Decolonial Strategies and Dialogue in the Human Rights Field

This is a fragment of the Introduction to José-Manuel Barreto, ed., Human Rights from a Third World Perspective: Critique, History and International Law (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013).

Human Rights from Third World Perspective Book Cover

Some Christians encountered an Indian woman, who was carrying in her arms a child at suck; and since the dog they had with them was hungry, they tore the child from the mother’s arms and flung it still living to the dog, which proceeded to devour him before the mother’s eyes.

—Bartolomé de las Casas

A dog trained to attack the flesh, and torture, kill, and gorge a man and a child in front of the mother connects Fernando Botero’s Abu Grahib with Bartolomé de las Casas’ Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. In this scenario of colonial wars a dog is turned into a beast­—a torture dog or a war dog—by the inhumanity of conquistadors and invaders. The dog becomes a powerful machine for terrorizing and destroying the body, and for dehumanizing the colonized—and the colonizer. Five hundred years apart these two images or stories are bound together by their origin: the history of the advance of modern imperialism, and the sensibility of their authors for the suffering of the victims. The violence and dread of these events resonates in the global consciousness and moral sentiment of our times. It is the drive for survival and dignity, the consciousness about the imperative for independence and justice, and the sympathy for the victims what has brought natural or human rights to bear the force of such a capacity for destruction.

Botero’s Abu Grahib paintings are placed in the collision-point where the current wave of imperial mobilization meets the world-wide urge and stand for human dignity, and are taken to the forefront of human rights discussion by Eduardo Mendieta (Chapter 4). Setting the scenario for this collection of essays, Mendieta’s interpretation of Botero’s work relies on the notion of “empathic vision”—“a conjunction of affective and critical ways of looking”.1Jill Bennett, Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art (Stanford: StanfordUniversity Press, 2005). A door is opened here towards a marriage of intellection and emotion, suggesting perhaps one of those “lost paths for thinking”. Where does the power of representation in Botero’s Abu Grahib reside? The series unmasks the humanity of those whose humanity is denied—it reveals “the humanity of those who are not allowed to be represented as humans”. By the power of unflinching vision Botero rescues from old newspapers, and for moral and political history, images that depict the human/bodily dignity being trashed by the “physicality of torture”, and brings to light some of the deliberate—not collateral—effects of contemporary imperialism.

The body of the victims is trapped within the logic of war—the imperial logic—and torture and suffering are placed in front of everybody to be recognized as blatant “embodiments” of neo-colonialism. For Mendieta, Botero’s Abu Grahib poses a set of questions for the analysis of biopolitical power beyond the conventional understanding of biopolitics and the biopolitical state, namely the biopolitical empire or the biopolitics of imperialism. In addition, Botero’s Abu Grahib enables the spectators “to feel morally while seeing”. The power of these paintings resides in a capacity for eliciting moral emotions like outrage and sympathy from the public in its different instantiations—the national public opinions and civil societies, the international community, the citizens or the peoples of the world, the global sentiment or the structure of feeling of our epoch. By teaching how to be witness of human suffering and enabling present and future viewers to be moral subjects, Mendieta says, Botero constructs a morality out of “ways of seeing and feeling”—a truthful “moral optics”.

But what do we mean when we decide to embrace the quest for decolonizing human rights? We have here in mind a specific form of critique, Decolonial Theory, which has been developed by Latin America thinkers out of concepts gained in the fields of the philosophy of history, social theory and epistemology. Modernity cannot be identified exclusively with emancipation, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, but it is also historically evident that colonialism was another of its central foundations. The conventional conception of modernity needs to be revisited to accommodate the legacy of modern imperialism: the conquest and colonization of the world—a vast enterprise of domination marshaled through wars of aggression, genocides, slavery, plunder and exploitation.2Arturo Escobar centers his analysis of the main features of Decolonial Theory in the re-conceptualization of the conventional notion of modernity. See Arturo Escobar, “Worlds and Knowledges Otherwise,” Cultural Studies 21 (2007).

