Roland Burke


On his book Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights

Cover Interview of July 25, 2010


Today, the legitimacy of human rights often seems to rest on competing arguments about their past formulation.  Much of the rhetorical armamentarium employed by the planet’s most egregious dictatorships pivots on the claim that their cultural and traditional values were not accounted for in the development of the international human rights system.

From atheist autocrats, to Islamic theocrats, to African kleptocrats, assertions of exclusion and marginalization reside at the heart of attacks on human rights standards as imperialist, inapplicable, and illegitimate.  Such assertions were at the heart of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s repudiation of the Universal Declaration in 1984, and its attacks on democratic dissent in 2009.  Yet a previous generation of leaders and diplomats, many of whom were directly engaged in winning independence, actively fought for those very same standards against real—and well-armed—imperialists from Britain, France, and the Netherlands.

My book provides an insight into the complex history of Third World engagement in the birth of the modern human rights order.  I recover the story of those battles fought to make human rights truly universal, to outlaw racial discrimination, and discredit the eloquent excuses of colonialism.  Then the book illuminates the depressing reversal of that universality, as the post-colonial world lapsed into the kind of authoritarianism it had once struggled against.

Across the work, my focus remains on those voices from outside the West.  Voices that both consolidated and compromised the hopeful vision of rights for all that was announced in their absence in 1948.

© 2010 Roland Burke