Who Owns Human Rights?




DECEMBER 10 MARKED the 70th anniversary of the United Nations’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Since 1948 the date has been observed as Human Rights Day, and this year I celebrated it in Geneva at a conference where academics and lawyers reflected on the document and its legacy. Throughout, I observed the phenomenon of UDHR-worship, this troubling tendency to hurry past the document’s original sins regarding colonial and racial violence and in so doing extend its past hypocrisies into the present. For all its achievements, praising the UDHR without confronting its complicity in ethnocentric and self-interested definitions of humanity perpetuates a European locus for a movement that has long since gone global. It reduces human rights history to White History.

Describing the UDHR as a bastion against Trumpism, Brexit confusion, and burgeoning nationalist xenophobia, the symposium attendees reinforced how this is a document alive — a product of its original context, it has become a catalyst that propels the world forward and makes new futures possible. Yes, Jan Smuts, who worried that white South Africans would be “swamped” by blacks, was part of the UDHR’s creation story, but no matter: the human rights concept then trained its gaze on the oozing sore of racial apartheid! The names of the members of the drafting committee, including Eleanor Roosevelt, John Humphrey, and René Cassin, were called reverently; the younger scholars in the room were advised to make offerings, to seek out their kinship: who among the attendees had been advised by someone who’d been advised by Humphrey? Defending the human rights ideal was paramount: it was time to circle the wagons, to do away with all this weak-chinned apologetics and return to the founding fathers (and mother) for inspiration!

In this setting, it seemed important to mention that apartheid was not brought down by the UDHR or any other document in international human rights law but by people who fought and bled and died because they believed they were fully human, even if Smuts, in all his brilliance, chose to overlook this inconvenient fact. I could not help but remember that Britain, shortly after championing the UDHR, established concentration camps in response to the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya. There are costs, in 2018, to continuing to draw the borders of human rights history so they align with early 20th-century maps that place Europe firmly at the center of the world.

In this moment of high worship, it was as though Makau Mutua, the Kenyan legal scholar and activist, had never confessed in his African Studies Review paper “Human Rights in Africa: The Limited Promise of Liberalism” that he saw in human rights a “system of ordering the world […] that made [him] […] aware of [his] subordinate and marginal place in it, as the other.” It was as though Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani had never warned us to “Beware Human Rights Fundamentalism!” and its disaster-making tendency to choose ethical indignation over historical understanding. It was as though Aimé Césaire, in his 1950 essay “Discourse on Colonialism,” had never looked at the beginnings of the human rights apparatus, the conferences in Dumbarton Oaks and San Francisco, and called them “pseudo-humanism,” “narrow and fragmentary, incomplete and biased, and all things considered, sordidly racist.” It was difficult to imagine that as we met in Geneva, across the Atlantic Ajamu Baraka, a national organizer for the Black Alliance for Peace and a US Green Party activist, was calling in Black Agenda Report for human rights to be “seized from the barbaric grip of Europe and de-colonized.”

It became clear that to this day decades of critiques about the complicity of international human rights efforts in the afflictions of our global modernity — racism, imperialism, extractive globalization — remain buried under so many layers of triumphalism and ancestor worship. And with the erasure of these voices so too is lost the benefit of their critique. In short, it was as if the history of international human rights were entirely White!

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Remember P. C. Chang!

I know that using “Whiteness,” a racialized concept that is most intelligible within a national context, to analyze a transnational experience may be troubling to the reader. Elsewhere, I have written about the lie of race as biology — I do not wish to naturalize the falsehood that human phenotypical diversity represents essential distinctions between people. So I confess that I do not know whether my colleagues in Geneva were white. I did not ask them. However, using critical race theory’s analysis of Whiteness as a sociological process that insulates its subject from awareness of his ongoing relationship to histories of enslavement, imperialism, and other forms of political and economic exclusion, I can safely say that the presentations of the day were White — blindingly so.

At the end of the day, after a stirring evening lecture, a Guyanese man in the audience stood up and blurted out: “P. C. Chang! P. C. Chang! Why has he been overlooked?!” Yes, yes, everyone murmured, we must remember P. C. Chang and Charles Malik, quite right! And then, as though the man had never spoken, the conversation quickly returned to parsing the legacy of Cassin, Raphael Lemkin, and other European statesmen. The briefest mention of a Chinese delegate, or a Lebanese delegate, on the drafting committee, this was enough. The idea of human rights as an initiative of White men and White governments prevailed in the 1940s — and so it is today.

