How do human rights actually come about? International resolutions and treaties, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are important, but they hardly suffice. Even towering figures like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nelson Mandela, as important as they are, do not suffice. We need determined activists, but they never act alone; they are always tied to larger popular movements. Sometimes their stories fade from popular memory, others are barely known beyond their home countries. Their successes greatly advanced human rights; their failures led to the deepest tragedies.
Consider Ralph Bunche, Bertha Lutz, and Louis Rwagasore. Bunche, a veteran of the American civil rights movement, became a high-level United Nations official. In that capacity, he fostered peace, decolonization, and human rights. For leading the negotiations that led to a cease-fire of the first Arab-Israeli War, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1951. At the UN he forged a tight-knit group of highly capable international civil servants who tried to steer newly-independent colonized countries toward development and human rights. Quite ill in 1965, he nonetheless walked arm-in-arm with Dr. King at the famed Selma March, a dramatic moment in the American civil rights movement. Although his likeness adorns a United States-issued stamp and a building is named for him at his alma mater, the University of California at Los Angeles, few Americans today would be able to identify him.
Lutz, like Bunche, was present at the founding conference of the UN in spring 1945 at San Francisco. As a representative from Brazil, she was one of four women who signed the UN Charter. She had behind her decades of activism in support of women’s rights while she also pursued a scientific career. Just as Bunche spearheaded the inclusion of decolonization in the mission of the UN, so Lutz led the drive to include the equality of women as a founding principle of the organization. The phrase in the preamble to the Charter that commits the UN to women’s rights, to “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small,” is a result of the pressure she exerted on the negotiations at San Francisco.
The story of the third individual is more tragic. Prince Louis Rwagasore of Burundi was the eldest son of the Burundian king (mwami). As Burundi and its sister-state Rwanda veered uneasily toward independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Rwagasore was the sole leading political figure who advocated unity among Hutus and Tutsis. He led the National Unity and Progress Party (Uprona), which won the first open election in Burundi in 1961. “Never will we say to the people elect this Tutsi because he is Tutsi, or elect this Hutu because he is Hutu!” declaimed Rwagasore. He called for the emancipation of the masses, a mass that is “neither Tutsi nor Hutu: it is Burundian [murundi].” He envisaged an economy based in cooperatives, which, he argued, would promote development in a humane, equitable, and just fashion. Rwagasore called for an East African federation with a common market based in socialist rather than capitalist production.
On the basis of Uprona’s sweeping electoral victory in September 1961, Rwagasore became Burundi’s prime minister-designate under a constitutional monarchy. He began moving the country toward independence. Three weeks later, on 13 October 1961, he was assassinated. A Greek national working for the rival Christian Democratic Party pulled the trigger. There is little doubt that Belgian officials collaborated in and perhaps ordered the killing.
The assassination of Prince Rwagasore was a huge blow. He strove to protect Burundi from the descent into racial violence that already marked Rwanda. Moreover, he advocated a real social revolution based in ethnic collaboration. And that was precisely the problem. Serious social reform or revolution, unity rather than racial division — neither the radical Hutu party in Rwanda nor the Belgians nor the American Central Intelligence Agency could countenance such policies. So Rwagasore was killed. His Uprona party remained in power, but without the much-beloved Prince in the leadership, it lacked the ability to move the country forward in a democratic manner. One of Rwagasore’s Uprona successors, the Hutu Pierre Ngendandumwe, tried. He began a second term as prime minister in early 1965. Then he too was assassinated, probably again with the complicity of Belgium. From that point began the racialization of politics in Burundi, including the evolution of Uprona into an authoritarian, Tutsi-exclusive party and the succession of civil strife, massive refugee streams, wars, ethnic conflicts, and genocides in Burundi in 1972 and Rwanda in 1974.
All three figures operated at multiple levels. Each was a highly skilled diplomat able to move in the corridors of power. But each also retained close ties to popular organizations like the civil rights-oriented Southern Christian Leadership Conference or the Liga para a Emancipação Intelectual da Mulher (League for the Intellectual Emancipation of Woman), the organization founded by Lutz in 1919. Bunche early in his life had some ties to communism, not all that extraordinary for an African American activist in the 1930s. Rwagasore forged a vibrant, multiethnic political party, but one that could not survive his death.
Bunche and Lutz helped forge our modern understanding of human rights as truly universal, including people of formerly colonized countries and women. Rwagasore’s life was cut short by assassination. Could the history of Rwanda and Burundi been different? Only if had lived and Uprona had been able to extend its influence into Rwanda and the one state had joined an East African community with a more leftist political orientation. That human rights vision was sacrificed on the altar of the Cold War and domestic racial politics. The humanitarian disasters that ensued have been staggering.
Eric D. Weitz is Distinguished Professor of History at City College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He is the author of A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States, A Century of Genocide, and Creating German Communism, 1890–1990 (all Princeton).