Another response to Jan Eckel

In his impressive review article, Jan Eckel develops a detailed survey of the interaction between human rights and decolonization. Most of all, he argues that the place of human rights in decolonization was both more complex and more ambiguous than has been suggested in the works under review, both my own and Fabian Klose’s German-language monograph. While I think Eckel understates the recognition of complexity and ambiguity already evident in the current literature, his general warning against a simplistic embrace (or rejection) of human rights in decolonization is most important. Beyond this, his notes of caution against triumphalist grand narratives, and the presumption of progress and incremental achievement, are of general application to the entire field of human rights history. As my book makes clear in its chapter on Tehran, the legacy of decolonization and human rights is often worth studying because it was, in places, so deeply negative.

In my post, I wish to pursue one of the central problems Eckel engages with, that of the “instrumentalization” of rights language to further the anti-colonial agenda. Eckel’s essay argues that much of the use of human rights language was instrumental, with the emerging lexicon of universal human rights mobilized to advance and legitimize another set of political causes. This is almost certainly accurate for the majority of the anti-colonial movement, just as it was for the Soviet Union and the many of the Western democracies. What is striking is not so much the marshalling of rights to advance a particular political program, but the way in which the agenda shifts from the first phases of anti-colonialism in the 1940s and 1950s to the more radical “Third Worldism” of the 1960s. The early nationalist invocations of human rights were part of an anti-colonialism that held strands that emphasized ideas of representative government, social development, racial equality, and a variety of other liberal freedoms. In short, the anti-colonial agenda of the early period had very significant affinity with universal human rights. It surely was pursuing a different campaign from “pure” human rights advocacy, with the distinct aim self-determination at its core. Yet self-determination and rights were quite closely allied concepts in the early 1950s, even if their later evolution revealed that this was far from a permanent arrangement.

In the 1950s, at least for some, it was not all about sovereignty for the sake of sovereignty. Although it was expedient to use human rights to advance the anti-colonial agenda, this rhetoric was not glaringly and openly out of step with the aims that animated many of those in the decade immediately after 1945. Demanding universal application of the nascent human rights norms, recognition of racial equality, and the pursuit of self-determination all made sense in both instrumental and ideological terms. This liberal anti-colonialism was no less political than the West or the Soviet bloc in its use of human rights; but for a period, its politics were reasonably compatible with ideas central to human rights. The moment was perhaps fleeting, but it was there. The appalling events of the 1970s do not explain or diminish the 1950s.

It is in the later period, most dramatically in the second half of the 1960s, that the relationship changed. The politics of the anti-colonial movement become much more authoritarian, and the way human rights were instrumentalized was accordingly narrowed. By the close of the decade, at the 1968 Tehran Conference, the Third World program had become a mixture of the absurd and the obscene. Self-determination was reduced to the receipt of statehood and perpetual non-intervention thereafter. Apartheid and European racism consumed debate after debate, adjourned for attacks on Israel and Portugal. New procedures, notably the study of individual petitions, were only allowed in an effort to enhance the arsenal against these specially favoured abuses. These were not, as Eckel properly observes, in any way triumphs or achievements, but they remain striking developments. The intention behind many of them was grossly selective, the early consequences were slight, and the hypocrisy was unmistakable. But even the worst hypocrites can induce changes that are worth investigating—and the effects of the anti-colonial onslaught on racial discrimination, and the apartheid system, were sharp departures from what had come before. The procedures that evolved from them remained, for the most part, ineffectual, but it is worth looking at how and why the milieu of the late 1960s, dominated by narrow instrumentalism, did witness a serious rupture in the precedents that had existed since the foundation of the United Nations.

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About Roland Burke

is a lecturer in history at La Trobe University. His principal area of research is the history of human rights. He is the author of Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights(Pennsylvania, 2010), and was the recipient of the Crawford Medal (2010) for early career scholarship from the Australian Academy of the Humanities. At present, he is completing a manuscript on the intellectual history of arguments against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, provisionally entitled Human Rights in Eclipse.


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