Keys promotes alternative U.S. human rights narrative

Barbara Keys, scholar and policy analyst, discussed American human rights policies with students in her lecture, “The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s,” in the connection with the Department of History. Photo By: Vassar College Media Relations
Barbara Keys, scholar and policy analyst, discussed American human rights policies with students in her lecture, “The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s,” in the connection with the Department of History. Photo By: Vassar College Media Relations
Barbara Keys, scholar and policy analyst, discussed American human rights policies with students in her lecture, “The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s,” in the connection with the Department of History. Photo By: Vassar College Media Relations

On Oct. 30, Professor Barbara Keys gave the Charles Griffin Memorial Lecture, sponsored by the Department of History. The lecture focused on the historical importance of human rights and their implications in current foreign policy. Keys’ latest book, “Reclaiming American Virtue: The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s,” charts one explanation of the origins of the human rights “boom” of the 1970s in America.

Aside from publishing works on human rights, Keyes boasts a breadth of experience as both educator and researcher. Barbara Keys holds a PhD in History from Harvard University and has taught at California State University in Sacramento and University of Melbourne. She has been a research fellow at the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, and at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C. She has also been a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Law and Society at UC Berkeley and the Center for European Studies at Harvard.

The lecture, “The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s,” served as a larger explanation of her book. She explained that she focused on the 1970s because it was the first time that the promotion of international human rights were established as a core part of American foreign policy. Keys asserted that one of the main reasons Americans embraced human rights in foreign policy was guilt from the Vietnam War. For Americans, the fight for human rights re-established America as a benevolent force in the world and reclaimed American virtue.

Keys began by dissecting Jimmy Carter’s inaugural address in January 1977. Carter was hailed as a major advocate of human rights and was said to have propelled it to prominence in the U.S. In his address, Carter said, “Our commitment to human rights must be absolute.” This is the phrase that many historians use to illustrate his dedication to human rights during his presidency.

However, Keys had a different interpretation of this quote. In the lecture, Keys stated her belief that Carter was referring to domestic policy and was equating human rights to civil rights. She added, “Human rights seemed more like a fluke than a well conceived policy choice.” She went on to say that she grappled with the questions: If it wasn’t Carter who prioritized human rights, who was it? And what influences propelled the embracement of human rights?

These questions prompted Keys to write her most new book. Keys asserted in the lecture that Carter pushed for human rights because the concept was popular with Americans. After the Vietnam War, Watergate and Central Intelligence Agency scandals, human rights became successful because of the country’s internal psychological state. She explained, “[Human rights] offered a way forward for Americans, out of a period of crisis and self doubt.”

Keys went on to talk about the end of the Cold War and how it allowed politicians to finally disagree with anti-communist leaders and the potentially brutal treatment of their constituents. She said, “Human rights emerged in a more contingent way than historians have allowed for. The concept was seized upon not by liberals but in fact by conservative Cold War hawks.” Although many attribute human rights advocacy to liberals, they tended to emphasized internal cleansing rather than outward moralizing at the time.

Keys identified Senator Henry Jackson as a key developer in the language of human rights. She said that Jackson was outraged by detente, which was the easing of tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States. He referred to it as a “moral abomination” as he believed that America was treating the perceived evil power of the Soviet Union like any other power. He thus made it his primary cause to support Soviet Jewish immigration and justified his cause with the language of the human rights with appeals to the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Keys also identified Congressman Donald Fraser as a major human rights policymaker, who set the template for what Carter would do as president. Holding congressional hearings on human rights promotion, the Congressman  asserted that if the United States continued to granting aid to countries that repressed their people, it was supporting that oppression and its consequences.

The speaker concluded that since the 1970s there has been a battle over whether human rights originated as a democratic or conservative ideology. Furthermore, Keys stressed that the diplomacy of human rights did help the psyche and moral of the United States but it also obscured the Vietnam War’s brutality and the true costs and shifted attention away from American problems.

She asserted that it has been this way ever since and that the present day stance on human rights can be read as a result of the 1970s emergence. America’s foreign policy has had very few effects over the past 40 years on improving human rights of others. This aligns with Keys’ opinion because it was never about helping others, but about recasting America as a benevolent force in the world.

According to Professor of History Robert Brigham, who helped sponsor the lecture, this discussion of human rights has significant modern implications. He said, “Human rights are the moral language of our times, but how did they come to represent our last utopia? Barbara Keys’ lecture explained the human rights boom of the 1970s as the United States tried to reclaim virtue following the Vietnam War.”

Brigham went on to explain, “Liberals were especially eager to have idealism front and center in U.S. foreign policy, and human rights allowed them to resurrect that project. Keys’ lecture was superb.”

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