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  • Cited by 6
  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: September 2010

21 - The Cold War and human rights


Neither the course nor the ending of the Cold War can be understood without some reference to the impact that human rights ideas had on East–West rivalries. Whereas Communist governments regarded civil and political rights as bourgeois trappings, stating a preference instead for the collective rights appropriate to the social and economic goals they propounded, Western liberal capitalist governments gave priority precisely to those rights that the Soviet bloc derided. These divisions in interpretation were crucial because of the way they related to the broader contest. They were ’not mere preferences which outsiders could take or leave’, but were powerful emblems of success on the ideological battleground. The gaining of adherents to one interpretation over another signalled victory for one and defeat for the other – outcomes that, in turn, could strengthen or undermine the domestic legitimacy of their competing political systems.

This particular aspect of the Cold War struggle had both positive and negative results for the promotion and protection of human rights. Rhetorical arguments about the priorities to be given to certain values helped to sustain attention to the human rights idea, even as actual behaviour could prove devastating for human rights protections. Similarly, some of the seeds of the ending of the Cold War germinated as a result of the disillusion of those who experienced the double standards and the failures to promote the conditions under which those protections could advance.