In the mid-1980s, the Eastern Bloc faced increased pressure on the issue of human rights from western governments, ngos, and indigenous dissident. Although the Socialist Bloc had claimed to represent the ideals of human rights throughout the Cold War, by 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev called on the leaders of the Eastern Bloc to work together on a coordinated response to this threat and in response East Germany proposed the creation of an international declaration based on the principles of socialist—rather than bourgeois—human rights. Within a few years, however, the project collapsed in ignominious failure as it provided a vehicle for reformers to challenge the status quo in the name of human rights by demanding greater democratization. Although the project was originally devised to refute the human rights claims of the West, it instead acted to spur on the intellectual collapse of the Eastern Bloc’s ideological unity at its time of greatest crisis.
When the United Nations proclaimed 1968 to be the International Year of Human Rights, the official goal was to promote the adoption of the recently created human rights Covenants around the world. Instead of compelling the Eastern Bloc to accept liberal democratic conceptions of rights, however, it acted as a catalyst for the genesis of state socialist conceptions of human rights. Eastern Bloc elites claimed these rights were superior to those in the West, which they argued was beset by imperialism and racism. Although some within Eastern Europe used the Year as an opportunity to challenge state socialist regimes from within, the UN commemoration gave socialist elites a new language to legitimize the status quo in Eastern Europe and to call for radical anti-imperialism abroad. While dissent in the name of human rights in 1968 was limited, the state socialist embrace of human rights politics provided a crucial step towards the Helsinki Accords of 1975 and the subsequent rise of human rights activism behind the Iron Curtain.
This article examines how the German Democratic Republic (GDR) engaged with the problem of international anti-narcotics law and how it came to embrace the global drug war. The international anti-narcotics system provided a means of signalling the GDR’s normalcy to the international community and allowed East Germany to highlight its absence of drug abuse at home as a demonstration of socialism’s superiority in comparison with the narcotics abuse crisis of the capitalist world. By the 1980s, however, the GDR’s support for the international prohibition of drug trafficking shifted from one of competition with the West to that of collaboration. Through cooperation between international experts from both East and West, GDR elites abandoned earlier concerns about state sovereignty to endorse the global harmonization of drug laws as part of the 1988 Vienna Narcotics Convention.
In recent years, the study of human rights history has expanded beyond Western-centered narratives, though the role of Eastern European state socialism and socialists in the evolution of human rights concepts and politics has not received sufficient attention. This introductory essay synthesizes recent research of the role of Eastern Bloc socialist states in shaping the emergence of the post-war human rights system and the implications of this new research for the history of the Cold War, dissent as well as the collapse of state socialism in 1989/91. Ultimately, state socialist actors were not merely human rights antagonists, but contributed to shaping the international arena and human rights politics, motivated both strategically as well as ideologically. And the Eastern Bloc was not merely a region that passively absorbed the idea of human rights from the West, but a site where human rights ideas where articulated, internationalized and also contested.
This introductory essay provides an overview of the scholarship on state socialist engagements with international criminal and humanitarian law, arguing for a closer scrutiny of the socialist world’s role in shaping these fields of law. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the historiography on post-1945 international law-making has been generally dominated by a post-1989 sense of Western triumphalism over socialism, where the Soviet Union and its allies have been presented as obstructionists of liberal progress. A wave of neo-Marxist scholarship has more recently sought to recover socialist legal contributions to international law, without however fully addressing them in the context of Cold War political conflict and of gross human rights violations committed within the Socialist Bloc. In contrast, this collection provides a balanced understanding of the socialist engagements with international criminal and humanitarian law, looking at the realpolitik agendas of state socialist countries while acknowledging their progressive contributions to the post-war international legal order.