In the space of a decade, the history of human rights has been transformed by a wave of scholarship revisiting its origins, evolution, and conceptual bounds. In the place of optimistic and well-settled narratives of human rights, characterized by a deep chronology, inclusive definition, and evolutionary progress, a new human rights history has posited the collapse of empire and the place of anti-colonial nationalism as one of the premier issues.Footnote 1 The contention has centered on the relationship between international and national ideas of rights. On the one hand, a global human rights discourse proclaimed individual rights above and beyond the state. On the other, an older rights language from the French Revolution bestowed, or promised, rights inhering primarily in national citizenship.Footnote 2
New histories of human rights have argued that the newly independent nation-states of the 1950s and 1960s momentarily combined the aspirations of citizenship and the “rights of man” with the more maximal universalism exemplified by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Postcolonial constitutions, generally in the form of uneasily agreed compromises between nationalist and imperial elites, often invoked the UDHR or other universal human rights concepts directly, conferring on their citizenries the political, economic, and social freedoms enumerated therein.Footnote 3 The provenance of these rights was typically described by nationalist elites as both the promised fruit of sovereignty and the birthright of universal humanity.Footnote 4 These interlaced rights traditions exposed tensions within postwar human rights languages and practices, which aspired to transcendent, suprastate standards while relying on the state to protect and deliver rights.Footnote 5 By the 1970s, however, the revolutionary vehicle of citizenship rights via national emancipation receded, seemingly discredited by the failures of new states to live up to their promises and their faltering parallel project for global economic redistribution.Footnote 6 In their place, an influential new human rights vision, advanced mostly by politicians in the United States and a cresting wave of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), emerged as an internationally situated discourse. This version of human rights, born in pessimism, was less inclined to regard the state as a repository for hopes. While at least as universalistic as the early postwar in its terrain of concern, and more energetic in proselytizing global norms, the balance of these norms was shifted and repartitioned. Human rights began to operate, in vernacular terms, without the expansive vision of social and economic rights that it had held when wielded by nationalists and postwar social democrats.Footnote 7
As the revisionist historiography has observed, human rights “broke through” in the 1970s, particularly in the West. The precondition of this transformation for North American and European publics was a degree of narrowing of human rights: the excision of utopian optimism and disruptive, transformative promise. The admirable NGO activism of, say, Amnesty International, was predicated on a conception of international human rights as civil and political rights claims against authoritarian and totalitarian states. For the many NGOs, this was mostly an artifact of pragmatic and tactical choices and dynamics: the feasibility of mass mobilization in those places where there was some prospect of success, and where there existed sufficient knowledge to document abuses with precision.Footnote 8 For others, particularly in the emerging neoconservative movement, the campaign to capture and define the term was more openly ideological, notably in US NGO Freedom House, and in a cohort of US Congressional leaders that exalted the right to emigrate (from the Soviet Union) as the most foundational freedom of all.Footnote 9
Likewise, anti-colonialism lost its place in the Western minimalist redefinition of human rights that occurred across the 1970s, when so many of its priorities were written out of the sparing agenda of Amnesty International, though anti-communists continued to launch broadsides against the Soviet Union for violations of the right to self-determination. But human rights triumphed over anti-imperialism less by the exhaustion of the latter than by the former’s appeal to a new cohort of Western middle-class supporters attracted by the rhetoric of exerting righteous pressure abroad rather than effecting reform at home. NGO successes were dramatic, but they were enabled by an equally dramatic focus away from transformative and optimistic horizons.
This revisionist historiography has raised two further lines of inquiry that our authors undertake in this volume. First, while the broadest arc of anti-colonialism and human rights has been traced, contested, and recontested, the question of the relationship between actor categories and postcolonial policies that, in retrospect, have been classified as human rights measures is of signal importance.Footnote 10 Postcolonial actors engaged in policies and endeavors that certainly conformed to the substance of securing human rights for their citizenries. Embryonic efforts to establish welfare state provisions were widely attempted in South Asia. Systems for government accountability and citizen remedy were devised, notably in the Tanzanian Ombudsman experiment. Land redistribution plans, and women’s economic and social advancement, were variously outlined across every continent, typically sponsored from above, but often enacted with community initiative. Whether, and how, these kinds of measures constituted human rights activity is an intricate question, reflecting as much about the definitional vernacular of “human rights” as it does the national projects involved. These were major reforms, typically with some emancipatory effects, while not necessarily being emphatic in their invocation of language itself, or wholly animated by a philosophy that expressed faith in the inherent agency and equality of individuals. As the chapters in this book demonstrate, their subjects commonly invoked other rights traditions and languages – national rights, indigenous rights, treaty rights, civil and political rights, and so on – in justifying political reform.Footnote 11 Rather than assume a stable meaning of human rights and “discover” these phenomena decades later, we ask: How did various rights languages intersect and morph through social and political contests and transitions? When, and how, did human rights language find form in the substance of policy, advocacy, or political transformation? Second, recent research has been largely confined to the Atlantic world with diffusionist assumptions of non-Europeans learning human rights from their colonial administrators or the UN; this book is a contribution to globalizing the history of human rights in the age of decolonization.
The pressing need, then, is for granular case studies written by specialists based on a careful examination of primary sources extending beyond the orthodox complement of Western government and NGO archives. Accordingly, the contributors to this collection draw on overlooked historical materials as well as more conventional archival sources to reconstruct the rights politics of an array of figures with divergent aims and worldviews: colonized and colonizers, activists and diplomats, policymakers in postcolonial states and the leadership of Western NGOs involved in both rights and humanitarianism. Accounting for such variegated perspectives affords a greater comprehension of the alternative rights languages available to, say, colonized peoples whose leaders looked to political independence while contending with the late colonial state. What did they mean by human rights if and when they invoked them, and how was this language adapted to local circumstances? Our authors’ investigations draw out the implications for the relationship between rights and empire as it changed over the course of the closing half of the twentieth century by reconstructing how it was enacted and reshaped by a diverse collection of actors. Their subjects articulated and deployed the discourses of anti-colonialism and rights, including human rights, as they were encountered in the field, the street, and from within sites of institutional power.
