Snyder on Peterson, 'Globalizing Human Rights: Private Citizens, the Soviet Union, and the West'

Christian Peterson
Sarah Snyder

Christian Peterson. Globalizing Human Rights: Private Citizens, the Soviet Union, and the West. Routledge Studies on History and Globalization Series. New York: Routledge, 2011. 294 pp. $125.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-415-88511-9.

Reviewed by Sarah Snyder (Department of History, University College London) Published on H-Human-Rights (February, 2012) Commissioned by Rebecca K. Root

Christian Peterson’s Globalizing Human Rights contends that human rights activism in the wake of the Helsinki Final Act helped put human rights onto the international diplomatic agenda. His book is a useful addition to the rising number of accounts arguing for the influence of human rights activists at the end of the Cold War. In addition, Peterson’s work contributes to the growing body of literature demonstrating the influence of nongovernmental organizations on U.S. foreign policy. Globalizing Human Rights is an ambitious work that only partially achieves its aims.

In alternating chapters, Peterson examines human rights activism in the 1970s and 1980s from the Soviet and U.S. perspectives. Peterson highlights the important role that the Carter administration played in transforming the U.S. role in the Helsinki process. In addition, he examines the influence of the Carter administration’s approach to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) on Western European governments, locating their transition to a more confrontational CSCE strategy before the Madrid CSCE review meeting in the early 1980s, earlier than other accounts have suggested. Peterson provocatively suggests that President Jimmy Carter’s characterization, in his inaugural address, of the U.S. commitment to human rights as “absolute” was “unfortunate” and unnecessary, implying Carter may have crippled his human rights policy with the intransigence of his inaugural rhetoric (p. 45).

Peterson rightly emphasizes that Soviet dissent and the success of Soviet dissidents in gaining international attention for their cause predated the establishment of Helsinki monitoring groups, but he goes further than other observers, such as Ludmilla Alexeyeva, by arguing that Soviet dissent was unified in the late 1960s by the Chronicle of Current Events, a self-published newsletter that catalogued Soviet human rights violations, rather than the Helsinki Final Act.[1]  Alexeyeva is nearly absent from Peterson’s account, which is surprising given that she was at the center of anti-Soviet human rights activism in the United States as the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group’s representative in the West throughout most of the years of his study.

He adopts a wide lens to examine the Western support of Eastern European human rights activism. Despite repeatedly asserting the influence of the “Helsinki process,” Peterson does not focus on the periodic CSCE negotiations in any great detail. His conception of the Helsinki process is much broader, perhaps independent of the meetings that spawned it. For example, although the Vienna CSCE review meeting (1986-89) was an essential turning point in East-West relations regarding human rights, Peterson offers almost no discussion of what diplomats discussed during the fifteen months of negotiations.

Peterson’s work highlights the essential role of Mikhail Gorbachev in reforming the Soviet Union, arguing that “Carter and [Ronald] Reagan could not have done much more to promote human rights in the USSR” before he came to power (p. 11). Similarly, he points out that Gorbachev undertook reform because he had become convinced that human rights reforms were necessary for progress in his relationships with Western leaders, including Reagan. Peterson’s explanation of the extent to which Gorbachev’s ideas about human rights may have undergone a “transformation” warrants further clarification. Was it true personal conversion, effective Western linkage, or some combination of both that motivated Gorbachev’s reforms?

The book is based on considerable secondary sources, extensive memoir literature, and U.S. government documents, primarily from the Carter and Reagan presidential libraries, as well as relevant collections from the National Security Archive. In his introduction, Peterson asserts that he wants to move away from a “narrow” “state-centric” examination (p. 2). But his underutilization of records produced by nonstate actors complicates this effort, leading to one of the principal weaknesses of his book--the lack of agency of human rights activists. His study would have benefited particularly from the extensive records of Helsinki Watch available at Columbia University. In addition, the establishment and influence of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe warrants more attention given its central role in illuminating human rights violations in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) similarly merits greater analysis given its influence on human rights activism and Soviet reforms in the 1980s. One important exception is Peterson’s discussion of the Belgian nongovernmental organization Helsinki Agreements Implementation Group (HAIG). Given that sufficient attention has yet to be devoted to Western European monitoring groups, I wish Peterson had explored HAIG and its attempts to influence the Soviet and U.S. governments at greater length. 

As his title makes clear, one of Peterson’s central contentions is that human rights became “globalized” in these years, but his repeated assertions are not supported by evidence of the East-West process that is the focus of his study and larger, global trends.[2] It is true that human rights became subject to greater international attention, but Peterson does not address human rights outside of an East-West context. More explicit links with activism in the global South in these years would have bridged a lingering geographic gap in scholarship on human rights in the 1970s and 1980s.

Peterson concludes by discussing the “inability of Soviet officials to repudiate past [human rights] traditions” and their failure to “pass or institutionalize the basic laws necessary” to alter fundamentally the relationship between state and society at the end of the Cold War, an insight that is particularly relevant at a time of growing unrest in Russia (p. 180). For this and other reasons, Peterson’s book will be of interest to scholars of human rights and the Cold War. 


[1]. Ludmilla Alexeyeva, Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious, and Human Rights (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1985), 345.

[2]. Daniel Sargent’s recent dissertation has asserted these connections more convincingly. Daniel Sargent, “From Internationalism to Globalism: The United States and the Transformation of International Politics in the 1970s” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 2008).

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Citation: Sarah Snyder. Review of Peterson, Christian, Globalizing Human Rights: Private Citizens, the Soviet Union, and the West. H-Human-Rights, H-Net Reviews. February, 2012. URL:

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