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This chapter revisits the relationship between the nascent UN human rights system and decolonization in the French empire after World War II. French officials went to great lengths to ensure that anti-colonialism would not be viewed as a global human rights movement. At the same time, faced with pressure to implement UN human rights standards in African colonies, they 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 UN from individuals and NGOs around the world drew attention to the French state’s abuse of colonial subjects, above all in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. These anti-colonial activists, whether residing in 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.
This introductory chapter surveys the revisionist historiography on the history of human rights. It asks whether postcolonial actors were in fact engaged in human rights activity in their embryonic efforts to establish welfare states; in initiatives to ensure oversight and some means of remedy for citizens; and in land redistribution plans and women’s advancement. In doing so, they commonly invoked other rights traditions and languages – national rights, indigenous rights, treaty rights, civil and political rights, and so on—in justifying political reform. 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? 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.
This volume presents the first global history of human rights politics in the age of decolonization. The conflict between independence movements and colonial powers shaped the global human rights order that emerged after the Second World War. It was also critical to the genesis of contemporary human rights organizations and humanitarian movements. Anti-colonial forces mobilized human rights and other rights language in their campaigns for self-determination. In response, European empires harnessed the new international politics of human rights for their own ends, claiming that their rule, with its promise of 'development,' was the authentic vehicle for realizing them. Ranging from the postwar partitions and the wars of independence to Indigenous rights activism and post-colonial memory, this volume offers new insights into the history and legacies of human rights, self-determination, and empire to the present day.
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