The new research showcased in this volume does not bear out the thesis that the anti-colonial mobilization of self-determination and other emancipatory claims marginalized human rights.Footnote 12 It demonstrates the difficulty of identifying any singular moment of “breakthrough” as definitive of human rights and its ascent as the premier moralism in the postcolonial world. Rather than a sequential relationship of human rights breaking through after the waning legitimacy of revolutionary self-determination as a creed in the West, the chapters here show the persistence of diversity among and within human rights rhetorics into and after the 1970s. National liberation, notionally supplanted and replaced in the “breakthrough,” often remained a central lodestar in these rights constellations.Footnote 13 From the outset across the anti- and postcolonial worlds, political demands coalesced around human rights as a language of preference because they were more capacious than competing utopianisms of classical political liberalism, doctrinaire socialism, and essentialist nationalism, and more capable of accommodating the specific configuration of myriad struggles, ambitions, and grievances. Anti-colonial campaigns could deploy them to dissent and to indict abuses, or to inspire when framing the aspirations of new societies, or mapping out major realignments in the international system. Human rights became a perennial aspect of anti-imperial and postcolonial phraseology not for its conceptual clarity, but for its versatility as a language with all-purpose emancipatory potential.
In other words, human rights were appealing as a maximal utopia across imperial and postcolonial worlds. Among “Third World” peoples, rights were often connected to local struggle, and operated in a key defined by expansiveness, optimism, and radical potential. There was no finer example than the rapid inscription of the right to self-determination as a foundational human right in the early 1950s, an early Third World project, and one that implied a much more radical vision of rights than the otherwise impressive catalogue produced a handful of years earlier by the General Assembly. Later initiatives on the “permanent sovereignty over natural resources” and a right to economic self-determination, were more revolutionary still, with sequelae that would define much of the North–South human rights fracture across the 1960s.Footnote 14 The cumulative effect of the book’s chapters, then, question the proposition that human rights were marginal to decolonization.
From the Rights of Nations to Human Rights
More than half a century after the peak era of decolonization, the incompatibility of formal empire and human rights may seem axiomatic. Since the catastrophic failure of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the 2000s, the flirtation between empire and human rights, manifested in muscular interventionist idealism advocated by liberal hawks and neoconservative crusaders, has fallen into disrepute. Those liberal imperialists who envisioned colonialism as a vehicle for the advancement of the liberties and welfare of colonized peoples have mostly passed from the scene, or migrated to other discourses. In the seemingly endless catalogue of abuses practiced by colonial administrations, the appeal of nationalism as the emancipation of first resort has been well established.Footnote 15 Since Wilsonian and Soviet ideas of collective rights captivated anti-colonial politicians in the early 1920s, the rights of nations or, as a salvage position, nominated ethnic minorities within them, seemed the avenue of greatest promise for national liberation.Footnote 16 Before 1945, those occasional international human rights declarations issued by American and European notables mostly ignored nations.Footnote 17 The 1929 Declaration of the International Rights of Man, led by the Russian émigré jurist André Mandelstam, exemplified a briefly renascent cosmopolitan tradition and spoke of “sovereign individuals.”Footnote 18 Even Lord Sankey’s Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1940, endorsed by Indian independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru, was silent on any requirement for colonial self-determination.Footnote 19 The Cambridge law professor Hersch Lauterpacht, perhaps the most prolific writer on international human rights law in the early 1940s, was preoccupied with the difficulties that accompanied sovereignty as opposed to a benefit that accrued to individuals in securing it.Footnote 20 Although the 1941 Atlantic Charter famously affirmed “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they live,” this aim was not explicitly coupled to any particular individual rights, nor was there agreement between its British and US signatories as to whether its application extended beyond Axis-occupied Europe.Footnote 21
As World War II drew to its close, human rights arrived as perhaps the principal innovation of the postwar blueprint, at least rhetorically – and one that initially seemed distant in its potential disruptions to the older global architecture of empire.Footnote 22 The ambiguity of the phrasing of the relevant passages of the UN Charter, and their exhortatory inflexion, attenuated the perceived bite of undertaking to “promote” human rights. Despite professions of enthusiasm for self-government in the Charter, efforts to establish self-determination during the drafting process for the UDHR, predictably, went nowhere, even with the cynical sponsorship of the Soviet bloc, and, more persuasively and passionately, Asian and Arab legations.
