The childhood of human rights

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Journal of Visual Culture

The Childhood of Human Rights: The Kodak on the Congo
Sharon Sliwinski Journal of Visual Culture 2006 5: 333 DOI: 10.1177/1470412906070514 The online version of this article can be found at:

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journal of visual culture

The Childhood of Human Rights: The Kodak on the Congo Sharon Sliwinski

This article examines the Congo reform movement’s use of atrocity photographs in their human rights campaign (c. 1904–13) against Belgian King Leopold, colonial ruler of the Congo Free State. This material analysis shows that human rights are conceived byspectators who, with the aid of the photographic apparatus, are compelled to judge that crimes against humanity are occurring to others. The article also tracks how this judgement has been haunted by the potent wish to undo the suffering witnessed.

atrocity Congo crimes against humanity phantasmagoria photography
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human rights

The history of the Victorian Agewill never be written: we know too much about it. (Lytton Strachey, 1986[1918]: 9)

Forgotten Origins
Hannah Arendt (1994[1965]) was mistaken to think that crimes against humanity were crimes that only appeared when the Nazi regime attempted to exterminate the Jewish people in the middle of the 20th century (p. 268). The mistake does not, however, undo her insight about the importance of theconcept. As she rightly argued, such crimes are an ‘attack upon human diversity as such, that is, upon a characteristic of the “human status” without which the very words “mankind” or “humanity” would be devoid of meaning’ (pp. 268–9). This concept makes visible, in other words, the fact
journal of visual culture [] Copyright © 2006 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CAand New Delhi) Vol 5(3): 333–363 [1470-4129(200612)5:3]10.1177/1470412906070514

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journal of visual culture 5(3)

that people must be actively recognized as human to enjoy the benefits associated with such a title. Although human rights appear to establish and operate from the abstract moral category of thehuman, in practical terms, such a category simply does not exist. As a matter of fact, George Washington Williams, a Black American, historian journalist, minister, and lawyer, first conceived of ‘crimes against humanity’ in 1890, some 50 years before Auschwitz (Williams, 1966[1890a]: 449).1 The charge was leveled against King Leopold II of Belgium and it referred to atrocities occurring in hispersonal colony, the Congo Free State. In 1906, E.D. Morel echoed the accusation in his book Red Rubber (1969[1906]) where he alludes to ‘a crime unparalleled in the annals of the world’ (p. xxviii). And in his unfinished and posthumously published, History of the Congo Reform Movement (1968), Morel expressly names ‘a great crime against humanity’ (p. 167). The crimes these authors describe would havebeen familiar to Arendt: the unlawful seizure of land and property, forced labour, horrific torture, and systemic murder. But some of the atrocities were unique to the Congo: the widespread use of a hippo-skin whip called a chicotte, the open buying and selling of ox-chained slaves, and the methodical severing of hands. Due to a steady trickle of reports at the turn of the last century,...
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