Decolonization: The Black Box of Human Rights?
In 2007, Reza Afshari published a remarkable article in Human Rights Quarterly. It marked a turning point for the new human rights historiography that has emerged over the last decade, but it has not been fully recognized for this contribution. The article “On Historiography of Human Rights” was at a first glance a sixty-seven-page reflection on Paul Gordon Lauren’s Pulitzer-nominated book The Evolution of Human Rights: Visions Seen. In reality, it was so much more. What Afshari achieved was to write a piece that addressed not only historiography, but also historical method and managed to present an alternative history of human rights. He painted on a large canvas while paying considerable attention to detail at the same time.
The article brought human rights historiography down to earth—away from the centuries-long narratives that was veering towards teleological explanations and overly normative approaches and brought the wider research field towards a more self-reflexive, critical, and complex reckoning with human rights in history. For this, his article remains an inspiration and a piece still worth returning to and learning from—even if the field of human rights history has significantly expanded in scope and depth since then.
Despite its many merits, I want to engage with one aspect of the article where I believe the historiography over the last few years has proved him wrong in important ways, namely on the relationship between the era of decolonization and human rights. Afshari goes far in discarding the relevance of this connection. In my view, this connection is one of the most important, [End Page 200] fruitful, and challenging research topics currently in human rights history and the research on this has ramifications for the wider cross-disciplinary field of human rights research.
It is difficult in this short space to give justice to Afshari’s discussion about the anti-colonial and human rights. There certainly are worthwhile insights, but I would argue that this is the one place in the article that he himself veers close towards the teleological that he otherwise so convincingly deconstructs in Lauren’s book. First of all, Afshari too readily reduces the Third World agendas on human rights during the era of decolonization to questions of “Western colonialism and racism.” He loses sight of what the historian Nico Slate has labeled “colored cosmopolitanism”—a term Slate uses to capture the global visions and outlooks of Global South actors—which is relevant in this historical context as it brings more nuance and complexity to the historical processes in question.1 We should also be careful when describing anti-colonial movements as “single issue” or “single-cause.”2 There was always more at stake and wider questions involved and, perhaps most importantly, considerable variation between actors that constituted the term “The Third World.”
Besides this point about allowing for variation, we should also not necessarily let “anti-colonial movements” serve as a representative proxy for the much broader historical phenomenon of the decolonization process.3 The former focuses on specific actors, the latter on a wider structural transformation of global politics. There is a category difference here that we must observe and adequately address—in both method and interpretation.
The point where Afshari veers towards teleology is the following: “[T] he expectation that prevailed at the time must be reevaluated in the light of what awaited the ex-colonized countries and their long suffering citizens in the hands of their own independent states.”4 Now many may well agree with this observation and it is not without merit. However, it raises the question: To what extent should we allow human rights outcomes appearing later to determine the histories that we explore and write?
To be fair, Afshari may have been expressing a word of caution concerning Lauren’s interpretations. However, this question has for a long time had wider salience in human rights discourse. It has kept researchers and practitioners from exploring the deeper histories of the emergence of international human rights during the first decades after 1945—where on a world-wide scale the [End Page 201] colonial, the anti-colonial, and the early post-colonial met and their overlaps were so influential in re-shaping international politics, diplomacy, and law.
The focus on known historical outcomes has kept us from looking in greater depth at the complexity, variation, and nature of human rights’ struggles and their failings across a larger empirical range of countries. I would argue that it is only very recently that this has started to be adequately addressed. Getting this right is of profound significance to a topic that lies at the heart of human rights discourse—and one that Professor Afshari cares deeply about—namely the universality of human rights.
Human rights history has been providing some of the strongest empirical evidence to underpin the notion of universality and to counter the idea of human rights as a Western project. Afshari is spot-on when he argues that “the international human rights community has too vigorously celebrated its assumed normative achievements.”5 The overly normative approaches have had the effect of sidelining the role of human rights in post-1945 transnational politics. However, we are now looking at more profound forms of evidence and deeper contextualized histories that allows for a re-positioning or re-engagement, or both, with the normative in human rights research.6
Put differently, I would argue that mid-twentieth century decolonization is the black box for understanding human rights. Afshari had a point when he criticized Paul Gordon Lauren for locating voices and too crudely labeling them “human rights visions.” But Lauren was right in looking in this direction. The larger point is that we should use this “black box of human rights” that decolonization constitutes to search for major explanations as to the emergence, design, chronology, and content of the postwar human rights regime.
In its traditional function, the black box plays a decisive role in revealing causes or causalities that are not easy to discern when taking the evidence at face value. This evidence may be scattered across a large landscape or it may be lost or submerged in the deepest sea, but its potential relevance still helps determine the search for important truths. Applied in this historical context, we need to intensify our search for the sources to these histories in new geographies and aim at drawing multi-faceted transnational links between events, processes, political contestations, and structures in the legal, economic, social, and political domains. It is more than just the historical record that is at stake. I therefore have to differ when Afshari writes that: “Without passing a value judgment on non-Western cultures, it can be demonstrated [End Page 202] that due to certain historical circumstances, the ground was laid for human rights vision only in Western Europe in a relatively recent past.”7
Decolonization was such a transformative historical process—the largest transfer of sovereign power in world history—and impacted the world at so many levels that I do not see what defined human rights as having a clear place of origin or a home or care-of address. Rather, human rights emerged as part of intersections and interactions linked to other and quite diverse historical processes. Decolonization did not just shape the colonial world. It also had a profound influence on the societies that were former empires. Much of the world as we know it today emerged in these spaces in-between—including vital dimensions of human rights.
This is why we cannot too quickly dismiss Third World or Global South contributions to this story. Many of these actors and the countries they represent fit within the interpretation that Afshari laid out, but a critical number of them complicate the picture sufficiently that we need to bring out the individuality of their “projects” and contributions. We therefore need to be more specific and precise when concluding that “[n]o human rights consciousness blossomed as the darkness of colonialism was lifted and the ‘Third World consciousness’ celebrated.”8 As a generalized conclusion, it no longer rings true.
Despite the above reservations, Reza Afshari’s 2007 article “On Historiography of Human Rights” is a rich and comprehensive exploration of its topic. Put differently, the “vision seen” by Reza Afshari back then was that of a much-needed historical turn in human rights studies. He helpfully paved the way for others by showing how critical, knowledgeable, and committed scholarship could pursue the path that lay ahead. That contribution was no small collegial feat. [End Page 203]
Steven L. B. Jensen, is Senior Researcher at The Danish Institute for Human Rights. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Copenhagen. He is the author of The Making of International Human Rights. The 1960s, Decolonization and the Reconstruction of Global Values (Cambridge UP 2016) which was awarded the 2017 Human Rights Best Book Award and the Chadwick Alger Prize for Best Book on International Organization by the International Studies Association. His current research focuses on the history of economic and social rights.
1. Nico Slate, Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India (2012).
2. Reza Afshari, On Historiography of Human Rights Reflections on Paul Gordin Lauren’s The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen, 29 Hum. Rts. Q. 1, 43 (2007).
3. This is a misperception that soon after spilled over into the analysis in Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia 84–119 (2010).
5. Id. at 64.
6. Steven L. B. Jensen & Roland Burke, From the Normative to the Transnational: Methods in the Study of Human Rights History, in Research Methods in Human Rights: A Handbook 117(Bård A. Andreassen, Hans-Otto Sano, & Siobhán McInerney-Lankford eds., 2017).
8. Id. at 65.