Local rights and wrongs

NOV social origins rightsThe Social Origins of Human Rights: Protesting Political Violence in Colombia’s Oil Capital, 1919–2010
Luis Van Isschot
2015, University of Wisconsin Press
298 pages, paperback

ATTENTION to human rights within Latin America, which became such a prominent aspect of political transitions in the 1980s and 90s, historically is associated with the international NGOs that parachuted in from North America and Europe. However, as Luis Van Isschot argues plausibly using the example of Barrancabermeja in Colombia, this is only part of the story, and human rights activism can emerge organically and locally out of a history of civil and social organising. The focus of this groundbreaking study is this oil city, which was a key battleground in Colombia’s protracted and dirty civil war. Activists of any kind were sitting targets for the paramilitaries on right and left. Van Isschot traces a long history of rural and urban activism in which small local groups came together to call upon the state to protect basic human rights and to denounce the deeper inequalities that gave rise to violence. This is important, because in many ways the language of rights displaced the discourses of the left that were such important aspects of popular political culture in the late twentieth century. If human rights movements in the latter half of the twentieth century are seen as iterations of past struggles, as the author writes: “These struggles are at once radical and reformist. This allows us to read human rights from the activists’ pointof view, as a paradigm of social protest and a field of politics. Human rights are not necessarily whatever we want them to be, but definitions are contingent on time and place.” [pp. 207–08] – GO’T