Universiteit Leiden

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CfP 'Calendar Propaganda' of Human Rights? Historical Perspectives on the United Nations’ Global Observances

Conference to be held at Leiden University, The Hague Campus, 14-16 June, 2017. Keynote speakers: Professor Thomas G. Weiss (The Graduate Center, CUNY), Professor Marie-Benedicte Dembour (University of Brighton), Dr. Steven L. B. Jensen (The Danish Institute for Human Rights).

What does the UN seek to achieve though global observance days, weeks and years and how have these initiatives impacted the role of the organization in forwarding the agenda of human rights? This conference seeks to determine what the UN has sought to accomplish through observances, how do these initiatives bring stakeholders together and are they successful in establishing benchmarks and stimulating global agendas on a range of rights and development issues.

Since 1959, starting with the World Refugee Year, the United Nations have observed international days, weeks, years and decades which have been dedicated to a variety of causes. Among them have been women, disabled people, anti-apartheid, drinking water and more recently the Kyrgyz statehood, the gorilla, microcredit and quinoa. Typically, these events have sought to promote awareness of and encourage (inter)national action on fundamental issues related to human rights, social justice, cultural heritage and environmental problems. In addition to the UN itself, its specialized agencies, such as UNICEF, UNESCO, WHO, ILO and UNHCR were also involved in the activities. Numerous NGOs, churches, multinational corporations and a myriad of international organizations, interest groups, celebrities and activists made a contribution. Moreover, member states were also expected to become engaged, and they often formed national and regional committees for that purpose. Over time these observances have become an integral part of the UN’s institutional identity, a pillar of its advocacy of human rights and an indication of how the organization tries to connect the role of the various stakeholders with public opinion.

Despite their pivotal role in conveying UN’s mission, the dynamics and impact international days, weeks, years and decades have not been subject of a more comprehensive historical study. The conference seeks to embrace the multifarious potentials that a longue durée study of this subject can offer. For one thing, the observances provide a useful new lens through which to (critically) revisit the UN’s major agendas and dilemmas, interactions with various international bodies and member states, its successes and failures, be they for example peacekeeping, combating discrimination or the eradication of poverty. How did these days, weeks, years and decades contribute (or not) to internationalizing and propagating the UN’s agenda? Did the accompanying non-binding resolutions instigate the development of new paradigms/agendas or did they merely create unrealistic expectations?

The study of UN’s observances has the potential to contribute to a variety of fields of historical enquiry, including the history of human rights, the evolution of internationalisms and intellectual history. We encourage submissions from scholars in these areas addressing questions such as:

  • What has been the impact of alternative political and social rights claims on our contemporary understanding of individual human rights?
  • What do these agreements on observances reflect about developments and ideological confrontations during the Cold War, the evolution of decolonization, the emergence of new social movements, the financial crisis in the 1970s and the rise of neoliberalism?
  • How were the different political and ideological international and transnational groupings represented in these activities? Did observances confirm ideological divides or did they succeed in promoting solidarity?
  • In what ways was the Global South involved and how did the humanitarian and development agendas of the observances shape the ‘politics of vulnerable lives’?
  • What shifts can be observed in the uses of concepts like dignity, inequality, solidarity and civil society and what kind of ‘politics of time’ was implicated in the ‘year after year, day after day’ patterns? In a more general sense, how were the observances informed by notions of global time, coevalness and development?

Submission of abstracts

Applications are invited from scholars at any stage of their careers representing diverse disciplinary backgrounds and various geographical regions. Please send an abstract of around 500 words and a short CV  to the following email address: rethinkingdisability@hum.leidenuniv.nl by 5 February, 2017. Questions to the organizers can be sent using the same address. Authors will be notified regarding the acceptance of their contribution by 28 February. Invited participants will be expected to submit a short draft version of their paper two weeks prior to the event, which will be circulated among all other participants. We aim to publish the revised versions of a selection of these papers in an edited volume.

Other practicalities

Selected participants will be provided with catering, including the conference dinner, but will be expected to cover their travel and accommodation expenses. However, some funds can be made available on a competitive basis to contribute to the travel and accommodation expenses of a certain number of speakers, an opportunity particularly intended for junior scholars and for those without research funds from their own institutions. Please indicate when submitting the abstract if you would like to be considered for subsidy. Submissions from applicants with special needs (e.g. disabled access, childcare) are welcome and the organizers will do their best to accommodate such requests.


The workshop is initiated and hosted by the research team of the ERC project Rethinking Disability: the Global Impact of the International Year of Disabled Persons (1981) in Historical Perspective, based in the Institute for History at Leiden University.

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