenced in the juridification of politics. The political will of states to engage legally with memories of rights abuses is becoming a central factor for their legitimate standing in the international community and increasingly also a domestic source of legitimacy. We treat law, therefore, as a medium of collective memory. Certainly legal traditions remain bound to national traditions, but even these national traditions have to take into account and heed transnational rules and regulations. Recent studies in the sociology of law have pointed to the fact that trials and other legal procedures institutionalize remembering and forgetting (Booth 2006; Misztal 2001; Osiel 1997; Savelsberg and King 2007). On the other hand, trials have to proclaim truth and justice, which often do not correspond to memory. Constructions of what can be called “legal memory” try to balance these apparently contradictory aspirations. Indeed, many of these legal premises are reenacted through the mnemonic dimensions of court trials.

Our analysis shows how recent trials related to human rights abuses are an important locus for the production of cosmopolitan ideals and their criticism, especially when considering the strong legal dimensions of contemporary global politics. We treat this development not merely as a legal process but as a socially embedded, meaning-producing act. Trials are transformative opportunities, where memories of grave injustices are addressed in rituals of restitution and renewal (Osiel 1997). Justice itself becomes a form of remembrance. With the consolidation of the human rights regime, however, these memories are no longer coextensive with the nation-state but revolve around the contested boundaries of particular and universal identifications.

War crime trials in particular do not merely edify histories; they also function as a remedy for amnesia (Douglas 2001). Beyond the potential of trials to create legal precedents, because of their public dramaturgy they also attract widespread media attention. Their dramatic enactment ensures that war crime trials not only change the law from within but enjoy ritualized attention, thus serving broader educational and moral purposes. Three didactic dimensions characterize the relationship of law and memory as evidenced in war crime trials. One relates to legitimacy, in the sense that legality itself is restored after its suspension through crimes against humanity. The second is the moral pedagogy that underlies these trials. Third, through the category of crimes against humanity, questions of inclusion and exclusion as well as the legal limits of the nation-state are renegotiated (Pendas 2002). Trials are thus moments of transformative opportunity for cosmopolitanization. As could clearly be observed in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, and even in Iraq, war crime trials function as hybrid legal zones where the boundaries of particular identities and universal orientations are negotiated. Our historical analysis pays particular attention to post–World War II war crime trials and their political-cultural significance for the iconization of the Holocaust, and, by extension, the ways in which memories of past human rights abuses have become a prominent feature of international law.

The intersection of law and memory is not limited to the ritualistic dimension of war crime trials, because “judicial memories” are also evidenced in the transformation of international law itself (Dezalay and Garth 2006). A key moment of the cosmopolitanization of sovereignty resides in the juridification of global politics. Cosmopolitan legality can assume the power of nation-transcending legitimacy. Since the 1990s international law has been recast as an alternative discourse “framed in the universalizing language of human rights. . . . The new paradigm weds traditional humanitarianism with the law of human rights, causing a shift away from states as the dominant subjects of International Law to include ‘persons’ and ‘peoples.’ . . . The emerging legal regimes play a role in shaping current political policymaking, chiefly by reframing and restructuring the discourse in international affairs in a legalist direction” (Teitel 2003, 362–66).

The prominence of international law itself is not new and enjoyed widespread support in the “international” period during the nineteenth century. “However, what is new is the notion that law itself can define what constitutes peace and stability internationally, and further that it could somehow displace politics to resolve international conflict” (ibid., 385). This juridification of political relations is a central feature in the institutionalization of the human rights regime, and it is sustained, among other things, by self-conscious references to memories of past abuses. At the same time, the legal role of memory and the legal construction of memory are constrained. We are bound by our traditions when we change them. Hence it is crucial to examine these traditions. The legal examples presented in the following chapters convey both the constructivist dimension of rights talk and the path-dependency of cosmopolitanized memories.

While independence and self-determination remain potent principles in world affairs, symbolic-political appeals for national rights are increasingly gauged by how they are related to the legal recognition of human rights and thus reconfigure the nation-state model. To be sure, we are not positing the end of the national, but rather its diminishing normative return. We recognize that cosmopolitanization can incur renationalization—but in a form very different from traditional nationalism. The latter was the main legitimating principle in the first half of the twentieth century and was state sponsored. Now it presents itself defensively and frequently does not emanate from the state. Consequently, in establishing a new conceptual framework, we are primarily arguing for a methodological gestalt switch. New forms of retribalization can no longer be understood through older models of nationhood but rather against an emerging world-cultural principle of cosmopolitanism that finds it foremost expression in the institutionalization of the human rights regime.

