Decolonizing human rights: local struggles with global dynamics


Amnesty International Thailand activists and volunteers take part in a march for LGBTIQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Questioning) rights as well as Human rights in general in Bangkok, Thailand 16 December 2017.

This is a big year for human rights. December will mark 70 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. Over these seven decades, there have been major steps forward for women’s rights and LGBTI rights, in the fight against the death penalty, and in protecting civilians in conflict—to name only a few.

Yet, it looks and feels to many of us that this is not a time for celebration. The international human rights system is deadlocked, unable to respond effectively to crises—whether Myanmar or Syria or Gaza. Very few leaders stand ready to champion human rights and provide ethical leadership in the world. Respect for established norms is ebbing away quickly.

It is a good moment, then, to ask: why do we need human rights and what are they for? Human rights often mean different things to different people. And they don’t mean anything at all to a good number of people in the developing world. Growing up in India in the 1970s, at a time when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended almost all civil and political rights, with both my parents active in the Dalit and women’s rights struggles, I became president of my college students’ union. But I never classified myself as a human rights activist. The language and discourse of human rights—as discussed in London, Geneva and New York—was little known to most Indians at the time. Now that I know this discourse, I certainly feel I would have qualified as a human rights defender. But I don’t think that this lack of awareness has changed that much in the body politic of India.

I see human rights, therefore, as the struggles of ordinary people to hold those in power to account—particularly power that is abused by those in government or corporations. It does not matter whether we are talking about a violent husband, an abusive landlord, or a government criminalizing people because of who they are, or states playing games with people’s lives at the UN Security Council. These are all about the abuse of power against the powerless. And this is why we need some rules of the game, why we need human rights.

I see human rights, therefore, as the struggles of ordinary people to hold those in power to account.

But do human rights need decolonizing? Is that the right approach? I want to discuss how we as people who believe in human rights can set ourselves up for success in the face of current intensive challenges, using the lens of decolonization.

Firstly, the essence of human rights and decolonization are basically the same: the struggle for freedom against the abuse of power. The modern human rights framework as we know it was born in the crucible of decolonization. It is a historical context we would do well to remember.

Secondly, human rights themselves have always been subject to efforts at colonization: misappropriation and being manipulated for political ends. In this sense, the fight to decolonize human rights is a permanent one.

Thirdly, to be true to the character of human rights, we need to reconnect again with the struggles of ordinary people against abusive power.

That said, I believe that understanding the colonial aspect of the institution of human rights does offer some insights, but it is no way the most important part of the story. Ultimately, human rights are about the ongoing struggle of marginalized and oppressed peoples and individuals against abuse, distortion, and excess of power. It has long been fashionable to look at human rights in terms of North versus South, or East versus West. But what these analyses tend to miss is the historical connection between the human rights system and the element of people’s struggles against oppression. Historically, many of those struggles were of course decolonization struggles. But then—in many cases—they became the struggles of ordinary people whose European colonizers were replaced by domestic leaders cut from very similar cloth.

Yet the emphasis on human rights as law, and armchair debates about East versus West, have done little to place human rights tools into the hands of those who need them most. The idea that human rights were somehow an accessory of the Pax Americana gained currency over time. And human rights—specifically civil and political rights—became associated with the dominant political and economic models promoted by powerful Western countries. Also, for too long, many of us large non-governmental organizations, including Amnesty International, have had an over-reliance on American and European guardianship of human rights. When our power, money and decision-making comes from the North, we send a message about the moral authority of the North. We lose our organic connection with struggles in other parts of the word.

But the Western hypocrisy around rights found its absurd apotheosis in Guantánamo Bay—a human rights vacuum created in the service of a “war on terror” being fought in the name of freedom, and the values underpinning human rights. This is where it all unravels. And we see further evidence of that hypocrisy and selectiveness today in the brazen violation of the rights of refugees, and rampant Islamophobia.

The current crop of skeptical scholarship seems to be based on certain assumptions about what human rights are, and when they emerged. But, I would like to reiterate my preference to understand human rights as the affirmation of ongoing struggles against abuse, overreach, and the violence of power. Based on this view, I suggest three important directions of travel.

Firstly, we need a compelling vision for humanity which resonates with ordinary people. We have a serious problem on our hands in many parts of the world, from the Philippines to Turkey and from India to the USA, where human rights advocates are being painted as the elite and enemies of endogenous development. In this sense, human rights advocates are themselves portrayed by their antagonists as colonizers. They are presented as fighting for the rights of minorities and bad guys. Samuel Moyn has argued that human rights are the vehicle for our utopian dreams. But we cannot take it for granted that people articulate their utopias in human rights terms.

New ethical questions are also on the horizon. There are new colonizers from the corporate world, many in Silicon Valley. Some are colonizing the internet, others want to occupy other planets and outer space. Exponential technologies are raising fresh questions about what it means to be human.

As we see a boom in artificial intelligence today, as we see growing automation stripping away jobs and raising questions about the fitness of our social security models, as we see ever more clearly the effect of opaque algorithms on our tribalism and collective decision-making, the need for an ethical framework is abundantly clear.

Secondly, it is very important to fundamentally challenge the distinction between civil and political rights on one hand, and economic and social rights on the other. People do not experience their lives in these terms. This distinction has never made sense in the South, as those who have no voice are poor and those who are poor have no voice. Often this predicament happens when people are at the mercy of powerful companies and governments working in tandem. There are few better examples than the child laborers working in the artisanal cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which account for around 10% of all the world’s cobalt supply. Although the tide is slowly turning, companies are still doing too little to root out child labor from their supply chains, while the government is more interested in keeping problems hidden away than in confronting them.

Thirdly, unless our posture is standing shoulder to shoulder with people in their struggles, we cannot truly hope to bring lasting change. International solidarity was a powerful driver for Northern publics and organizations to support struggles in the global South. But this often became a substitute for agency. At the heart of the human rights “project” is the importance of power and agency remaining in the hands of those who are suffering oppression and injustice.

Our quest to decolonize rights begins in the struggles, in the gatherings of people to challenge oppression. One particular source of inspiration has been the growth of women and girls’ movements over the past year, such as #MeToo and Time’s Up. Dismantling patriarchy is perhaps the oldest struggle of them all, and not an isolated one. Women’s rights movements have for many years shown us the importance of the intersectional nature of struggles: black women, Dalit women, women with disabilities, and women with diverse sexualities are all fighting multilayered battles. But at the end, it comes back to their pursuit of dignity and equality, in the face of historic oppression and injustice.

Let me finish with the story of Melchora, an Indigenous woman activist in Peru. In the absence of clean water, many people—men, women and children alike—were falling sick in their community and children were unable to concentrate at school. Melchora and others in her community took up their case and fought it at every level in pursuit of justice—a courageous battle against the most basic injustice in the face of a massive power differential, but with the dogged determination that the rightness of her demand would prevail.

And that, really, is where human rights begin and end.

This piece in an adaptation from a speech delivered by Salil Shetty at the London School of Economics on May 22, 2018. The original text can be downloaded here.