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New book investigates the colonialism of human rights

  • Date

    Wed 9 Sep 20

Colin Samson

The concept of basic human rights, which should apply to everyone, is fundamentally flawed because rights are products of deeply unequal societies in which not everyone is considered equal according to a new book

The Colonialism of Human Rights, by University of Essex sociologist Professor Colin Samson, highlights the paradox that the nations that credit themselves with formulating what were supposed to be universal human rights were colonial powers and sponsors of the enslavement of Africans.

Furthermore, he argues the institutions tasked with administering human rights often have had no intention of making sure those rights are applied to everyone.

The book includes vivid examples of ongoing effects of colonialism and enslavement on human rights. These are illustrated by police violence against black people in the US, most recently renewed by the paralyzing of Jacob Blake and the killing of George Floyd, and the UK government victimisation of hundreds of Afro-Caribbeans whose parents had helped Britain get back on its feet after the ravages of World War 2.

Likewise, as covered in the book, Professor Samson argues that both the US and Canada continue to treat indigenous peoples as colonised populations and this was graphically seen in the militarised response to the Standing Rock oil pipeline conflict which he observed at first hand. 

Professor Samson said: “In the US and Britain it has long been known that black people are not accorded the same rights as whites in employment, housing, education, criminal justice, and the right to life itself.

“The colonialism of human rights is reflected in the ongoing global mobilization against police murders of black people, demanding the removal of statues of national heroes whose heroism was connected to slavery and colonialism, and in the growing choruses for schools to cease teaching histories omitting the racism which has permeated national social, cultural and political life. Current social movements are revealing that human rights were never really intended for vast swathes of national populations.”

However, Professor Samson believes there is hope for a social justice, as he explained: “To decolonize human rights is not an easy task, in part because differential human rights are themselves engrained in racist histories. I end the book by suggesting that two actions to address the morass of contradictions in which human rights stands are worth pursuing; reparative justice and indigenizing law.

“These measures would help bring the present into conversation with the past, connecting the wrongdoings of colonialism and slavery with the differential human rights doled out to so many people today.”

His book is published by Polity, and he has also written a blog for the Essex Human Rights Centre.