Response to Jan Eckel

In his review essay “Human Rights and Decolonization: New Perspectives and Open Questions,” Jan Eckel raises many important questions concerning this important topic which only recently has received much attention yet will stay on the research agenda for quite a while. His notion that the history of human rights in decolonization is complex and ambiguous is well taken and hardly contested. I explicitly agree with Eckel’s interpretation that African and Asian anti-colonial leaders used human rights rhetoric as a political weapon to mobilize international public opinion instead of referring to them as ideals for their future political aims (p. 113). Human rights documents did not prevent them as authoritarian leaders in postcolonial states from violating elementary rights themselves. For instance, during the Algerian war the United Nations Human Rights Commission received mass petitions asking for the liberation of Ahmed Ben Bella as a political prisoner of the French colonial state; a few years later the Commission again received petitions for the release of Ben Bella, but this time from the imprisonment by the Algerian military dictatorship. Eckel also describes convincingly the UN as the most important forum for anti-colonial activists to brand colonialism as a violation of the newly founded human rights regime (I would add, not only sporadically, but regularly).

However, in stating that the analysis of colonial violence and the attempts by the British (and French) to legitimize it are not related to human rights history (p. 112), as I in fact argue in my book, is a fairly narrow-minded perspective on how to write the history of human rights. As I argue, the evolution of international human rights and the radicalization of colonial violence in the wars of decolonization after 1945 were intimately connected with each other in the making of a human rights regime. Thus, for example, the scope of human rights is not only limited to the Universal Declaration of 1948, but extended to the protection of elementary rights in times of armed conflict by the renewed international humanitarian law (to which Eckel does unfortunately not refer at all). The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and various documents of the International Committee of the Red Cross are essential parts of the analysis and of the international human rights regime.

But most of all, one should not forget that the human rights regime of 1948 was a reaction to the massive crimes committed during World War II. Thus the wars of decolonization became the first major challenge and the testing ground for the newly established international norms. While the colonial powers tried to deny the universal character of human rights in the colonies in general and—for this is the main point—in times of colonial emergency, the anti-colonial movement intentionally exploited reports about massive violation of basic rights such as forced resettlement, torture, and summary killings to win the support of international public opinion. Who would doubt that the denial of fundamental rights in times of emergencies by states is a most relevant issue today?

Massive breaches of human rights standards became an integral part of international diplomatic debates and UN human rights mechanisms like the right of petition were used for the first time on a massive scale in the wars of decolonization. The Battle of Algiers (which, by the way, took place between January and October 1957 and not in 1958, p. 127) serves as a very illuminating example. The systematic torture and summary killings by the French army intensified the public awareness of massive human rights abuses in Algeria enormously and stimulated the first mass petitions to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Therefore I would not agree with Eckel’s argument that it was as recently as in the 1970s that “human rights almost overnight gained immense popularity” (p. 130). Far away from coming “overnight,” this was more the result of the previous contested debates of the 1950s as well as the 1960s. Only after the end of the wars of decolonization (which as I argue had blocked the further evolution of the human rights regime for more than fifteen years) and the final era of decolonization could the former colonial powers like France and Great Britain normalize their relationship with the United Nations. Without the burden of colonial wars, these European states could now fulfill their self-declared advocacy for human rights. After the end of their empires they could, for instance, refuse voting in the UN General Assembly in support of the South African Apartheid system. At the same time they started to attack the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc for its denial of civil rights without the danger of being harshly criticized for deficits in their colonies.

My last remark concerns the rather Eurocentric argument that “metropolitan governments were arguably the most important actors in the process of decolonization” (p. 123). Since John Darwin’s book The End of Empire: The Historical Debate (1991), the triad of the metropole, the periphery, and the international zone as a combined forum of explanation of decolonization has been established and widely recognized. Eckel’s final question “Human Rights: A Reason for Decolonization?” sounds promising, but to answer it from a purely metropolitan perspective will not adequately address the complex history of decolonization. Surely neither the government in London nor in Paris withdrew from their colonial possessions because of any petition concerning human rights. From the metropolitan perspective certainly other issues like the destabilization of domestic politics and the growing economic burden caused by constant military engagement were far more decisive. However, France’s being under permanent anti-colonial attack at the UN due to real or supposed war crimes in Algeria and Britain’s being the first state accused by Greece of human rights violations in Cyprus under the provision of the European Convention on Human Rights limited noticeably their role as credible actors in international politics. Managing worldwide public opinion was well out of their reach. Therefore, as I have argued, human rights (in the sense of the international theory) play a considerable role in helping to explain the process of decolonization.

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About Fabian Klose

Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, Germany. Author of Menschenrechte im Schatten kolonialer Gewalt: Die Dekolonisierungskriege in Kenia und Algerien, 1945–1962 (Munich, 2009), from which his essay in this issue is drawn, he is now at work on a new project titled ‘‘In the Cause of Humanity: Humanitarian Intervention, the International Public Sphere, and the Internationalization of Human Rights in the Nineteenth Century.’’


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