More than anything else, the belief in race as an ordering system of the world cut through the universalist claims regarding human rights. White civilizational confidence, shaken somewhat, but seeking to reconsolidate its moral and material supremacy, was willing to embrace the idea as part of its global patrimony, and bestow it accordingly.Footnote 23 Ardent enthusiasts for imperialism thus proclaimed support for human rights with little appreciation of risk, most famously the South African Field Marshall, Jan Smuts, who included the phrase as coauthor of the UN Charter’s preamble.Footnote 24 And Smuts was far from alone; in the terminal period of imperial rule, when the language of trusteeship was in favor, human rights was readily included in the imperial vocabulary.Footnote 25 For European empires defending their rule of overseas territories at the nascent UN, the principle of equal agency for all humans was perhaps begrudgingly acceptable – just not yet.Footnote 26 When a more vigorous nationalist wind emerged, this easy formula ceased to be effective. A strategy of formalistic and rhetorical acceptance of norm in the abstract, and immediate dissembling and deferral of policy action to deliver it, rapidly lost credibility in the UN, and across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.Footnote 27
Imperial embrace of human rights speaks not merely to expediency, but to the sheer capaciousness of the term and the tensions within it. For at least some liberal imperialists, and even a handful of francophone African nationalists, human rights may well have been understood as integral to the purpose of empire, interlaced as they were with the discourses of humanitarianism and notions of imperial citizenship.Footnote 28 In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, human rights drew on nineteenth-century traditions of humanitarian and civilizational rhetoric, ideas that were well established in imperial understandings of their own enterprise.Footnote 29
Humanitarian and imperial projects were very frequently interlocking and symbiotic. The moral capital of the former exchanged for the material resources of the latter, a transaction that at least in part animated the nineteenth-century British imperial campaign against the slave trade, which licensed the massive extension of the Royal Navy’s writ to squeeze rival empires’ slave-based economies.Footnote 30 Pretensions of humanitarian concern underwrote grotesque human rights abuses, most strikingly in Belgian King Leopold II’s company state the Congo from the 1890s. Critics of Leopold did not oppose empire; they entreated a humanitarian European rule over predatory exploitation, believing that humanitarian work and imperial administration was happily synchronous.Footnote 31 Those features of Christianized paternalism that so often infused humanitarian movements of the early nineteenth-century were the showpiece of imperial legitimacy, and the substance of civilizational tutelage.Footnote 32
Much as human rights would become in Western Europe and the USA in the 1970s, nineteenth-century humanitarianism was a doctrine oriented toward export.Footnote 33 Demands for overseas intervention, often against another malign empire, almost always drew on the language of a humanitarian duty and compassion, principally within Britain, which insistently cast its empire as uniquely humane.Footnote 34 These demands diminished sharply, though not entirely, when the new imperial administration demonstrated its own abusive hand to the victim territory.Footnote 35 Campaigns to eradicate “traditional” abuses of customary law, an effort that frequently held a kernel of emancipatory value, typically replaced traditional abusive structures with much the same systems, but with an imperial suzerain grafted upon them.Footnote 36
Humanitarianism was thus an intellectual configuration that not only could coexist with empire, it seemed almost to require it, in ways that were mostly inconsistent with its overlapping discursive formation, individual rights; the term “human rights” hardly featured in the nineteenth century. Humanitarian movements were not typically convinced of the equality and agency of all peoples – features that were almost constitutive of human rights as it emerged after WWII.Footnote 37 Humanitarian politics, with rare exceptions, were deeply imbricated in white racial paternalism. As pioneers of the rhetoric of “anti-politics,” humanitarians professed only the concern of conscience, moved by the most elemental and corporeal needs of humanity.Footnote 38
Nevertheless, the logic of humanitarianism, even as it was advanced in the late Victorian and Edwardian empire, did provide the foundations for a serious critique of colonial rule. Roger Casement, perhaps the most iconic figure in the early twentieth-century British humanitarian movement, commenced his crusade against the abuses of foreign imperialisms. An Irish nationalist – the British would hang him in 1916 for his part in the Easter Uprising that year – he concluded with absolute confidence that empire itself was inherently disposed to abuse; and self-determination the most essential humanitarian intervention.Footnote 39 He counterpoised national liberation, rather than international human rights, to empire. The rights of man would be realized in independent nation-states.
While the maritime imperial order survived World War I, the breakup of the continental land empires, Russia, Ottoman, and Germany, and US President Wilson’s ban on annexing their territories, led to a renewal of civilizational and humanitarian missions. The Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and new League of Nations ignored the claims of colonial peoples to independence, and assigned the territories of the defeated powers to the victorious Entente Powers, mainly Britain and France, in the form of trusteeships called mandates. The rhetoric, and to some extent, the logistical connections between humanitarianism and empire were thereby revitalized during the interwar years in the form of a humane mission for imperial control in the League of Nations mandate system.Footnote 40 Humanitarianism’s putative place outside politics barely survived a second total war, and the wars of decolonization that followed it, however. Who resided within humanity, and who disbursed compassion, were promptly and inevitably engaged as part of a contest for the symbolic high ground of morality.Footnote 41 Humanitarianism and human rights remained lexical wildcards that could be played by imperialist and nationalist alike, for radically different aims, a dynamic evident across several of the chapters in this collection.Footnote 42
The gulf between empire’s grand ideology and its practice was more readily discerned by those closest to colonial administration.Footnote 43 The contradictions were a constant source of anxiety for colonial ministries in the early 1950s, and a still more intense source of resentment and frustration from local colonial administrators. While some European officials embraced the new international human rights systems as consistent with their values, as well as a potent instrument for containing communism at home and abroad, their colonial colleagues wrote dismayed memoranda. The European Convention on Human Rights (1950), the first formal treaty arrangement to have the words “human rights” in its title, permitted state parties to exclude and restrict application in colonial territories. Proponents of the European Convention, among them avid imperialists such as Winston Churchill, believed its guarantees of civil and political rights reflected the Christian and humanist values that had once unified European civilization and its imperial extensions.Footnote 44
Ultimately, the imperialist effort to manage the new human rights language, and to isolate it from anti-colonialism, proved terminal.Footnote 45 No UN human rights treaties would follow the European Convention’s example, despite a sustained effort to preserve the territorial application provision from both France and Britain. Only a handful of years after the adoption of the UDHR, which implicitly prohibited discrimination on the basis of colonial status, the ideal global order was reconfigured: a world of nation-states, each securing those agreed universal human rights for their citizens.Footnote 46 This was the moment in which universal human rights, popular sovereignty, and liberal anti-colonial nationalism appeared to fly in formation.Footnote 47 It was a perishable arrangement.
