H-Diplo Review Essay 256 on Kelly. Sovereign Emergencies: Latin America and the Making of Global Human Rights Politics

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H-Diplo Review Essay 256

14 July 2020

Patrick William Kelly.  Sovereign Emergencies: Latin America and the Making of Global Human Rights Politics.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.  ISBN:  9781107163249 (hardback, $99.99); 9781316615119 (paperback, $29.99).

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Andrew J. Kirkendall, Texas A&M University

"Would you sign a petition and end torture in Argentina?” the young man implored as I was leaving the Wesleyan University post office one afternoon during my senior year.  The Argentine freshman was idealistic; I was ignorant generally but particularly about most Latin American matters, but I was assured enough in my cynicism that my signature would not accomplish what he promised.  I smiled and walked on.  A revolution had taken place in international relations, and I was blissfully unaware of it.

Human rights historians have been moving beyond the activist-as-hero stage for some time.1 Like others of late, Patrick Kelly is attentive to the language people used as well as what they did not use.  He makes a compelling case that some Latin Americans from this era have been claimed retroactively as human rights activists.  He notes, for example, that folders containing the personal papers of Brazilian leftist Jean Marc von der Weid in a Rio de Janeiro archive are labeled “Human Rights 1" and “Human Rights II,” despite the fact that von der Weid himself did not use the phrase (36).

Kelly provides a welcome focus on some actors who have received less attention than they deserve, including the World Council of Churches.  In his discussion of Brazil after 1968 he builds on the pioneering work of James N. Green.2 He adds more on the role of the Catholic Church.  As others have noted, the highest levels of the hierarchy criticized the Brazilian government’s economic as well as its human rights policies.  (And it had the support of the Vatican for a time, as demonstrated by the promotion of Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns from Cardinal to Archbishop in 1970, 44-45).  He focuses on the emphasis during this time period on a particular human right, the right to have one’s body not subjected to torture.

Kelly correctly argues that many on the left during the 1960s and early 1970s had dismissed what they considered to be bourgeois notions of rights and liberties.  Certainly many of those whom he discusses were more interested in what they saw as the achievement of social rights in Fidel Castro’s Cuba at the expense of some of the other human rights being promoted at this time.3 Moreover, the evidence Kelly provides suggests that it was the “bourgeoisie” in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, who were most likely to be saved through anti-torture campaigns (please add one page citation for “bourgeoisie” (12, 57, 93).

Kelly agrees with Daniel Sargent and others who see human rights as developing in an increasingly inter-dependent world.4 One wonders if this is what distinguishes the response to the coup in 1973 in Chile as opposed to the coups in Guatemala in 1954 and Brazil in 1964. In the United States, at least, the response was markedly different, but was this less true in the rest of the Americas?5

If anything, Kelly understates the success that President Salvador Allende had in the international arena even beyond the social democratic left who claimed him as one of their own.  I don’t think that the book quite gets to the heart of why Chile mattered, in comparison to other countries where more people lost their lives. I am convinced that it was, to a large degree, an appreciation of Chilean ‘exceptionalism’ generally, and not just of Allende’s attempt to create a peaceful path to socialism.  His discussion of solidarity activities by British labor and British Labour enlarges our perspective.

The transition in military government tactics from torture in Brazil and Chile to disappearances in Argentina complicated the human rights activists’ efforts, but by the late 1970s, a critical mass of sympathizers were able to get both the Organization of American States and the United Nations to act. And the Carter administration, for all of its inconsistencies, helped encourage both organizations to do more, and played a role in convincing the Argentine government to accept an investigation by the Inter-American Association on Human Rights.

The left was reacting.  Revolution had failed.  Military governments were trying to de-politicize their countries through an elastic definition of ‘subversion’ and the need to eliminate ‘subversives.’ Bodies and lives had to be saved.  While this may represent a narrowing of vision on the part of these activists, it is hard to see what the alternative was.

I think that Kelly could have done more to distinguish between Latin American agency and Latin America as a subject in other people’s human rights discourses.  At least one of the reasons that Latin America mattered was because it was part of ‘the West.’ And yet it was not only those on the right who wondered whether ‘Catholic America’ belonged to that club.  But it was primarily those on the right (at least in the United States) who, rather ironically, argued for a kind of cultural relativism which suggested that one could not expect different behavior from Iberian America.

But I still sometimes wonder what it is we are talking about here, and whether we are missing the point.  In all three cases Kelly discusses, the military regimes survived the glory days of the human rights era.6 The dictatorships, nevertheless, were right to recognize that the threat to their sovereignty was real as well as novel.  Latin Americans for generations had opposed ‘external intervention.’ Promises of non-intervention, embraced during the Good Neighbor Policy, and still clung to, gave pause to those sympathetic to human rights like Senator Frank Church, D-ID, in its earliest iterations for that reason.  On some levels, these governments were losers in the court of international opinion.

But the threat was also limited.  These were the years of the ‘Brazilian miracle.’ The ‘years of lead’ were peak torture years, to be sure, but were also one of Brazil’s periods of impressive economic growth, and Brazil was the favorite Latin American country of President Richard Nixon’s and National Security Advisor/Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The standing of Chile under President Augusto Pinochet in the international financial community rose more generally as he embraced neoliberalism avant la lettre; Chile too was a ‘winner.’ The Argentine Dirty Warriors had achieved order, but little in the way of economic success, though it might be said that their timing was not good.  We still need to understand how activism and power interacted.  Did international activism surrounding Chile actually help Augusto Pinochet consolidate his power internally, for example, as John Bawden has provocatively suggested?7

On the other hand, human rights created an uneasy alliance between liberals and those significantly to their left in many places in the 1970s and 1980s, and this topic needs some careful examination by other scholars as well.

The historiography of human rights, it seems, gets richer with each passing month.  Kelly’s book has made a major contribution to that growing literature, and he provides a model for how this work should be done.  But I think we have to ask ourselves whether we are we talking about a transformation of mentalities on a large scale, shifting understandings of Latin America’s place in the world, or a change in defensive strategies which was, for a time, more lasting, and which became part of more proactive and even belligerent strategies, but which could not endure?

Human rights activism did not bring down governments, but may have changed their behavior to some degree. Certainly, human rights activists and pressures from the international community helped free some people and saved some lives, and, indeed, saving any lives at all would have to be viewed as a significant achievement.

For the historical record: I wish that I had signed that petition.


Andrew J. Kirkendall is a professor of history at Texas A&M University.  His latest book is Paulo Freire and the Cold War Politics of Literacy (2010).  He is completing a book on the Kennedy brothers, liberal Democrats, and Cold War Latin America.



1 An exception is Sarah B. Snyder, From Selma to Moscow: How Human Rights Transformed US Foreign Policy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).

2 James N Green, We Cannot Remain Silent: Opposition to the Brazilian Military Dictatorship in the United States (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

3 For a sweeping discussion of the previously largely unexamined history of “social rights,” see Samuel Moyn, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018).  Moyn does not discuss Castro’s Cuba, the focus of Latin American revolutionary imaginations during this era.

4 Daniel J. Sargent, A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 165-175 and 198-209.

5 See, for example, Mark T. Hove, “The Arbenz Factor: Salvador Allende, US-Chilean Relations, and the 1954 US Intervention in Guatemala,” Diplomatic History 31:4 (September 2007): 623-663.

6 Tulio Halperin Donghi, The Contemporary History of Latin America.  Edited and Translated by John Charles Chasteen (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 342.

7 John R. Bawden, “Cutting Off the Dictator: The United States Arms Embargo of the Pinochet Regime, 1974-1988,” Journal of Latin American Studies 45:3 (August 2013): 542.