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Can we decolonise human rights?

"Who defines the concept of human rights?" Stephen Hopgood asks. The answer will come from a new North-South dialogue building on the foundations of the dominant eurocentric history, which could reclaim the emancipatory potential of the human rights tradition. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Emerging Powers and Human RightsEspañol, Português, 中国语文, Deutsch.

José-Manuel Barreto
21 August 2013

Stephen Hopgood is right when he says that there is a crisis in the way human rights are conceived from the perspective of the global North, and calls for a "transnational kind of movement" that recreates, reinvigorates and takes forward human rights in the times of globalisation. For him, human rights are to be redefined in a "post-western world." The path suggested by Hopgood finds a congenial space in openGlobalRights, a "multilingual project aiming to bring people of the south and north together in a discussion about the future of human rights." Indeed, this "new kind of debate" holds the key for a different conceptualisation of human rights, one which advances the struggle for global justice.

The conventional eurocentric understanding of rights does not allow for a comprehensive history of rights. Emerging from historical events like the French Revolution and the atrocities of World War II, and from accompanying landmarks such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man, human rights were adopted as a response to absolutism and totalitarianism. Born in these specific circumstances, rights have been mainly conceived as shields to protect individuals from abuse by their own governments.

Understandings of social and economic rights have been part of the same western canon. Though political ideologies cleaved this tradition during the Cold War, Karl Marx’s critique of individual rights, as well as the socialist lineage of social and economic rights, created a contemporary definition of rights more closely resembling that suggested by Louis Henkin, "a twentieth-century synthesis of an eighteenth-century thesis and a nineteenth-century antithesis." The liberal and the socialist traditions of rights are fundamental political and ethical assets of all civilisations, and need to be treasured and defended for centuries to come.

But is it possible to think of human rights from the perspective of the third world, or from the point of view of the victims of five centuries of colonialism advanced by empires and transnational companies?

The utopian energy of human rights must be entrenched and thought anew. As part of this task it is important to delegitimise the use of human rights as tools of imperialism: from Francisco de Vitoria and Juan de Sepúlveda in the 16th century to George Bush and Tony Blair, the rhetoric of natural law and human rights has been used to justify colonial wars.  Furthermore, we must reclaim the anti-imperial and emancipatory potential of human rights, and imagine a theory grounded in the landscape of the history and geography of modern imperialism and neo-colonialism.

This can be achieved by supplementing the dominant eurocentric tradition of rights. A new approach could re-write the history of human rights to include a number of eccentric events: the resistance to the conquest of the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries; the independence later gained by colonies throughout the Americas; the struggles against slavery; the Haitian and Mexican Revolutions; the decolonisation of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Middle East in the 20th century; the Civil Rights and Anti-Apartheid Movements; the struggles against right-wing and leftist dictatorships and totalitarian regimes in Latin America and Communist Europe in the 1980’s. Last but not least, the emergence of indigenous groups, social movements and entire peoples fighting today in the global South against abuse and devastation caused by contemporary states, empires, transnational corporations and international financial institutions.

In a similar way it is vital to show how outside the west there also exists an intellectual tradition of resistance to imperialism and to the violence of the state in which natural law and human rights are central. This alternative canon includes the works of figures such as Bartolomé de las Casas, Antonio de Vieira, Guamán Poma, Otobah Qugoano, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Sojourner Truth, WEB du Bois, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchú and Upendra Baxi, among others. All these omitted historical landmarks and marginal thinkers should feature prominently alongside the landmarks of the dominant but incomplete eurocentric history and theory of human rights.

We need to re-think or to decolonise human rights in order to face the challenges of globalisation and neo-colonialism. One of the ways forward is to classify the mainstream theory of rights as eurocentric, and to elaborate a more complex theory through a critical dialogue between eurocentric and third-world perspectives, one that accompanies longstanding South-South dialogues.

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