Dual Book Review – Relationships Between Human Rights & Decolonisation

By Oskari Mantere.

Arguably, the two most important developments of twentieth-century history are decolonisation – which rendered the empires of the old world obsolete and morally dubious – and the human rights revolution – which has remade the world anew in giving every member of the human species inherent dignity and a set of inalienable rights. However, the academic literature that these topics have generated around themselves have either avoided each other or have been politely indifferent. It is by now a platitude to state the obvious that the older histories of the British Empire and twentieth-century political history were easily written with very little mention of human rights. Those engaging with the more politically informed project of decolonising history, politics, and international law have been generally hostile towards human rights and seen them as an assertion of western values on the rest of the world. The proliferated study of the history of human rights has seen decolonisation as a contradictory and sometimes hostile aim to human rights. Few have claimed that decolonisation and human rights had any positive correlation or proximity. The reason for this state of affairs is understandable. Human rights came to the international political theatre during the Second World War and in the immediate years that followed. The dawn of a new world was short-lived, and the Cold War and decolonisation killed the flame. Only once the process of decolonisation had largely finished did the concept of human rights rise to new prominence in the West.

International Conference on Human Rights Opens in Tehran

For these reasons, human rights histories have privileged the 1940s as the origin place of human rights in international politics or the 1970s as the juncture when human rights rose to be our only political and moral horizon. Roland Burke’s Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights (2010) and Steven Jensen’s The Making of International Human Rights: The 1960s, Decolonization, and the Reconstruction of Global Values (2017) provide alternative narratives and more nuanced readings of the lost decades (the 1950s and 1960s) for human rights.

Burke’s Decolonisation argues against the historiography that the role of human rights in anticolonial political projects was more than a cynics weapon in a game of tit for tat. Focusing on high level political events – such as the Bandung Conference (1955) and the International Conference on Human Rights at Teheran (1968) – and thematical questions – such as individual petition, self-determination, and cultural relativism –, Burke highlights that from the beginning, anticolonialism had two competing strands: universalist which saw self-determination as a precondition for the fulfilment of human rights, and the strictly anticolonial approach which was predominantly focused on the achievement of political independence. In Burke’s analysis, the relationship between human rights and decolonisation acquire the nuanced and complex relationship that they deserve. Decolonisation was not synonymy to human rights, but many of the important anticolonial actors were champions of the cause. Only after decolonisation and post-colonial disappointments did the narrow understanding of decolonisation come to dominate the more universalist approach. The conference in Teheran, as Jamaican diplomat Egerton Richardson put it, was a “moment of truth”; human rights aspirations that were once prominent elements of the anticolonial struggle were now in the past.

Jensen makes a similar assessment of the Teheran Conference. For him, it signifies a crossroads of human rights agendas. Human rights had not yet claimed their throne in the Western political and moral imagination, and the global south had lost its faith in human rights. The last two chapters of The Making of International Human Rights deal with human rights after Teheran and are certainly worth reading. It is nevertheless the study of the 1960s that is most impressive and illuminating. For Jensen, the 1970s is not simply the ex nihilo rupture that it has often been painted; rather, it is the human rights developments – especially on the international level – build on the struggles of the 1960s. Without a persistent push from the moderate Third World countries, such as Ghana, Nigeria, and Jamaica, for a more norm-governed international system, there would not have been any precedent for human rights instruments, such as the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966). “Making of” in Jensen’s title refers to the preface of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, which famously stated that the English working class was present at its own making. Jensen shares this sentiment. Human rights are not merely a product of changing the international world and power politics. Human beings, as active agents of change, were present when international rights were made.

Jensen’s argument is very convincing, but there is one caveat that needs to be made. The Making of International Human Rights – as is in Burke’s Decolonization – is focused on high international politics and does not tackle the question of the meaning of human rights to ordinary people. The evidence presented in either book does not support the usefulness of an analytical tool of “agency” beyond the notion that international human rights struggles were conducted by real human beings. This, however, does not take anything away from the great work that both scholars have done nor does it invalidate the legitimacy and importance of their main argument – namely, that the role of Third World countries and decolonisation has been downplayed too much in the human rights historiography. And now, thanks to Jensen and Burke, the relationship of decolonisation and human rights has finally the literature it deserves.

Reviewed Works:

Burke, R. (2010) Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Jensen, S. (2017) The Making of International Human Rights: The 1960s, Decolonization, and the Reconstruction of Global Values. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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