Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights

Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights

Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights

Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights


In the decades following the triumphant proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the UN General Assembly was transformed by the arrival of newly independent states from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. This diverse constellation of states introduced new ideas, methods, and priorities to the human rights program. Their influence was magnified by the highly effective nature of Asian, Arab, and African diplomacy in the UN human rights bodies and the sheer numerical superiority of the so-called Afro-Asian bloc. Owing to the nature of General Assembly procedure, the Third World states dominated the human rights agenda, and enthusiastic support for universal human rights was replaced by decades of authoritarianism and an increasingly strident rejection of the ideas laid out in the Universal Declaration.

In Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights, Roland Burke explores the changing impact of decolonization on the UN human rights program. By recovering the contributions of those Asian, African, and Arab voices that joined the global rights debate, Burke demonstrates the central importance of Third World influence across the most pivotal battles in the United Nations, from those that secured the principle of universality, to the passage of the first binding human rights treaties, to the flawed but radical step of studying individual pleas for help. The very presence of so many independent voices from outside the West, and the often defensive nature of Western interventions, complicates the common presumption that the postwar human rights project was driven by Europe and the United States. Drawing on UN transcripts, archives, and the personal papers of key historical actors, this book challenges the notion that the international rights order was imposed on an unwilling and marginalized Third World. Far from being excluded, Asian, African, and Middle Eastern diplomats were powerful agents in both advancing and later obstructing the promotion of human rights.


The “backward” countries are in revolt! … [Eleanor Roosevelt] thinks that it is
a revolt of the dark skinned people against the white. It is more than that.

—John Humphrey, Director of the Human Rights Division,
7 and 24 November 1950

On 10 December 1948, an overwhelming majority of states adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a momentous night session of the United Nations General Assembly. It was the culmination of nearly three years of intensive debate, negotiation, and far-reaching philosophical inquiry. the final text drew on more than fifty constitutions, countless written submissions, and the religious and moral traditions of every major belief system in existence. Among the delegations that delivered their assent were those from Afghanistan, Egypt, Taiwan, India, Pakistan, Liberia, Lebanon, Thailand, and the Philippines. Only the communist bloc, apartheid South Africa, and Saudi Arabia withheld their endorsement. Not without reason did the un proclaim the declaration “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” For the fifty-eight-member General Assembly, it was an auspicious beginning to its mission to promote human rights around the globe.

This is the story of what happened after the passage of the Universal Declaration, as those fifty-eight members were joined by another fiftyeight, and then almost fifty-eight again, becoming a truly global General Assembly. Between 1950 and 1979, the process of decolonization transformed the un and the shape of human rights discourse. the Asian, African, and Arab states that coalesced into the self-conscious “Third World” brought a powerful new set of voices to those of 1948. These Third World diplomats made pivotal contributions to some of the most . . .

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