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Postcolonial and Global Approaches to Human Rights


I will start with a few generalizations, move into definitions, and provide some descriptions of collaborative team research projects in which I am working. I will conclude by briefly contrasting a politics that names itself as “including the excluded” from a politics that operates according to “a logic of accountability.”

What can postcolonial studies offer workers in human rights? Postcolonial studies offers a wealth of detailed stories of past and ongoing injustices, including some associated with humanitarian missions of intervention; an inquiry into the challenges of memorialization and a reminder of the ways in which memory can be tied to forgetting; some valuable critiques of current human rights discourses and practices; some cautions about potential pitfalls; and some thinking about alternative approaches to imagining a justice that is yet to come. I will start with some of the cautions: postcolonial critique warns us to beware of the traps of ranking comparative victimages; of pitting Them against Us; and of indulging in what David Dabydeen calls “the pornography of empire,” a form of exotified fascination and repugnance, which can lead toward immersion in lamenting past injustices while turning a blind eye to current ones. Each time in history creates its own ways of dealing with injustice.

Ours seems to be the time of official apologies, truth and reconciliation commissions, and calls for restitution. These seem necessary to enable all inheritors of oppressive pasts, descendents of both oppressor and oppressed, and those who have indirectly benefited from those oppressions, to give the past its due and move forward into the future, but such actions are never sufficient on their own. They need to be balanced by an alertness to the ways in which certain practices, such as slavery, are no longer constituted in the same formations as they were during the Atlantic Slave Trade. New forms of enslavement require new tactics for their abolishment. It is not a case of one thing or the other. We need to read novels about the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade, and to think about how to memorialize such events so that future generations will continue to remember and learn from them, but we cannot afford to imagine that slavery exists only in the past, now that human rights advocacy has made it illegal. We can’t afford to feel smug in the present because past threats have evolved into new configurations.

These cautions are necessary because both human rights and postcolonial studies are disputed terms with many contradictory definitions and usages. For me, the postcolonial describes thinking that is committed to a decolonizing agenda and a respect for our ability to imagine better ways of living together. Decolonization remains a necessary process in politics, society, and the institutions involved in knowledge construction. That double agenda—of critique combined with hope for the future– requires vigilant attention to the ways in which colonial mindsets, institutions, and the violence they cause continue to influence and haunt the present. The “post” in postcolonial does not suggest that colonialism is over or that formerly colonized countries can forget colonialism. On the contrary, it is a reminder that even nation-states that are no longer officially colonial still need to deal with that history, and with the many ways in which that history has survived in policies, institutions, and mindsets today. The decolonizing project, then, recognizes the ways that the past survives into the present while also maintaining hope that human beings together are capable of imagining a better future.

As a literary scholar, I endorse Joseph Slaughter’s argument “that the gap between what everyone knows and what everyone should know poses human rights as a question of both literacy and legislation, as much matters of literature as of law” (3). These two projects need to advance together. Critical literacy, how people can learn to analyze the ways in which texts call their subjectivity into being, is thus an important component of the human rights agenda. I also share Slaughter’s definition of “contemporary human rights law as a complex of contested—and often contradictory—principles still in formation, whose fissures, discontinuities, and inconsistencies are both the source of its continued emancipatory potential and the evidence for the strong possibility that, when members of the international community contemplated human rights, everyone had something else in mind” (emphasis in original: 16). For this reason, I fully endorse the decision of the Canadian Human Rights Museum to imagine its realization as a museum of ideas, which is capable of evolving with the demands of our times and the special needs of our local place in the global system.

One of the questions postcolonial scholars ask of the contemporary human rights regime, then, is whether or not it has truly decolonized ideas about the human and ideas about rights which had been developed through centuries of colonial and capitalist domination that have excluded many colonized peoples from access to full human rights. Those questions take different forms in different parts of the world. In Canada, they involve rethinking and reworking mainstream society’s interactions with indigenous peoples and developing a truly respectful multicultural society based on the acknowledgement that we are all treaty peoples. That means that in Canada, for many, human rights involves taking account of the necessity of recognizing land rights and the importance of indigenous self-government. And it links decolonization to the demands of other equity-seeking groups, who seek gender and sexual justice.

My work in postcolonial studies has led me into collaborative work with globalization scholars investigating how the world is changing in response to new technologies, expanded trade arrangements, financial entanglements, and shifting power relations. For some, postcolonial work looks backward to critique colonial systems that are no longer relevant. For me, postcolonial work looks backward to understand how we live now and how and why we are advancing into the future along the paths we are taking, but that does not exclude recognizing that postcolonial work needs to seek alliances with those approaching human rights from differently-based positions.

So since 2000, I have been working with several team research projects that engage questions of human rights from different but related angles. “Globalization and Autonomy”, a SSHRC-funded MCRI, was designed to assess the opportunities for empowerment that globalization might create for individuals and communities seeking to secure and build autonomy and to determine how the autonomy available to individuals and communities might permit them to contest, reshape, or engage globalization. Our work, now published in 8 volumes with UBC press and in an online compendium, sees autonomy as the key value necessary for exercising full human rights in the world and a key metric for measuring the quality of those rights, but we also recognize that such a view requires careful definition of what we mean by autonomy since some postcolonial, feminist, and indigenous critics, reacting to neoliberal views of autonomy as aggressive individualism, argue a preference for other values, such as relationality or sovereignty. Our solution is to suggest a reconfiguring of autonomy to ensure it involves what feminists call “relational autonomy” and to stress its interchangeability with self-government, understood to operate at both individual and collective scales.