Optimistic visions of national freedom and human rights for the freed citizenries of postcolonial states began to wane in the late 1950s. The year 1958 alone witnessed several authoritarian transitions, including the concentration of executive power in a symbolically potent beacon, Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana. Pakistan’s dysfunctional democracy suffered its first successful coup, led by Mohammed Ayub Khan. His political program replaced the unrealized promise of universal human rights with a patronizing scheme of “Basic Rights,” which Khan argued were best suited to his underdeveloped nation.Footnote 48 A generation of grave disappointments, punctuated by catastrophic violence in Biafra, Bangladesh, and, later, Cambodia, produced a steady migration to less hopeful and less revolutionary horizons.Footnote 49 Among a new generation of Western human rights movements, and those who cast anti-colonialism as the vanguard of a global revolution, hopes for the transformative and humane rebirth of nations and peoples dimmed.Footnote 50
In Britain, Amnesty International was born in 1961, as the disappointments of the Third World were becoming manifest, and the increasingly visual nature of global media began transmitting horrors with greater fidelity. Amnesty International rapidly sought, with decidedly mixed success, to cultivate nodes and local sections all over the world, though its membership kept an overwhelming center of gravity in the Western middle-class. Global in its advocacy, and its professed authority, Amnesty International’s disposition was primarily to assist the oppressed outside national borders, rather than to mobilize the oppressed within them. Its tools were self-consciously modest and moderate, sending out an armada of letters of concern on behalf of a particular persecuted individual, or “prisoner of conscience.”Footnote 51 Amnesty International’s emergence across the 1960s, and the explosive growth in sibling organizations in the 1970s, foremost Helsinki Watch (later Human Rights Watch), elevated the place of international human rights norms in daily discourse. These human rights causes were, predominantly, overseas; defined as individualized injustice.Footnote 52 Western publics had soured on the claims of nation-building., whether on Western, Sino, Soviet, or endogenous socialist models.Footnote 53 Transformative hope would instead start at the less abstract and grandiose level of ending grotesque ills. It was an approach that, arguably, over succeeded in canalizing human rights energy into the areas of greatest affective power and urgency.Footnote 54
Amnesty International’s mass letter campaigns, relentlessly documentarian approach, and studiously produced visual campaigns harnessed political moralism in a new manner.Footnote 55 Human rights could become the crusade of the concerned citizen, as opposed to the language of the directly repressed or elite foreign policy actors. Lighting a candle was a more resonant channel for solidarity than the dry juridical approach of earlier NGOs, like the International Commission of Jurists.Footnote 56 It afforded a more universalistic engagement with the plight of the persecuted than the patchwork jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Court, or the barely functional UN bodies. While moderate in its methods, its was, for practical purposes, adamantine in its principles; namely, to channel public pressure against abusive regimes of every ideological flavor. By the end of the 1970s, the “Forgotten Prisoners” who had catalyzed Amnesty International’s birth were no longer forgotten; nor was the freedom Amnesty’s campaigns had secured for so many of them.Footnote 57 For those countless it assisted, Amnesty literally saved lives, winning quiet concessions for individual cases, from governments irritated and exhausted by the power of perpetual embarrassment. For the regimes against which railed in public broadsides and private complaints, Amnesty’s efficacy was frustratingly real.Footnote 58 Animated by a strong focus on individual cases and integrity of person abuses, Amnesty secured human rights on the least normatively contested terrain.
This triaged moralism did have its problems insofar as it drew the crusade into narrower ambitions, but was also elemental to Amnesty’s spectacular success. Its vision was palliation of the worst, and for the disappeared, the victims of SAVAK, BOSS, the DINA, and an alphabet of other acronymically obscured death squads, that was far from a small development. Its capacity to leverage Western public pressure against allies added a new factor to foreign policymaking; even if that factor was never especially consistent. For diplomats practiced at evasions in the UN and regional forums, the organization, and its nascent siblings, certainly seemed to have more teeth than any preceding human rights mechanism.Footnote 59
Postcolonial abuses, abundant and appalling, met with righteous venom: even, or perhaps especially, from those once sympathetic to decolonization.Footnote 60 In much of the advocacy of these new human rights NGOs (HRNGOs), the nation-state, so central to the securing of rights in the Western domestic realm, was excised from the Western human rights architecture as irrelevant or irretrievable.Footnote 61 By the late 1960s, having been compelled to release their overseas territories, and the grave political liability that attached to maintaining colonial rule, the almost former imperial powers now began to embrace an activist advocacy of human rights with more enthusiasm. After almost two decades spent fending away communist and Third World criticism, they could pursue the diplomacy and politics of virtue abroad with less encumbrance, most especially against the Soviet empire, in solidarity with its nascent dissident movement.Footnote 62 They were joined in the early 1970s by a US government, led first by Congress, and then by President Jimmy Carter, as well as a portion of the public seeking to reclaim “American virtue,” in Barbara Keys’s felicitous phrase.Footnote 63 This was a crusade distasteful of grand ambitions for statehood and sovereignty.Footnote 64 The emergent wave of HRNGOs joined older humanitarian organizations in their century-long effort to find the minimum possible altitude for ambition, well below the “common standard of achievement” of 1948, or the world-shaking nationalist promises of the 1955 Asian–African Conference in Bandung.Footnote 65
As human rights, among the Western audience, shifted to this parsimonious utopia, Latin American, Asian, and African states transmuted human rights into another project – that of global economic redistribution, exemplified by the campaign for a New International Economic Order (NIEO), which gained force across 1974 and 1975. Railing, with considerable reason, against the “existing, unjust economic order,” their hopes were – if anything – more transformative and revolutionary than anything proposed in the 1940s and 1950s, at least in terms of the global balance of wealth. For the most voluble governmental proponents of the NIEO, human rights, in the prevailing Western variant, were neocolonial intrusion masquerading as moralism, a critique rendered more subtly by scholars from the Global South. Humanitarian aid, with its attached technocrats and conditionality, was the paternalism of the missionary. Humanitarianism itself, most especially in the laws of armed conflict, was found in need of decolonization. Although the fictions of impartial compassion that attended humanitarianism, a discourse with a much longer and well-furnished history within imperial projects, were already recognized, explicit association of “human rights” as imperialist was a new phenomenon.Footnote 66 “Western human rights,” as they had begun to be wielded by Amnesty International and more energetic Western foreign services, emerged as a new front in the interstate clash between North and South.Footnote 67 For two decades, state elites clashed on the purportedly imperial quality of universality as enshrined in human rights norms, a debate which much of the activist community – particularly in the Global South – simply maneuvered around, consumed with the problems of immediate abuses, as opposed to abstractions.Footnote 68
