Roland Burke


On his book Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights

Cover Interview of July 25, 2010

In a nutshell

My book charts the shifting impact of decolonization on the human rights project.  I challenge the presumption that the colonized were marginal players in the construction of the human rights order.  Using new archival research, I demonstrate the decisive influence of post-colonial figures on the key debates that shaped the human rights system.

In 1948, the UN General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the cornerstone of a global movement to promote and protect individual freedoms across the world.  Yet the General Assembly that claimed to speak for the world represented only part of it, with much of Asia and Africa outside the halls of the UN, their voices muted under the rule of European empires.

As these empires collapsed, the debate on human rights became truly universal.

By the 1960s, it was a chorus of former colonies that determined its trajectory.  In an era when the superpowers dominated so much of the international agenda, in the sphere of human rights, it was the voices of the nascent “Third World” that dictated proceedings—often to the irritation and despair of their Western counterparts.

During the 1950s, it was those who had been left out of the deliberations of 1947 and 1948 that were the most ardent and articulate champions of universality—confounding the claims of critics who cited insuperable cultural differences between the civilizations of Europe and those of the former colonies.

Less than a decade later, the Third World’s embrace of universality had begun to loosen, with a wave of assertive dictatorships denigrating the vision set out in 1948.

Unlike almost all other arenas in the Cold War period, the UN General Assembly, and in particular, the human rights program it supervised, were a field where the least powerful states led the most powerful.

By the 1990s, major political leaders routinely dismissed human rights as a project dominated by the West, and demanded, admittedly without success, a wholesale revision of the principles laid down in 1948.