A second project, “Building South-North Dialogue in Globalization Research,” sought to redress the imbalances in global knowledge production and knowledge of globalization by recognizing the close links between epistemological justice and social justice (as elaborated by Arturo Escobar, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, and Walter Mignolo among others) and by asking, with Arjun Appadurai, what it might mean to take the idea of a “right to research” seriously. This right extends the right to education, recognized by the United Nations millennial goals, to include not just the right to learn what others know but also the right to produce research and contribute to the world’s knowledge.

A third project, “Building Global Democracy,” brings together academics, activists, and policymakers from around the world to advance knowledge and practice for greater public participation and control in the governance of global affairs. This project is based on the view that everyone has a right to a say in the decisions that affect their lives and since so much of our lives is now affected by decisions made elsewhere, our governance systems need to be reconfigured to make that right a reality. This project has a short term goal of informing people of the problem and inviting them to brainstorm possible solutions and a long term goal of changing how the world functions to enhance the democratic rights of everyone at multiple scales of belonging, from the local through the national to the global.

In his introduction to globalization studies, Jan Aart Scholte, the PI of the bgd project, views the transplanetary human rights movement as one of several trends around the world that show “increasing self-identification with humanity as a whole in the contemporary globalizing world” even as humanity remains just “one of multiple—and sometimes competing touchstones of identity,” (244), a situation that raises “fundamental questions about the nature of citizenship and the shape of political struggle” (255). Taking a governance approach to this situation, he suggests that “Perhaps the most far-reaching progressive global public policy initiative would be legally to subordinate all transplanetary governance to human rights standards” and he calls for developing “a legally binding and enforced transplanetary bill of rights” (396) as well as a host of other transplanetary initiatives designed to increase human security and equality. He concludes that an alternative, more humane globalization can not only be imagined but can also be achieved (422-3). This kind of work offers human rights activists a practical program to discuss and consider advocating for implementation.

My current team research project, funded by SSHRC, “Brazil/Canada Knowledge Exchange: Developing Transnational Literacies,” derives from the previous three to ask how the teaching of English can be used to enable people to advance their critical skills and exercise their autonomy on local and global scales. English, as a language and a literature, played a major role in promoting colonial mentalities and imperial power, and it has become even more powerful throughout the world with globalization. We are asking how English can be turned away from those functions and employed instead to enhance its user’s human rights and their agency in the world. As part of that project, we are committed to ensuring that English is not used to drown out other languages and the cultures they express but is employed instead in ways that encourage multilingualism, cross-cultural respect, and the language rights of others. While our core group seeks to strengthen Canadian connections with Brazil, and cross-regional connections, especially between universities and schools, within our two huge countries, we also maintain looser networks with colleagues working to develop transnational literacies in other parts of the world, and we may eventually seek to formalize these relationships too. These projects help to explain my investments in human rights and how I see my research, which has become increasingly interdisciplinary, supporting them.

I will now take a few minutes to explain where the postcolonial and human rights projects seem to intersect and where they might part company and to raise some questions about the work they do. Looked at from one perspective, the history of postcolonialism can be seen as the history of human rights—it is all about people asserting their rights to exercise their autonomy; from another perspective, the two movements seem to run along parallel lines but without much interaction; and from yet another perspective, they may be seen as working to keep each other honest, interrupting and questioning the assumptions with which each works as they pursue their related agendas, ensuring that the deeds match the words. There is disagreement about the motivations behind each, and how those motivations translate into practice, with implications for the lives of human beings and the world we share. At the most general level, human rights and postcolonialism can be described as utopian projects that seek to make a practical difference in the world. When we dig down into the details, however, some serious disagreements emerge: about priorities, how to act to achieve a better world, and what that better world might look like. Furthermore, each has now become institutionalized in ways that sometimes worry the other.

In Geopolitics and the Post-colonial: Rethinking North-South Relations, David Slater notes that “the post-colonial carries with it an important ethico-political dimension that is rooted in the critique of colonialism and imperialism and in the revalidation of autonomy and resistance to subordination” (165). To the extent that this ethico-political dimension can make common cause with discourses of human rights, there can be synergies between them. Where they may seem to come together is in their concern for the victims of violence and the righting of past wrongs. But they may not always agree on how to represent such violations nor how to compensate those who have been wronged.

Slater suggests that “the post-colonial analytical sensibility focuses on problems of difference, agency, subjectivity and resistance” but with the aim of challenging Western discourses of “progress, civilization, modernization, development and globalization” (164-5). These Western discourses are closely associated with the rise of human rights as it became what Michael Ignatieff calls “the dominant moral vocabulary in foreign affairs” today (cited in Schaffer & Smith: 1).

