In a World of Nation-States, Who Has The Right to Have Rights?

Who has the right to have rights? Hannah Arendt posed the question in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, and Professor Eric D. Weitz (The Graduate Center, City College) considers the question anew in his recent book A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States.

A World Divided looks at the history of human rights since the late 18th century, drawing on examples from around the globe and from a variety of “political and economic systems, from republic to empire, slavery to socialism, colonialism to communism.”  In an interview, Weitz said the book “describes how nationalists have struggled to establish their own states that grant human rights to some people. At the same time, they have excluded others through forced assimilation, ethnic cleansing, or even genocide. That is the history I follow from Greek rebels, Euroamerican settlers, and Brazilian abolitionists in the 19th century to anticolonial Africans and Zionists in the 20th, and many others in between.

Weitz also examines “the complexities of human rights and the combination of emancipation and repression that is intrinsic to the nation-state.” Again and again, he shows how those who come to power in new nation-states often seek to strip rights from others within their borders. Among the groups whose struggles he spotlights are Native Americans in the U.S., Jews and Armenians in Europe and the Ottoman Empire, Tutsis in Rwanda, Koreans under Japanese authority, and Palestinians in Israel.

But that grim pattern of subjugation does not mean there’s been no progress. “The abolition of slavery was the greatest human rights advance of the 19th century despite the fact that in Brazil, ex-slaves were offered no land or other means of subsistence to support themselves,” he said. “Women’s rights, first enunciated in the 1790s, proceeded in an achingly slow fashion for decades, but now are signature features of the international human rights system. Human rights will never be implemented in their entirety. There is no utopia. But we need to recognize the advances as well as the shortcomings and disasters over the last 250 years.”

He concludes the book on this note: “For all the partial advances, for all the contradictions, all the sheer opposition — human rights remain our best hope for the future.”

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Eric D. Weitz (Distinguished Professor, History) | Profile 1 | Profile 2

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