Roland Burke


On his book Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights

Cover Interview of July 25, 2010

A close-up

Two sections of the book exemplify its arguments and their significance—and it would be wonderful if, in the hands of a reader, the volume serendipitously fell open at them, preferably out of sequence.

The first relates to the notion of cultural relativism, on page 119.  The constant refrain from those who attack universal human rights is that their universality is illusory, a neo-colonial imposition on societies outside the West.  Yet in October 1950, it was those countries which wanted to retain control of their colonies that invoked the problems of cultural difference.  Defenders of European colonialism feigned respect for Asian and African tradition and culture as an excuse for weakening the principle of universality in the new draft human rights treaty.  By contrast, the Iraqi, Egyptian, and Indian delegations argued against the notion of cultural differences—and successfully insisted on the universal application of rights.

Far from being the handmaiden of imperialism, universality was, in fact, the prime weapon of those representatives who sought the end of colonial rule. Universal human rights were an integral part of decolonization—exalted as a set of ideas for liberation, not oppression.  Given the later record of so many post-colonial regimes, their sincerity might be seriously questioned, but in these early days, it seemed real enough.  And in terms of effects, this outspoken advocacy sharply strengthened the principle of the same rights for all, regardless of tradition, nationality, or culture.

If the reader accidentally dropped the book again, I would hope it fell open to page 108.  Here, a short vignette illustrates the level of control the Third World would gain over the human rights agenda.

At the First World Conference on Human Rights, held in Tehran in April 1968, the decolonized utterly dominated proceedings—so much so that an unlikely marriage was made between the US and the Soviet negotiating teams.  Driven together by their frustration at being sidelined from the proceedings, American and Soviet diplomats grumbled to each other about being “exploited.”

By the last week of the conference, the two Cold War enemies were sharing lunch in the US embassy, and the American diplomatic cables were reporting back that it was “comforting to know that even Soviets have their troubles and annoyance with small-time prima donnas who gang up to throw their weight around.”  Instead of the usual sterile Cold War polemics, the two superpowers agreed, in the words of the US delegation, to “take it easy on each other.”

Nothing better encapsulates the unusual dynamics of the human rights debate, where the strongest states in the world were reduced to consoling each other about their lack of control, sharing meals together as the Third World representatives wrote their priorities into the conference Proclamation.