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This blog post is the second in a series of four in which I aim to disentangle some of the underlying assumptions of contemporary concepts and approaches that can be employed for justifying or engaging with the international human rights law framework.

In an earlier post on this blog Paul van Trigt pointed to the frequent neglect of viewing human rights in their larger historical context. This is not only true for historians but, arguably, even more so for human rights lawyers.

Iek! Ik kan een kreetje niet onderdrukken wanneer het me overkomt, vaak na dagen vruchteloos ploeteren. Senioren die hun familiestamboom zitten uit te pluizen kijken licht geërgerd op. In archieven wordt doorgaans gezwegen. Frivole uitroepen van arbeidsvreugde zijn ze er niet gewend. Een historisch vondstje brengt me nu eenmaal een kinderlijk gevoel van bevrediging.

Today “the world faces the largest humanitarian crisis since the end of the second world war”, the UN under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs recently declared. This statement shows that humanitarianism is very much alive today, but that it apparently also has a history. But why am I writing about that on a blog related to the history of disability?

In the summer of 1981, fifteen disabled Greenlanders went aboard the MS Disko, travelling along the rugged coastline of West Greenland to the abandoned village of Illorpaat about 425km north of the polar circle. Their destination was the annual aasivik, originally an Inuit summer gathering on plentiful hunting grounds. Since 1976, the tradition had been resurrected as a music festival and discussion forum for political, social and cultural issues closely linked to Greenlandic identity and independence.

In a recent debate about human rights historiography Lynn Hunt points to the presumption of leading scholars in the field that ‘the history of human rights must be first and foremost a political history in the most old-fashioned sense, that is, a history of diplomacy (covenants) and warfare (interventions).’ Therefore she emphasizes the relevance of the writing of ‘a social history of internationalism that is attentive to the role of women and non-Westerners’.

The hallways of the Leuven provincial house are more lively than usual after dark. Scattered groups of people, most of them rather youthful, only a handful of them visibly disabled, are trying to find their way to the auditorium where one of the screenings of the 2017 edition of the Leuven Disability Film Festival, with the theme Bodies and Minds, will soon begin.

Film festivals are a core site of disability culture labor’, Petra Kuppers posits in her 2014 publication Studying Disability Arts and Culture. The disability culture activist, performance artist and professor at the University of Michigan goes on to point out that the increased accessibility of recording devices has made it easier than ever before for minority groups to take representation into their own hands.

In an era in which prenatal screening has made it possible to detect and prevent genetic and chromosomal diseases, disabilities such as Down syndrome are becoming increasingly rare. And as their number dwindles, some fear that a significant component of our social diversity will disappear with them.

Little Henrik, about six years old, sits in his wheelchair with bracers around the spastic arms to prevent them from contracting, so that the muscles don’t become too short. ‘He is a pretty boy, but ‘empty’, they say. But his eyes aren’t empty.