Postcolonial theories, which now span most disciplines, are generally suspicious of these progressivist moral discourses of human rights, in part because, as Slaughter observes, “Human rights speak the language of universalism and absolutes” (2007: 3). This is a language that for centuries dehumanized, demonized, and excluded many colonized and racialized peoples as well as women. The Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite writes about “the terrible terms meted out for [this kind of] universality” to African and African-descendent peoples. In the postcolonial classics, The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon exposes the hypocrisies and violence of a French colonialism that asserted the rights of man at the same time as it denied the full humanity of its black and Arab subjects. It is now well known that when the French revolution proclaimed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1793, it was not intended to include rights for slaves or women. In the first instance, then, many postcolonial writers draw attention to the gap between a rhetoric that proclaims equality and a reality that denies it.

From this point of view, one might conclude that decolonizing initiatives share a general commitment to the abstract ideal of human rights but simply wish to be granted them along with those more securely positioned as rights-bearing subjects. However, many suggest there are also deeper philosophical problems with the ways in which human rights discourse is conceived and made operational. Postcolonial thinkers draw attention to problematic definitions of the human that deny full humanity to many. They question the basis on which rights are theorized. And they ask questions about the kind of stories about human potential that human rights discourse privileges and those it may ignore.

We ask: Can human rights meet the desires of previously excluded individuals for full acknowledgement of their personhood? Can human rights do justice to the demands of previously dominated groups for recognition, autonomy, and a material base for exercising their sovereignty? How do human rights deal with the claims of collectivities? Are human rights confined to the privileging of the individual above the collectivity or are there other ways of conceptualizing this relation? One of the questions I ask in my current work is expressed by political theorist Bonnie Honig when she asks: “What are we doing when we express our concerns about immigration and foreignness through the bodies of women?” (65). I ask this question in a forthcoming book called Crosstalk in relation to the Hérouxville Code issued in Quebec a few years ago, expressly warning immigrants that Canadians don’t stone women, but it clearly resonates in relation to recent efforts at the national level to ban the hijab during immigration ceremonies. It also reminds us that human rights and women’s rights have not always been seen as necessarily commensurate.

Fanon concludes Black Skin, White Masks with the claim: “At the conclusion of this study, I want the world to recognize, with me, the open door of every consciousness. My final prayer: O my body, make of me always a man who questions!” (229-32). This utopian hope is one part of the postcolonial engagement with the potential of a human rights narrative to imagine a better world through never ceasing to question. The other side of such hope is a recognition of the danger implicit in salvage narratives (that is, the tendency to see other people as in need of being saved from themselves, from the ravages of their own culture, or from the challenges posed to them by cultures assumed to be superior). These are related to the storyline that Gayatri Spivak has immortalized in her phrase: “White men saving brown women from brown men.” Spivak first employed it to decipher the complexities of British prohibitions against sati, or widow-burning, in nineteenth-century India. It has since been revived to describe the alibis offered for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in our times. The claim is not one of cultural relativism, and it is not to suggest that individuals from outside a culture are not entitled to see certain practices as wrong. Spivak does not endorse sati. But she does not endorse the assumptions behind the move she calls “white men rescuing brown women from brown men” either. Rather, she unpacks the problematic assumptions behind this logic of salvation to warn all of us against complacency and against failing to respect the right of others to make their own decisions for themselves.

Negotiating the challenge of adjudicating competing rights claims, especially those offered by cultural and religious groups, is one of the most complex issues of our times. Debates about female genital mutilation and the wearing of the veil, have become powerful symbols for this dilemma. To negotiate these disputes, we need to pay closer attention to “how subjectivity is constituted and how systems of domination are reproduced” (Razack: 14). In Looking White People in the Eye, Sherene Razack identifies three organizing ideas that most often enable her North American students to deny that oppression exists. These are: “rights thinking, essential woman, and the culturalization of differences” (17). She suggests that “rights thinking is based on the liberal notion that we are all individuals who contract with one another to live in a society where each of us would have the maximum in personal freedom. Starting from this premise, there then are no marginalized communities of people and no historical relations of power” (17). Postcolonial theory critiques that premise. I suggest that human rights thinking does not need to proceed according to this logic, but it certainly seems true that much human rights thinking still works in this way. The problem with essentialist constructs of culture, gender, or race is that they too “mask relations of power” (21). Culturalization tends to construct white people as free of cultural influence, able to pick and choose our beliefs and practices, while it constructs our others as victims of their culture, unable to resist its claims upon them. This is why so many still assume that white men need to rescue brown women from brown men. For this reason, Razack’s final point is crucial here: “As long as we see ourselves as not implicated in relations of power, as innocent, we cannot begin to walk the path of social justice and to thread our way through the complexities of power relations” (22). So I will conclude with Razack’s conclusion: “We need to ask: Where am I in this picture? Am I positioning myself as the savior of less fortunate people? As the progressive one? As more subordinated? As innocent? These are the moves of superiority and we need to move beyond them” (170). By thinking in terms of accountability, instead of inclusion, she suggests, we may be better situated to understand how we can work toward achieving social justice. A Museum of Human Rights needs to encourage questions like these if it is to fulfill its potential as a living generator of ideas.


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