In deploying this cosmopolitan methodology and stressing memory practices, we approach the notion of an international convergence of rights policies and universalization with some reservations. It is important to distinguish contemporary cosmopolitan manifestations from the strong international impulses that contributed to the original institutional manifestations of human rights at the end of the nineteenth century. Lasting until the beginning of World War II, this period witnessed significant growth in international organizations and laws dedicated to human rights. This internationalist era was primarily geared toward the consolidation of nation-state sovereignty. In contrast, the cosmopolitanization of the past two decades is indicative of a recasting of the state-society-nation relationship. While the “old internationalism” regulated the relations between nation-states and sanctified their particularism, the “new cosmopolitanism” challenges the primacy of the nation and emphasizes the cosmopolitan foundations of global interdependencies. Our cosmopolitan approach thus serves as a corrective to expectations of convergence. Structural similarities do not necessarily determine the meanings attached to human rights norms in particular national contexts.

Memories of human rights abuses, as well as failures to address them in time, are thus facets of a conflictual conception of collective memory. We illustrate this dynamic in chapter 8, via a discussion of authors who refuse to accept the implied connection between memory and forgiveness and instead articulate a space in which resentment becomes part of the human rights equation. That the integrative role of memory operates through self-conscious engagement with conflict is also evidenced in chapter 9, which examines the competing memories of human rights abuses as they prevail in western and eastern-central Europe. Memory is diverse and plural. It tells more than one story. Often these stories are contradictory and do not recount one single narrative. And they do not need to. Witnesses in trials make this point quite clearly. This is particularly relevant to contemporary debates in liberal democracies where national cultures and their homogeneous conceptions of the collectivity are challenged by the multicultural composition of their societies.

We conclude the book with a discussion of the salience and limits of the human rights regime in the context of global terrorism, now symbolized by the iconic 9/11. Global terrorism has prodded renewed discussions about the relationship of human rights and sovereign prerogatives. Rather than view them as mutually exclusive, we discuss how that relationship is changing in a global context and how the link remains closely tied to specific experiences. Here, too, cosmopolitan memories coexist with memories of communal loss and trauma. Reactions against the very universality of human rights have become an important feature of how particular identities are negotiated. Thus, rather than treat national sentiments and other expressions of particular identification as anachronistic, we show how they are being addressed in a new context of global interdependency and related “clashes of memories.” Collectivities remember their vulnerabilities in different ways, diachronically but also cross-culturally. In light of such dis-simultaneities, antagonisms persist and, depending on the salience of actual threats and fears, cannot be reconciled by simple recourse to instrumental rationality or universality. In short, a plurality of memories about human frailty and accompanying rights help constitute the political and cultural salience of human rights. A theory of human rights must reckon with these plural and sometimes fragmented memories. Such a theory is not only about convergence and universalism but is also about differences expressed in communal memories and continuing antagonisms. In contrast to the first half of the twentieth century and until the dissolution of the bipolar world, however, these tensions and the accompanying clashes of memories now unfold against the backdrop of a cosmopolitan ideal that, although mostly found in Europe, has become a global norm against which particularism is articulated.

The significance of the human rights regime thus goes beyond the prevention of gross injustices. It could even be argued that the preventive apparatus is one of the least successful aspects of this regime. But the human rights regime also recasts the national premises of solidarity, which are no longer based on homogeneity but rather on the acceptance of difference. This is not a normative pledge for another version of “unity in diversity” but a development that raises questions about the unifying potential associated with human rights norms and the power of the human rights regime to inculcate values of solidarity that transcend national, tribal, or ethnic ties (Flynn 2009). This cosmopolitanization is not some utopia of tolerance but implies that particular group identifications have a relational rather than a categorical quality (Brubaker 2002). Groups do remember their own past. This is a given. But this “own past” and often the grievances that come with that past are now frequently set in relation and with reference to the legitimating purchase of cosmopolitan values and attendant ideals of human rights.