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Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 22.1-2 (2002) 59-75

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The Postcolonial State and the Protection of Human Rights

Take up the White Man's burden—
      The savage wars of peace—
Fill full the mouth of Famine
      And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest,
      The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
      Bring all your hope to nought.1
Rudyard Kipling
The Englishman was able to feel that none, whether in or out of Egypt, were inclined to gainsay the righteousness of his cause...(T)he saviour should believe in himself and in his mission. This the Englishman did. He was convinced that his mission was to save Egyptian society, and, moreover, that he was able to save it.... (H)e was soon to find that to fulminate against abuses, which were the growth of centuries, was like firing a cannon-ball into a mountain of mud.... If he were to do any good, he must not only show what was to be done, but he must stay where he was and do it himself.2
Earl of Cromer

The large majority of postcolonial states in Asia and Africa,3 that is the twentieth century colonies, have had poor human rights records since independence, with the worst regional record in the Middle East. Of course, most public officials in postcolonial states eschew any public assertion that these violations resulted from colonialism to avoid responsibility for their states' human rights violations.4 The conventional explanation for such violations is that clientalist elites5 seek to control predatory states for prebendary gains6 and/or arbitrary personalist regimes dominate by arbitrary decision-making by and for a ruler who is unconstrained by effective institutions, where state terror is applied to achieve stability, repress opponents, and dominate access to patronage.7 Statistical studies of postcolonial states have used regression analysis to explain the causes of underdevelopment.8 Some have more recently argued that those colonies where foreign settlers developed quasi-democratic and capitalist institutions became better at protecting rights and promoting growth.9 Unlike Spanish and Portuguese settlers, the British settled with their families indefinitely and had a strong incentive to develop the same liberal, and increasingly democratic institutions contemporaneously developed in Britain, albeit with the crucial difference of the subjugation of non-English subjects. While English colonialists settled in territories more than other colonial empires, English acquisition of colonial territory varied. A. B. Dicey's differentiated English colonies as those nations "seeded" (India, Hong Kong), "settled" (US), and conquered (South Africa).10 There were also English colonies with multiple colonizers, such as the US, Canada and South Africa. Such distinctions have effects, which will be examined below. Consequently, many British colonies have more effectively protected "the rights of Englishmen" and their subjects than have the colonies and post-colonies of France, Spain and Portugal. By contrast, Haiti is the exemplar of the worst situation where all of the French colonial settlers left the country after the 1804 independence, leaving behind mostly the culture of slavery and the repressive institutions used to perpetuate it; even though the ideals of the French revolution had partly inspired the world's only successful slave revolution. Furthermore, the country was subsequently isolated by the US embargo, ironically imposed by Secretary of State Jefferson until 1863, and impoverished by the burdensome fee extracted by France as compensation for the loss of its wealthiest colony and for its promising not to invade Haiti again. However, the hypothesis that the superior human rights records of English settler colonies is disconfirmed in Sudan, Pakistan, and Nigeria, among others. French settler colonies like Algeria have had even worse violations.

By the same token, assertions of neo-imperialism, the domination of postcolonial states by great powers, would provide a partial explanation, but would also be fraught with the same pattern of high variance among the cases and many exceptions. Certainly, client states of the US and the Soviet Union...


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