Human rights movements could never manage fully equilateral attention to every dialect of a language that covered so many disparate, and often contradictory, priorities. Variations in emphasis are hardly remarkable: they are a constituent virtue of the discourse. The ability for so many emancipatory claims to invoke variants of human rights language, and to do so with evident sincerity, was apparent at least as early as the early postwar, when the framers of the UDHR tried to stich these strands into a mostly coherent set of articles.Footnote 69 The challenge of decolonization, and particularly, the 1970s, was not so much the proliferation of different species in the human rights ecosystem, than the growing inclination toward exclusivism and definitional monopoly. NGOs arrived at a particular balance of concerns; typically the most immediate and appalling. For state elites from the Global South, the exclusivism was in a different key – with human rights redefined as global economic redistribution. For those more candidly illiberal national liberation movements, human rights were more or less material and logistical support for armed insurrection; with the remainder of the UDHR merely platitudinous humanitarian posturing.Footnote 70 All attempted to define the category, and none succeeded. Greater appreciation of the contended space of human rights in the era of decolonization requires analytical deference to the diversity, and the coalescing of various rights claims around “human rights,” even when they communed with older and different rights philosophies and political programs.Footnote 71
The Histories of Human Rights and Empire
The chapters in this volume show that these engagements between human rights and empire did not operate as separate and autonomous abstractions. For those involved, there was no clean distinction between the rights invoked by national liberation movements and human rights. The Indian nationalist and feminist Hansa Mehta, in a 1949 conversation with the British Labour politician Marguerite Bowie, discussed a “blueprint for heaven,” one that was being enacted at once domestically in national reform movements and internationally in the UDHR.Footnote 72 As Indonesian nationalist leader, Mohammed Hatta, reflected in 1956, there was an affinity between how anti-colonialists perceived their cause and the language of universal human rights. When Indonesian nationalists were read the content of the UDHR, Hatta wrote, “it was as if they heard themselves speaking.”Footnote 73 Human rights and anti-colonial emancipation were a commingled freedom struggle in the 1940s and 1950s. While tensions would emerge, these did not correspond to any single geopolitical development, nor the total obsolescence of one by the other. The shift was linguistic and conceptual, as the meaning of the term human rights, at least in Western vernacular, began to narrow in ways that foreclosed the bolder economic and social revolutionary potential they had held in Third World imagination. Human rights were not born from the death of anti-colonialism. Human rights in the West died as a viable means for expressing any optimistic anti-colonial vision.
This refashioning of human rights in the 1970s cast aside much of the most vital content and appeal of human rights for postcolonial peoples.Footnote 74 For many in the Third World, transnational capitalism, rising antipathy to resource transfers and state building from the wealthy states, and all of the disappointed hopes of a meaningful sovereignty – the signature ambition of the original campaign against empire – were excised from this new human rights agenda. The World Bank’s “basic needs”-oriented approach to development, adopted in 1972, set the stage for “Structural Adjustment Programs,” eviscerating ambition and replacing it with survival.Footnote 75 A “human rights” discourse that had refounded itself in absolute minimalism, or in the word of one US ambassador, the hope of making “an awful situation slightly less awful” was the promise of the barest palliation, not the promise of liberation.Footnote 76 Given the prevalence of appalling – and rising – global repression, particularly in Latin America and South Asia, and abundant misery, this was hardly unreasonable, but it did shift the human rights agenda away from the grand to the immediate and desperate.
After a decade of definitional contraction in human rights language across the political West, the early 1990s did begin to regenerate a more generous and inclusive appreciation of how wide and ambidextrous rights were, and the rediscovery of global activisms which had emphasized quite different concerns. Foremost of these was women’s rights, which had organized in transnational networks well before the HRNGOs, and had successfully built out an impressive system of translocal solidarities, and a much more ambitious vision of reform and advocacy.Footnote 77 So, too, Indigenous peoples, who found common cause not merely with other first nations, but with Amnesty International, with women’s rights NGOs, and often with environmental activism.Footnote 78 The variegated texture of this more developed global human rights movement was unmistakable by June 1993, at the opening of the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. In the basement of the Austria Centre, the NGO universe advocated not merely for the now classical priorities of torture and arbitrary detention and execution, but for the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and recognition that women’s rights constituted human rights. Survival International, Amnesty International, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom were all part of an overlapping human rights movement; sometimes intersecting, sometimes not, but all conversing in a comprehensible language.Footnote 79 Although Western activism still hewed closer to the narrower ambitions of the 1970s, more citizenries had begun to recover human rights for their own aspirations.
For some historians, the anti-colonial embrace of human rights as a language against empire was illusory, explained away as instrumentalist, serving as a sharp rhetorical adornment to a profoundly different cause, that of nationalism.Footnote 80 Given that instrumental deployment of human rights has been the companion of countless modern political movements, the accurate observation that self-determination struggles drew on rights language offers little insight into how, why, and by whom human rights were used, or the implications and purposes of fusing local projects with universalist significance. In their conspicuous even-handedness, exemplified by the nomination of abused figures from Western, communist, and Third Worlds, Amnesty International worked assiduously to position its organization, and human rights, outside ideological conflicts. This sort of studious disavowal was an explicit means for Amnesty and other emergent HRNGOs to set themselves apart from other social movements, and to ascend as the foremost Western “anti-politics.”Footnote 81 South Asian constitutionalists and Caribbean advocates of welfare planning rendered their projects as human rights, not for narrow tactical gain, but as a means of connecting local freedom projects with a wider global enterprise.
This volume shows that these connections often represented an effort to define and realize the substance of human rights in particular national settings. Those phenomena dismissed as instrumentalist were vehicles for moving beyond an ethereal, universal claim and toward a specific emancipatory goal. As for the apologists and representatives of colonial forces, they believed that the use of repressive measures against those who would challenge colonial rule could be justified in the name of a higher call to better the lot of the colonized, or defended as necessary prophylaxis against the presumed catastrophe of communist influence. Overlooking the appeal this perverse moral logic held among European and American audiences, working in both colonial and Cold War technocratic registers, is to underestimate the ideational power of liberal imperialism and its neocolonial successors.
Contributors across the volume, many of them pioneers of the new human rights history, traverse the geography of empire and its remnants. They pursue the interactions between human rights and decolonization across the twentieth century. Empire and rights are historicized through a network of overlapping sites, as opposed to marshalled into a catalogue of emancipatory triumph or utopian disappointment. Instead of any unitary heuristic, the cases suggest the pluripotent capacity of human rights claims, wielded by nationalists, imperialists, activists, and internationalists alike, for profoundly different purposes. The ecumenism with which these groups migrated contests of legitimacy into the language of human rights was integral to the steady ascent of the discourse and the eclipse of its rivals.
The historical investigations in this volume are organized into three thematic groupings, beginning with the struggle of colonized peoples to assert their individual and collective human rights, above all the right to self-determination, before moving on to the place of human rights in the construction of postcolonial states. It concludes with colonial and neocolonial efforts to mold human rights norms so as to undermine the emancipatory potential of anti-colonial conceptions of human rights. The editors are cognizant of critiques of histories of empire that privilege colonial sources and perspectives, which rightly challenge imperial historians to decolonize the history of decolonization, as well as the editors’ own positionality as white male scholars educated and employed in Western educational institutions.Footnote 82 Attempting to strike a balance between diverse methodological approaches to the history of decolonization, the empirical research underpinning the various contributions to this volume straddles the divide between, on the one hand, the archives of imperial powers and Western NGOs, and, on the other, material that reflects African, Asian, and indigenous perspectives, including documents produced by the colonized themselves.
Part I of this volume investigates how the language of human rights and self-determination became embedded in anti-colonialist struggles. Human rights offered a language more responsive and comprehensive than conventional nationalism and an avenue for advancing these ideals in a global forum. Challenging the recent tendency to cleave anti-colonialism from the human rights story, Bonny Ibhawoh (Chapter 1) contends that this division, central to the “new histories,” rests on an ahistorical assumption that the language was already settled by the 1940s. In British Africa, anti-colonialism offered an alternate vision of human rights that sought in part to challenge a hegemonic colonial rights agenda which emphasized the individual insistently. In this setting, the relationship between self-determination in anti-colonialism and nation-state-oriented, individual-centered “human rights” was not simply one of succession or displacement but also one of tension and contestation.
Marco Duranti (Chapter 2) investigates the relationship between decolonization in the French empire and the nascent UN human rights system after World War II. French officials, faced with pressure to implement UN human rights standards in their African colonies, found themselves unable to reconcile their own constitutional doctrine of assimilationism, premised on a universalist conception of “the rights of man,” with the existence of unequal colonial rights regimes based on cultural difference. Private petitions sent to the United Nations from individuals and NGOs around the world drew attention to the French state’s abuse of colonial subjects, above all in the Maghreb. These anti-colonial activists, whether residing within French colonial territories or abroad, conceived of the defense of civil liberties as inseparable from the struggle for independence. While citations of UN human rights standards declined over the course of the 1950s, petitioners left no doubt that guarantees of individual freedoms and trade union rights were a prerequisite for national self-determination.
Jennifer Johnson (Chapter 3), in her study of humanitarian law in the Algerian War of Independence, demonstrates the ways in which the terrain of global moralism became a battleground for imperial authorities and the liberation movement. As the Algerian National Liberation Front fought kinetic battles, its political wing waged a campaign for the conceptual plane of international humanitarian law. Both bloodshed and its palliation became a means for advancing nationalist primacy, and, contrarily, the basis for French assertions of civilizational superiority. The radically egalitarian premise of humanitarianism, that all suffering beings are equally entitled to compassion and protection, clashed with the nationalist and imperialist ideologies that in practice had long structured the French Red Cross’s activities, revealing the tenacity of old civilizational hierarchies in postwar French humanitarian discourse.
Miranda Johnson (Chapter 4) charts indigenous encounters with human rights in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, which gathered momentum in the early 1960s. Competing interstate rights presumed international recognition as a nation-state, a recognition denied to, and not always sought by, Indigenous peoples in settler societies. Scarcely more promising was the state of human rights law as it existed in the 1960s, when the language was almost silent on Indigenous peoples. Human rights, with their inherent emphasis on universal individuals, mapped poorly to particular indigenous collectivities and broken colonial agreements, and limited the potential gains to narrow areas of labor and legal equality. Navigation of a path forward required the generation of a new rights tradition, hewn from elements of human rights, more specific moralistic narratives in settler societies, and long dormant imperial-era legal obligations. This newly synthesized tradition, eventually and reluctantly accepted by settler colonies in the 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, was both more and less than the UDHR.Footnote 83 The long and late codification of the rights of the indigenous of rights indicated both substantial ellipses in the human rights discourse and its capacity for renovation.
Mary Ann Heiss (Chapter 5) charts the inevitable incoherence that accompanied human rights instrumentalization, primarily in the realm of self-determination. For US policymakers in the Eisenhower administration, human rights, inclusive of the nationalist cri de cœur, the right to self-determination, were powerful indictments upon the Soviet regime. More challenging was their equivalent potency against America’s European allies. Finding a defensible median between these interests, which collided dramatically in late 1960, in the UN Declaration Against Colonialism, was an exhibition in the perils of crafting a moralistic weapon with broadband effects.Footnote 84 Bold demands for the universal application of self-determination and human rights, passionate invocations of 1776, and timorous reference to British, French, and Portuguese repression, was a partial solution, and only partially convincing.
