Civilized Men: Human Rights and the Problem of the Colony.

Stream: Panel 29 - Human Rights & Democracy: Human Rights and the Politics of Emancipation: Rules and Unruly Subjects
Date: Tuesday, 27 September 2016
Time: 11.30 am – 1.00 pm


During the drafting of the major mid-twentieth century human rights instruments, delegates representing colonial powers struggled to reconcile their professed universalism with their ongoing commitment to colonial relations. The question of the colonies cut to the heart of the meaning of universalism and posed questions about the subject of human rights. Were colonial subjects self-evidently included in the universal categories “all humans” and “everyone”? And how were principles of non-discrimination and equality to be interpreted in the context of the deeply unequal relations of colonial rule? In this paper, I examine these questions by turning to the debates during the drafting of the human rights covenants about whether to include a “colonial clause” exempting the ‘non-self-governing territories’ from their application. While such clauses were then standard in international agreements, I show that the attempt to exclude the colonies from the application of human rights provoked serious opposition as it was widely viewed as an attempt to exclude colonial subjects from the very category of humanity. To analyze this conflict, I turn to two great anti-colonialist thinkers: C.L.R. James, and Mohammed Bedjaoui. Read in light of James’ powerful account of the Haitian Revolution, the struggle against the colonial clause appears as a twentieth-century reiteration of the struggle of the ‘black Jacobins’ to universalize the rights proclaimed by the French Revolution. Bedjaoui’s account of the persistence of structural economic domination in a context of formal equality, however, complicates this optimistic picture, and offers valuable critical tools for thinking about contemporary universalist discourses.


Jessica Whyte (Presenter), Western Sydney University
Jessica Whyte is Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Social Analysis at the University of Western Sydney. Her research interests include theories of sovereignty and biopolitics, critiques of human rights and contemporary continental philosophy. Her work has been published in Law and Critique; Humanity; Theory and Event; and Contemporary Political Theory. She is currently working on two projects: a book on the historical and conceptual affinities between the politics of human rights and neoliberalism in the late twentieth century; and an Australian Research Council DECRA project “Inventing Collateral Damage: The Changing Moral Economy of War.”

Ben Golder (Presenter), UNSW
Dr Ben Golder teaches courses on law and social theory, on public law, and on the politics of human rights, in the Faculty of Law at the University of New South Wales. Ben works at the intersection of political and legal theory, and is interested in the areas of public law and human rights. He has recently published Foucault and the Politics of Rights (Stanford University Press, 2015) and is currently at work on a book about the connection between various schools of postfoundationalist thought (in political theory, history and philosophy) to human rights.

Kiran Grewal (Presenter), ACU
Dr Kiran Grewal is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Social Justice, Australian Catholic University. Prior to this she was research manager on an EU-funded torture prevention project with the Sri Lankan and Nepali security forces. Kiran’s research interests include postcolonial and feminist legal theory and the relationship between international law and social activism. She is author of the forthcoming book, The Socio-Political Practice of Human Rights (Routledge 2016) and is currently working on two new projects: one on forms of subaltern politics in post-conflict Sri Lanka and the other entitled, “The everyday life of human rights law”.

Daniel McLoughlin (Presenter), UNSW
Daniel McLoughlin is a Senior Lecturer in the Law School at the University of New South Wales. He has published extensively on contemporary continental political theory, with a particualr focus on questions of sovereignty, biopolitics, and economy, and the work of Giorgio Agamben and Carl Schmitt. This work appears in journals such as Theory & Event, Law and Critique, Law, Culture and the Humanities, and Angelaki. He is also the editor of Agamben and Radical Politics published by Edinburgh University Press in 2016.