Self-Determination, Human Rights, and the End of Empire in the 1970s

By Simpson, Bradley R. | Humanity, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Self-Determination, Human Rights, and the End of Empire in the 1970s


Simpson, Bradley R., Humanity


[Henry] Kissinger: They've been going to put into [United States Secretary of State William] Roger's speech at the U.N. some stuff that we want more self-determination in Africa. And I said, "absolute nonsense."

[Richard] Nixon: More self-determination would mean more nations.

Kissinger: That applies-they'll apply that to Mozambique and South Africa. They won't apply it to black [unclear].

Nixon: Yeah. Goddamn. Just think, 42 countries in Africa. 42 countries. That's ridiculous.1

In October 1975 Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba, speaking to the French newspaper Le Monde, remarked on the controversy surrounding the future of the Spanish Sahara (Western Sahara), then claimed by Morocco and Mauritania. "Selfdetermination for 40,000 nomads?" he asked. "Let's not exaggerate." Western Sahara was "a little phantom state" best absorbed by its neighbors lest it destabilize the region.2 A few weeks later, following a massive march to the border of the territory by hundreds of thousands of Moroccan citizens and a veiled threat of invasion, the Spanish government negotiated the handover of Western Sahara to Morocco and Mauritania, a move resisted by the armed, Algerian-backed Polisario independence movement. The predictable panoply of human rights abuses (as understood in the West, at least) followed: forced displacement of ethnic Sahrawi, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, torture and murder, little noticed because they took place in a territory whose claim to self-determination remained unresolved and in the context of what the Polisario termed a war of national liberation.

The connection was not lost on the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Barbara White, who that same month spoke before the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly on "the importance of the realization of the universal right of peoples to self-determination." Invoking the Americans' historical experience as a model, she noted that "achievement of self-determination must mark renewed efforts to guarantee human rights and the dignity of the individual."3 In other words, where self-determination is achieved, human rights can begin. Yet the United States would exhibit a studied ambiguity on the question of self-determination in Western Sahara, as in East Timor, Palestine, and many other places where the denial of self-determination and other human rights abuses were directly connected, and just as it had bitterly opposed inclusion of a right to self-determination in the United Nations Charter in 1948.

It is no coincidence that the final collapse of European colonialism in the early 1970s paralleled the explosion of individual-based human rights activism in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere, or that postcolonial states and anticolonial movements continued to insist that collective self-determination broadly construed was the "first right" from which all other human rights derived.4 Kenneth Cmiel, however, has observed that Western nations in the 1970s "did not agree that this was a fundamental human right," often viewing movements for self-determination as the untidy leftovers of state-building anticolonial campaigns of previous decades and threatening in the expansive claims made on its behalf. Historians of human rights mostly agree, consigning self-determination to the history of decolonization. Those who have explored their intersection, most recently Roland Burke, offer a declensionist narrative in which liberal, democratic visions of self-determination among the first generation of postindependence leaders in the 1950s gave way to the "organized hypocrisy" of authoritarian states in later decades, which used self-determination claims as a shield rather than as a sword.5 Instead, the historical human rights literature emphasizes the emergence of local, national, and transnational movements for individual human rights in the postwar period and especially in the 1970s. Yet the latter, I will argue, is deeply connected to the former. …

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