Part II of the volume traces the transformation of the still plastic notion of human rights in the emergence of postcolonial statehood. As the place of the individual was opened up in the process of empire’s end, the status of imperial subject shifted to postcolonial citizen. This transition was often framed in terms of human rights, yet the relationship between the categories of citizen and human remained perilously ill-defined. A. Dirk Moses (Chapter 6) finds another gulf between the emergent human rights ideals and the coercive mass movement of peoples. As Eleanor Roosevelt dreamt of “A World Made New,” and delegations pondered the linguistic elegance of their draft UDHR, the partitions of the later 1940s – India, Palestine, and Germany – remade the worlds of whole communities, and almost invariably, remade them in misery.Footnote 85 Postwar partitions represented humanitarian catastrophes of enormous proportions: official and unofficial population expulsions of many millions of people, occasioning over a million deaths and lasting bitterness. Older languages on the “standard of civilization” continued to shape international human rights law, including the newly enunciated standards of the 1946 UN General Assembly declaration on genocide.Footnote 86 Bringing these partitions into the frame allows the limits and contradictions of these postwar deliberations to be seen in a new light. Through meticulous historicization, Moses recasts the orthodoxy on key inter- and postwar historical actors, most notably Edvard Beneš in Czechoslovakia and Zionist icons Chaim Weizmann and Norman Bentwich.
Cindy Ewing’s research (Chapter 7) connects the national rights debates of South Asia to the international project of human rights, placing early independence constitutions within the frame of an emerging global human rights vision. Constitutions were the site where the grand ambitions of the UDHR encountered the reality of national politics in Burma, Ceylon, and India, in the form of perennial tensions on minorities, family and personal status law, and in the formalization of limits on previously ambiguous state power. More proximate to the practical challenges of codifying a human rights system into a national reality, South Asian polities in the late 1940s prefigured some of the defining debates that the UN would encounter in its second decade, when it was seized with the difficulty of an equilibrium between individual and collective, and universal and particular.
Raphaélle Khan (Chapter 8) takes up the Indian perspective and its place in the international realm, primarily at the UN. Debates carried out domestically interacted in productive ways with the foundering global efforts of the 1950s and early 1960s. India, which had been compelled to face the tensions within human rights in its own nation-building process, was among the few states that had sustained and practical experience of placing self-determination, the welfare state, and collective minority protections in a human rights document.Footnote 87 As Khan demonstrates, the complexity of Indian interventions contradict any easy assumption that rights were no more than an instrumental weapon for securing sovereignty. Sovereignty itself was always insufficient, given that the rights of the large Indian transnational community were a common a target for discrimination, most visibly in South Africa. India’s positions were not without contradiction, rendered acute in the inconsistent application of self-determination.Footnote 88 The orientation of Indian nationalist representatives, foremost the feminist and anti-colonial activist, Hansa Mehta, reflected neither unshackled utopian ambition nor narrow instrumentalism.
Steven Jensen (Chapter 9) draws Jamaica, and the Caribbean world, to the center of human rights developments in the 1960s. Much as South Asian nationalists had pursued a decade earlier, the newly independent state embarked on a conjoined project that embraced a national human rights agenda with international rights activism under the leadership of its energetic First Minister, Norman Manley. While its fruits would become evident across the late 1960s, Jamaica’s period of greatest vitality occurred in the liminal period between full imperial control and full independence. In this protracted moment, when the shape of the prospective state, was being determined, Jamaica built a foundation which led it to a foremost place in the UN human rights system. Jamaica’s influence here, which was decoupled from its strategic weight, revealed the limits of those human rights narratives which finds origins in the major Western democracies.
Michael Humphrey (Chapter 10) approaches the violence of empire over half-a-century later, in the nascent legal mechanisms to find accountability for historical human rights abuses in the terminal years of colonial rule.Footnote 89 Two colonial atrocities serve as an avenue to examine the long-deferred project of holding empire to account for abuses that were, like many, not remedied by the eventual achievement of sovereignty. In 2011, the Hague Civil Court awarded individual monetary compensation – and legal recognition – to the victims of the 1947 Rawagede massacre by Dutch authorities. In 2012, the British High Court found Mau Mau veterans could seek redress for the systematic policy of torture and mass arbitrary detention by the British across the 1950s. While there was scope for legal remedy for torture, the political sequelae of British repression were not so easily addressed – the Mau Mau were actively written out of the postcolonial polity in the effort to ensure a stable transition from colonial to national. Collective national narratives of anti-colonial struggle, defined as a singular people, elided these particular injustices experienced by individuals, and the persistence of harm well after self-determination had been secured.
Part III of the volume explores how colonial and neocolonial forces mobilized human rights in response to decolonization. Liberal imperialists and their successors played a critical role in mapping the boundaries, spatial and conceptual, of the universality that was being inscribed into the texts which supposedly set out the principles of the new postwar world. As imperialist and anti-imperialist, government and NGO, national citizen and transnational activist progressively discovered in the postcolonial era, custodianship of human rights, and the inscription of their priorities into that phrase, was the essence of the struggle. Radically dissimilar projects were transformed into advocacy within human rights discourse. Although France’s well-upholstered mythologization as universalist liberator was an established fixture in international diplomacy, Miguel Bandeira Jerónimo and José Pedro Monteiro (Chapter 11) find another defensive custodianship of human rights in the efforts of Portuguese colonial and governmental ideologues, who sought to wield human rights as a reputational asset. Even as human rights crystallized in the 1950s as the foremost weapon against continued imperial rule, Portugal’s diplomatic corps embraced the language as the licensing discourse for lusophone Africa with remarkable enthusiasm. The confidence with which the Salazar regime boasted of its imperial human rights credentials, despite fascist politics at home, reveals the ambidextrous quality rights language retained into the 1970s.
There was no shared movement toward a unified meaning of human rights, and the effort to refashion these older imperial claims into the ascendant language of human rights not unique to Salazar’s Portugal, as Roland Burke (Chapter 12) demonstrates in the case of South Africa, which sought to recast the racial dictatorship of apartheid into a form compatible with the lexicon of human rights, self-determination, and multiculturalism. Beginning in the early 1960s, apartheid, rebadged “Separate Development’” and later “Plural Relations” paid linguistic deference to the new idealisms of rights, self-determination, and development. Acutely aware of the potency of human rights critique, the regime sought not so much to contest human rights norms, but to place its project as consistent with the post-1945 world. The continual metamorphosis of apartheid’s global sale sits as powerful example of how discourses of freedom hold ample capacity for subversion.
