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Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights

By Roland Burke

Publication Year: 2010

In the decades following the triumphant proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the UN General Assembly was transformed by the arrival of newly independent states from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. This diverse constellation of states introduced new ideas, methods, and priorities to the human rights program. Their influence was magnified by the highly effective nature of Asian, Arab, and African diplomacy in the UN human rights bodies and the sheer numerical superiority of the so-called Afro-Asian bloc. Owing to the nature of General Assembly procedure, the Third World states dominated the human rights agenda, and enthusiastic support for universal human rights was replaced by decades of authoritarianism and an increasingly strident rejection of the ideas laid out in the Universal Declaration.

In Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights, Roland Burke explores the changing impact of decolonization on the UN human rights program. By recovering the contributions of those Asian, African, and Arab voices that joined the global rights debate, Burke demonstrates the central importance of Third World influence across the most pivotal battles in the UN, from those that secured the principle of universality, to the passage of the first binding human rights treaties, to the flawed but radical step of studying individual pleas for help. The very presence of so many independent voices from outside the West, and the often defensive nature of Western interventions, complicates the common presumption that the postwar human rights project was driven by Europe and the United States. Drawing on UN transcripts, archives, and the personal papers of key historical actors, this book challenges the notion that the international rights order was imposed on an unwilling and marginalized Third World. Far from being excluded, Asian, African, and Middle Eastern diplomats were powerful agents in both advancing and later obstructing the promotion of human rights.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights

Title Page

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pp. iii

Copyright Page

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pp. iv

Table of Contents

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pp. v

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Introduction: The Politics of Decolonization and the Evolution of the International Human Rights Project

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pp. 1-12

On 10 December 1948, an overwhelming majority of states adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a momentous night session of the United Nations General Assembly. It was the culmination of nearly three years of intensive debate, negotiation, and far-reaching philosophical inquiry. The final text drew on more than fifty constitutions...

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Chapter 1. Human Rights and the Birth of the Third World:The Bandung Conference

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pp. 13-34

The 1955 Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia was a land- mark in the emergence of the non-aligned movement and the birth of the Third World.1 Celebrated as a turning point in international affairs, its participants included the six independent states of Africa, along with virtually all of Asia. The meeting at Bandung, which was so vital to the...

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Chapter 2. “Transforming the End into the Means”: The Third World and the Right to Self-Determination

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pp. 35-58

Since the closing phases of drafting on the Universal Declaration in 1948, the right to self-determination has been the source of intense political controversy. These debates on self-determination encapsulated the fraught and volatile relationship between anticolonialism, rights, and democracy in Third World...

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Chapter 3. Putting the Stamps Back On: Apartheid, Anticolonialism, and the Accidental Birth of a Universal Right to Petition

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pp. 59-91

The Third World’s pivotal role in the expansion of the UN human rights powers is one of the greatest paradoxes in the history of the organization. For more than twenty years, diplomats from the Afro-Asian bloc were the most potent force for change in the interpretation of Article 2(7) in the UN Charter...

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Chapter 4. “It Is Very Fitting”: Celebrating Freedom in the Shah’s Iran, the First World Conference on Human Rights,Tehran 1968

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pp. 92-111

In April 1968, exactly thirteen years after the Bandung Conference, the first UN International Conference on Human Rights opened in Tehran. Even by the standards of the chaotic UN program, it was an extraordinary event. Connections between Nazism and Zionism, apartheid and...

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Chapter 5. “According to Their Own Norms of Civilization”: The Rise of Cultural Relativism and the Decline of Human Rights

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pp. 112-144

There is no debate more persistent or more fundamental to the study of human rights in the Third World than that between cultural relativism and universality. Nothing less than the legitimacy of human rights for African and Asian peoples rests on its outcome. For more than five decades, universality has been the site of bitter academic...

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pp. 145-149

The principal triumph of the African, Asian, and Arab diplomats who entered the UN in the 1950s and 1960s was their successful struggle to make human rights truly universal. Prior to the battles of the 1950s, the notion of different human rights for African and Asian peoples had widespread currency, among defenders of European colonialism, and anti-imperialist critics alike. Well-meaning anthropologists like Boas...


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pp. 151-198


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pp. 199-224


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pp. 225-232


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pp. 233-234

E-ISBN-13: 9780812205329
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812242195

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights