Debating Human Rights and Decolonization

human rights logoFabian Klose
Leibniz Institute of European History, Mainz
Editor,
Humanitarianism & Human Rights

What was the role that universal human rights played in the process of decolonization? What links can we identify between both phenomena as they gained real momentum after 1945?

For too long historical research has neglected this issue. Only a few books on the historiography of the human rights idea linked the dissolution of European colonial empires with the debates on universal fundamental rights. Particular mention should be made here of the work by Paul Gordon Lauren (The Evolution of International Human Rights. Visions Seen, Philadelphia 1998) and Brian Simpson (Human Rights and the End of Empire. Britain and Genesis of the European Convention, Oxford 2001), who both addressed for the first time the important connections between human rights discourse and the end of colonial rule.

Recent studies have now started focusing even more explicitly on the connection between human rights discourse Burke Decolonization Human Rightsand the collapse of European colonial empires. For example, Roland Burke’s Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights (Philadelphia 2010) analyzes the changing impact of decolonization on the UN human rights program. In showing the crucial importance of Third World influence on the international human rights agenda Burke offers an inspiring new perspective. He convincingly reveals the very active role played by the anticolonial movement in the discourse of human rights within the framework of the United Nations and shows that leading figures of the anticolonial movement also explicitly referred to human rights in their arguments.

Likewise Meredith Terretta emphasizes the importance of international human rights in the context of decolonization. By focusing on the case of the British and French Cameroons she demonstrates  “that African nationalists and the Western anti-imperial human rights advocates who supported them viewed UN Trust Territories as the most politically and legally viable channel through which to address the human rights abuses particular to colonial rule.”[1]

In her article she challenges the notion prominently articulated by Sam Moyn as well as Jan Eckel that human rights ideas played an insignificant role in the anti-colonial struggle for independence. Both argue that anti-colonialism was not a human rights movement because it more greatly invoked the idea of self-determination than that of human rights. In their perspectives on the historiography of human rights, the discourse emerged seemingly from nowhere and overnight in the 1970s.[2]

The controversy about the role of human rights in the process of decolonization was debated in the journal Humanity.[3]

The Last UtopiaAdditionally it was continued by Roland Burke, Bonny Ibhawoh, Sam Moyn, and myself at a section of the conference “Human Rights and Imperialism in Historical Perspective” held in August 2012 at the University of Sydney.

Furthermore, in my recently published book Human Rights in the Shadow of Colonial Violence. The Wars of Independence in Kenya and Algeria (Philadelphia 2013), originally published in German by Oldenbourg in 2009 as Menschenrechte im Schatten kolonialer Gewalt, I focus on the relationship between the emergence of human rights concepts after 1945 and the increasing radicalization of colonial violence.

klose human rightsThe comparative study uses the Mau Mau War in Kenya (1952–1956) and the Algerian War (1954–1962) as case studies to examine the policies of two major imperial powers, Britain and France. By analyzing the colonial states of emergency, counterinsurgency strategy, and the significance of humanitarian international law in both conflicts I show that the crimes on the part of Western powers that promoted human rights in other areas of the world were diametrically opposed to the growing global acceptance of universal rights. The aim is to demonstrate the mutual impact of the histories of international human rights and decolonization.

Neither the government in London nor in Paris did withdraw from their colonial possessions just because of a petition concerning human rights. From the metropolitan perspective, other issues like the destabilization of domestic politics and the growing economic burden caused by constant military engagement were decisive factors. However, France was under frequent anti-colonial attack from various UN bodies due to real or supposed war crimes in Algeria, and Britain was the first state accused by Greece of human rights violations in Cyprus under the provision of the European Convention on Human Rights. These incidents noticeably limited their role as credible actors in international politics. And thus managing worldwide public opinion was well out of their reach.

I therefore argue that the evolution of international human rights and the radicalization of colonial violence in the wars of decolonization after 1945 are intimately connected with each other, namely in the making of a human rights regime. Thus 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 renewal of international humanitarian law. 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. The wars of decolonization became the first major challenge and the testing ground for the newly established international norms.[4] While the colonial powers tried to deny the universal character of human rights in the colonies in general and in times of colonial emergency, the anti-colonial movement intentionally exploited reports about massive violations of basic rights such as forced resettlement, torture and summary killings to win the support of international public opinion.

Massive breaches of human rights standards thus became an integral part of international diplomatic debates – and human rights instruments of the United Nations like the right of petition were used on a massive scale for the first time. Even though I acknowledge the importance of the decade concerning human rights debates, I do not agree with Sam Moyn’s argument that “human rights […] emerged in the 1970s seemingly from nowhere”.[5]

Far from emerging overnight, it seems more likely to be the result of the previous contested debates of the 1950s as well as the 1960s. Only after the wars of decolonization, which (as I argue) had blocked the further evolution of the human rights regime for more than 15 years, and after the final decolonization former colonial powers like France and Great Britain could normalize their relationship to the United Nations. Without the burden of colonial wars these European states were now able to fulfill their self-declared advocacy for human rights. For instance, after the end of their empires they could 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 own colonies.

In sum, the decolonization wars influenced the human rights discourse in various ways. On the one hand, they obstructed significant expansion of the international human rights regime in the 1950s and 1960s. Together with their Western allies, colonial powers like Great Britain and France were not at all interested in effectively protecting universal human rights and codifying them in binding international law because they were pursuing a radicalized policy of violence in overseas territories like Kenya and Algeria. The governments in London and Paris saw universal human rights as a threat to their colonial interests and as a growing diplomatic burden. On the other hand, the period of contested decolonization was also a kind of testing ground and a catalyst for the new human rights regime after 1945, wherein vast shortcomings were being relentlessly exposed, and further human rights developments were triggered in a significant way.


[1] Meredith Terretta, ’We Had Been Fooled into Thinking that the UN Watches over the Entire World’: Human Rights, UN Trust Territories, and Africa’s Decolonization” in: Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 2 (May 2012), p. 332.

[2] Samuel Moyn, Chapter 3 “Why Anticolonialism Wasn’t a Human Rights Movement”, in: The Last Utopia. Human Rights in History, Cambridge (M.A.) 2010, p. 3,  p. 84-119.

[4] On this issue see also my article The Colonial Testing Ground. The ICRC and the Violent End of Empire: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/humanity/summary/v002/2.1.klose.html

[5] Moyn, Last Utopia, p. 3.

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