Open Conference Systems, NorLit 2011

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Early Globalization and Human Rights
Karen-Margrethe Simonsen

Last modified: 2011-08-03


The discourse of law differs from the discourse of literature in many ways but the two discourses share an equally big interest in the meaning of words and the codes that rule our life. In some especially dramatic historical situations this common interest becomes clearer. The conquest of America is just such a dramatic event.

The paper discusses discourses on human rights in Spain in 15th and 16th Centuries after the discovery and conquest of the New World. It argues that the understanding of the historical dynamics of this early rights talk is essential for the understanding of human rights today and that human rights cannot be understood independently of the historical and political context of their development. Thus the paper thus discusses human rights as a vacillating discourse that can serve both a constructive purpose of protecting people and a more ambiguous purpose of legitimizing power.

The paper is inspired by the recent discussions of the function of human rights in relation to the building of nations or empires (See for instance Costas Douzinas Human Rights and Empire, 2007, Ulrich Beck and Edgar Grande Cosmopolitan Europe 2007, and Etienne Balibar (We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship, 2004). But it will take its point of departure in writings by Bartolomé de las Casas and the ‘trial’ set up by King Charles V in 1542 in Valladolid, where Las Casas and his opponent Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda presented their views on the nature of Indians, their rights and the authority and legitimization of the Spanish conquest, violence and domination in the New World. In the presentations in court, legal argumentation was mixed with religious, philosophical, anthropological, and literary vocabulary.

Out of this uneven discourse and in a dramatic conflictual meeting in which the church and the king were involved on every level, modern ideas on human rights developed and gained a certain institutional standing, but they did so both for idealistic and strategic reasons. The paper discusses the double function of the discourse of human rights in the historical context and the genreblending of law and literature which is so preeminent in the Spanish context. In the paper, writings by contemporary literary writers like Lope de Vega (1562-1635) Luis de Góngora (1561-1627) and Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681) will be drawn in, primarily to shed some light on different conceptions of personal rights, authority and sovereignty.

Full Text: Paper NorLit 2011