Roland Burke


On his book Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights

Cover Interview of July 25, 2010

The wide angle

This book originated in the search for the origins of contemporary skepticism on the universality of human rights—a skepticism exemplified by the 1990s controversy on “Asian Values,” and more recent debates on the compatibility of Islam and women’s rights.

Were post-colonial leaders, and anti-colonial nationalists, always hostile to the idea of universal values?  When did the critique of universality, so prevalent in the modern era, actually emerge?  As it turns out, when you look at the archives, speeches, and UN records, it was not a defining feature of early anti-imperialism.  Counterintuitively, it was the crusading European imperialists who were the most careful to defer to the claims of cultural particularity, at least when it suited them.

Literature on the universality of rights has often been consumed by the abstract propositions of political theorists and philosophers, who argue about the virtue of rights in a way far removed from their operation and historical evolution.  I sought to approach the problem of human rights and the post-colonial world by looking at what happened—what was said, and what was done, in the great debates on human rights.

As impressive as the gladiatorial struggles of philosophical argument may be, they were not, ultimately, what determined the fate of human rights on the international political stage.  The passage of the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All-Forms of Racial Discrimination, for example, rested not on the logical power of the case for human equality, but on the skilful rhetoric and diplomacy of its champions—champions from countries like Ghana and the Philippines.

Beyond the perennial conflict on the question of universality, I sought to examine the way the human rights ideas circulated, both within the UN across the world.  An impressive body of scholarship has been devoted to the history of the most famous UN initiative, the Universal Declaration.  But historical attention to the decades that followed has been, in real terms, quite threadbare.  I wanted to explore what happened after that 1948 momentous session of the General Assembly—those grand articles of the Declaration had been announced to the world, but what would happen next?  Who would take the place of the great architects of the Declaration—the American Eleanor Roosevelt, the Frenchman René Cassin, and the Canadian John Humphrey?

It was, overwhelmingly, those from the newly independent countries, and countries outside the West.  The fate of the program was inherited by figures like Salvador Lopez from the Philippines, Mohammed Abu Rannat of Sudan, and the Iraqi delegate Badia Afnan.  For better or worse, the future of the UN effort on human rights was no longer in Western hands.