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International Human Rights Activism in the United States during the Cold War


Using archival collections and published primary sources, this dissertation offers a bottom-up, social historical perspective on how several international human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the United States during the Cold War--the International League for the Rights of Man, Amnesty International USA (AIUSA), Americas Watch and Helsinki Watch--formed a transnational advocacy network that exposed abuses and shamed governments into ending them. It finds that a small circle of rooted cosmopolitans--a term used by Sidney Tarrow to describe "outsiders inside/insiders outside"--was responsible for the emergence of a movement during the mid-1970s that was centered in New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. The activists profiled here were not the powerful, but neither were they the powerless. They tended to be highly-educated professionals who were drawn into activism after their moral sensibilities had been greatly offended.

The emotional connections that formed between activists and victims thus arose within the historical context of intensifying market relations in this contemporary era of globalization. But why the spectacle of distant suffering drove some people to devote themselves to advancing the cause of human rights can be answered only in deeply personal terms. Biography is crucial to understanding how this transformation occurred for them: religious beliefs, a long-held cultural interest, a friend who experienced political repression and symbolized the plight of an entire country, previous work on domestic civil liberties, or their own victimization. Their worldview was based on a far-reaching conception of one's ethical responsibilities. As Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued, lives are given value by the identities that shape them--the philosophical basis of a cosmopolitanism that is premised upon "kindness to strangers." Activists proceeded in a similar path from an abstract notion of the rights-bearing individual to immersing themselves in the lived experiences of prisoners, dissidents, and other persecuted individuals they may have never actually met in person.

Lacking the authority of state actors, activists had to act as moral entrepreneurs. Their social value was providing elites with information. The researchers who gathered the material for the reports published by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch became experts who were called to testify before Congress. Journalists quoted their findings to counter or corroborate the official version of events. NGOs also developed legal expertise that they used to expand the reach of international human rights law. As this subfield became more widely taught at law schools, some of which established programs dedicated to it, a generation of lawyer-activists took the international human rights movement in a new, more litigious direction. Publicity was just as important. It was easier to mobilize public opinion against repressive governments if the victims were well known; even better if activists became part of the story. By reaffirming their accuracy and objectivity, activists could gain the trust of reliable donors, philanthropic foundations, wealthy benefactors, and celebrities, all of whom became important sources of income that enabled their NGOs to expand during the last three decades of the twentieth century.

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