In a March 1949 speech in New York, Eleanor Roosevelt, the doyenne of the Universal Declaration, relayed a story that today may be seen as a case study in White cluelessness. Roosevelt described being told by a Chilean delegate that the UDHR remained an “Anglo-Saxon document” despite her committee’s efforts to dialogue with diplomats from other nations. “I had been thinking that it was a joint document which we had produced,” she said, in classic White-woman style. But the Chilean delegate insisted, “It still is an Anglo-Saxon document,” one to which he had had to become accustomed over time after originally being “shocked.”

This is the Whiteness of international human rights; it is a dinner party host that chooses the date, sets the table, settles on the menu, and then proudly declares the fete a potluck because others attended — and furthermore insists that guests claim it as one of their greatest achievements. Kudos to Roosevelt, who in all her Whiteness still managed to reflect on the imbalance of power in a supposedly egalitarian process:

You see how unaware we are of the fact that other nations think of things that come up in terms of not representing their thinking, or their type of law, or their type of religious feeling […] [C]ertainly sometimes we should become accustomed to thinking in their terms, as well as having them thinking in our terms.

Nevertheless, these well-meaning musings, like efforts to spotlight the participation of diplomats of darker hue, cannot propel us beyond exclusionary Whiteness. The “Anglo-Saxon-ness” of the UDHR is not politically or substantively neutral. Likewise, the presence of well-heeled diplomats from Asia, Latin America, and Africa cannot fix the problem of the human rights movement’s historical entanglement with colonialism. Highlighting the involvement of delegates from the Global South in a human rights history that remains enthralled by Western geography and iconography leaves untouched the fundamental issue: the exclusions of international human rights are not a matter of culture or of representation but of power.

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Who Owns Human Rights?

On this 70th anniversary, we should be clear that human rights history has never been solely the province of White hegemony. The UDHR, like all subsequent proclamations, has always been subject to debate and dissent. There have always been those who would push and pull at the official human rights apparatus, stretching it, pounding it like cassava, using it and discarding it in turn. International human rights, glory be, has a life of its own; there are other ancestors. That these critiques continue to be purged or ignored to create the pretense of consensus steals from us the robust vision of international human rights that we need.

Beyond the documents, laws, resolutions, and conventions, separate from the flows of capital and expertise emanating from Geneva and New York, there are activists, organizations, and political and social movements around the world unapologetically using the language of human rights to pursue their own visions of justice and dignity. At age 70, this is perhaps the UDHR’s brightest legacy: in all eras there have been those who looked at the Whiteness of human rights history and dared to claim its language of power for a broader struggle. The challenging, essential work of hewing, molding, and refining human rights into a vehicle that can safeguard the dreams of all those who suffer is still being done.

This week, I celebrate these other ancestors, these other declarations of human rights.

I celebrate Egyptian activist Nawal El Saadawi, who explains, “[W]e must deal with female circumcision ourselves. It is our culture, we understand it, when to fight against it and how, because this is the process of liberation.”

I celebrate S’bu Zikode, founder of South Africa’s Abahlali baseMjondolo, who, in conversation with the UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, explains that his organization’s “primary strategy is always to build the power of the poor and to reduce the power of the government and NGOs to dominate us.”

I celebrate the Love Knows No Borders campaign occurring now at the US-Mexico border and its demand that the abomination of incarcerating asylum seekers in shelters and for-profit detention centers must end. 

I celebrate the opening of Dakar’s Museum of Black Civilizations, 52 years in the making, and the accompanying words of Senegalese culture minister Abdou Latif Coulibaly on the necessity of repatriating violently acquired art: “We are ready to find solutions with France, but if 10,000 pieces [of African art] are identified in the [French] collections, we are asking for all 10,000.”

This, too, is the history of human rights.

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Abena Ampofoa Asare is an assistant professor of Africana Studies and History at Stony Brook University whose writing has been published in The Radical Teacher, The International Journal of Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, and African ArgumentsShe is the author of Truth Without Reconciliation: A Human Rights History of Ghana (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).


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