Jay Winter (Chapter 13) distinguishes between the two forms of rights discourse in the writings and practice of the 1968 Nobel Laureate, René Cassin. These two variants of rights were evident in his capacity both as vice-president of the Conseil d’Etat from 1944 to 1960, and in his role as a French delegate to the United Nations from 1945, and as international human rights advocate in a number of organizations thereafter. The first position he adopted was advocacy of humanitarian rights, understood as falling within the laws of war. Victims of war, in or out of uniform, could properly demand reparation as a right and not as charity.Footnote 90 Overlaid upon these humanitarian rights were human rights, as articulated in the UDHR he helped to draft. Cassin’s human rights set down a supranational standard for state conduct in both peace and war, as compared to his category of a humanitarian right. The contradictions in where, and to whom, he applied these two categories, be it to Jewish refugees in Palestine as compared to Palestinian peoples, or to Algerians in the French empire, were inescapable, and sometimes paralyzing. Cassin’s universalism fissioned into two when it came to violent conflicts between Europeans and non-Europeans.
Barbara Keys (Chapter 14) illustrates how, after anxiety on the American right over self-determination had receded, the managerial challenge of the country’s own imperial legacies persisted. The logic of intervention was all but discredited by the course of the Vietnam War, but new mechanisms to pursue human rights proved problematic. Fueled by a decade of cumulative guilt over the war, and the grotesque abuses carried out by its South Vietnamese client, Congress sought redemption by linking aid to human rights conditions. As the USA removed itself from direct combat in the early 1970s, it also sought to cleanse itself of the conflict, and the decade of moral compromise that had shattered its self-image. Withdrawing the supply of assistance that underwrote an abusive regime abroad served as a symbolic means for reinfusing a sense of virtue at home.
Eleanor Davey (Chapter 15), surveying events a decade later, finds the implications of a contested humanitarianism still dawning upon the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).Footnote 91 Wars of national liberation, which had only deepened in the years after Algeria, presented a fundamental threat to the precepts of humanitarianism, not simply a competition for ownership. When the ICRC’s specialists gazed uneasily at Portuguese Africa, whether the claims of liberation could be set within the architecture of international humanitarian law involved more than philosophical disquisition. Informed by empirical inquiry among the liberation movements, the ICRC sought to reconcile the practice of the liberation movements in the 1970s and the spirit of Solferino. Their efforts were lent urgency by the context of a rising effort to “decolonize” the laws of war, which posed a looming threat to the ICRC’s monopoly as arbiter of humanitarian norms. Whatever was resolved in Guinea would also have to be set alongside a growing chorus within the UN and the Organization of African Unity for a specially privileged class of struggle – that against racial dictatorship and colonialism.
Jessica Whyte (Chapter 16) further reveals the ambiguities of human rights discourse as an emancipatory instrument in her examination of the hyper-individualistic Liberté sans Frontières (LSF), the less luminous counterpart to humanitarian organization Médecins sans Frontières. During the first flourishing moment of neoliberalism in the 1980s, LSF promulgated a vision of the narrowest individual liberty – notionally against developmental dictatorships, which were myriad and egregious in their abuses – but with implications that undercut any credible nation building project. LSF’s evangelism found purpose in market purity, as opposed to human well-being. The intense antipathy of LSF’s members not merely to totalitarian state formation, but any serious attempt at securing economic sovereignty and material security for peoples of the Third World, was the mirror image of the pathological statism of failed postcolonial authoritarians.Footnote 92
In recent interventions on the history of rights, the era of decolonization and its legacies has been one of the defining exhibits, one which recasts the trajectory of all of which came before and after. Yet the content of human rights and their operation emerge as so contested and versatile that a discrete transitional moment, where anti-colonialism was superseded by human rights, ceases to hold as an effective schema for analysis.Footnote 93 Human rights ascended as a language for moral claims, and the epochal ideological conflicts of the twentieth century were reset within it. Sovereignty, nationhood, economic justice, humanity, and individual freedom were not abandoned for human rights, but repartitioned. These became tensions inside human rights, not rivals to it.
Throughout the 2010s, much scholarly energy has been devoted to abstract questions about the philosophical content and implications of human rights histories or, more profoundly still, the exhaustion of its utility as an approach.Footnote 94 This volume demonstrates that even supremely erudite grand generalization understates the richness of human rights history, particularly addressing an intrinsically diverse subject: empire, anti-colonialism, and rights. These scholars trace so many variegated cases of human rights, shaped by different contexts, and deployed with a distinct set of attached meanings – often overlapping, but driven by their own logic. In so doing, their contributions show the power of particular histories of a universalistic discourse, rather than seeking to subordinate particular discourses to a universalizing historical scheme.
Human rights were embedded in anti-colonial freedom movements and at least in part, constitutive of its hopes. In turn, the contours of the human rights concept were defined and sharpened by a global, distributed endeavor to grant meaning to the term. As jurists in newly independent nations drafted their plans for freedom, they conceived of their work as part of more than a national effort. Indigenous organizers discovered human rights as a bridge to a larger cohort of activism and also discovered its deficiencies for the cause of Indigenous peoples. The transnational indigenous rights movement would eventually expand the concept of human rights and work to remedy its silences. When approached at close range, the projects – and conflicts – charted across this volume were the translation of the universalistic promise into universally meaningful claim. Even the UDHR, for all of its cross-cultural sources and earnest, if often hesitant, commitment to inclusion, could only provide the outlines of a globally relevant universalism. In wielding the language of human rights, and finding its application, these campaigns against empire began to populate that vision with a more universal collection of experiences and perspectives.