Decolonial Theory has also elaborated a “geopolitics of knowledge”, an epistemology that can be characterized as materialist, in contradistinction to the transcendental or idealist dialectics between subject and object in the ambit of the consciousness—as in Descartes, Kant and Hegel’s subjectivism. The geopolitics of knowledge is a contextualist epistemology in as much as it finds in politics and history the grounds of knowledge. However, the geopolitics of knowledge does not locate the source of “truth” in a socioeconomic framework with implicit national borders as in Marx, but in the milieu of the history of the modern world considered as a whole—it departs from the history of world capitalism or, what is the same, modern imperialism, i.e. the history of the relations between empires and colonies since the late fifteenth century. In this view, the history of modern ideas—modern rationality itself, conceptions of the state, even Marxist and other critiques of capitalism—runs interrelated to the history of modern imperialism. For a geopolitical analysis of knowledge, the cultural colonization of world civilizations, rationalities and intellectual disciplines ended in the crucial assumption according to which the origin of legitimate thinking is confined to a certain geopolitical location, Europe, excluding the existence of other sites of knowledge generation.3Walter Mignolo, “The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 101 (2002), 59 & 63–74.

How human rights are commonly understood is a consequence of this dynamics and prevailing prejudices. The egotism of Europe has blinded it. Being born out of European events and schools of thinking, the standard theory of human rights ignores or rejects the possibility of non-Eurocentric or Third-World approaches. The decolonization of human rights could be seen as an aspect in the wider need to decolonize knowledge—throughout the humanities and the social sciences—both an intellectual and political project emerging from the standpoint of the Third World, and aimed at opposing colonialism and abuse of power. The quest for decolonizing human rights can be encapsulated in two statements of Mignolo’s “manifestos”: “the future demands thinking beyond the Greeks and eurocentrism”4Walter Mignolo, “Philosophy and the Colonial Difference,” in Latin American Philosophy, ed. Eduardo Mendieta (Bloomington and Indiana: IndianaUniversity Press, 2003), 85. and “a radical reconceptualization of the human rights paradigm”,5Walter Mignolo, “The Many Faces of Cosmo-polis: Border Thinking and Critical Cosmopolitanism,” Public Culture 12 (2000): 739. so that human rights continue to be a hindrance to imperial projects today and in the future.

The development of such a political and philosophical position has been going on since the times of the Conquest of America. From the late Twentieth century on it has been accelerated by a number of schools of thinking, among them Postcolonial Theory and Orientalism, Subaltern Studies, Critical Race Theory, Black Radical Theory, Black Atlantic Studies and Third World Feminism. Within this epochal stream of thinking, some insights developed by the Third World Approach to International Law (TWAIL)6James Brown-Scott, The Spanish Origin of International Law: Francisco de Vitoria and His Law of Nations (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934). are especially relevant for the construction of a Third-World interpretation of human rights. In a fruitful dialogue with a marginal strand of the Western tradition of international law that runs throughout the writings of James Brown-Scott,7Balakrishnan Rajagopal has examined the capacity of human rights for working as a counter-hegemonic force in world politics. See B. Rajagopal, “Counter-hegemonic International Law: Rethinking Human Rights and Development as a Third World Strategy,” Third World Quarterly 27 (2006), 767-783. In the same horizon of questioning see U. Baxi, “What may the ‘Third World’ Expect from International Law?” Third World Quarterly 27 (2006), 713-725; O. Chinedu, “Poverty, Agency and Resistance in the Future of International Law: An African Perspective,” Third World Quarterly 27 (2006), 799-814; I. Mgbeoji, “The Civilised Self and the Barbaric Other: Imperial Delusions of Order and the Challenges of Human Security,” Third World Quarterly 27 (2006), 855-869; and V. Nesiah, “Resistance in the Age of Empire: Occupied Discourse Pending Investigation,” Third World Quarterly 27 (2006), 903–922. Carl Schmitt8Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of Jus Publicum Europaeum (New York, Telos Press, 2006). and David Kennedy,9David Kennedy, “Primitive Legal Scholarship,” Harvard International Law Journal 27 (1986). Antony Anghie has shown how the modern tradition of international law was not exclusively developed from the writings of Grotius, Pufendorf and Vattel, and from dealing with the problem of regulating the relations between European sovereign powers. The modern law of nations has also its origins in the expansion of Europe and the colonization of the world, a theoretical and historical scenario that gave birth to the works of Francisco de Vitoria. This debate has been enriched by contributions from scholars such as Fitzpatrick10Peter Fitzpatrick, “Latin Roots: Imperialism and the Making of International Law,”in Law as Resistance: Modernism, Imperialism, Legalism (London: Ashgate, 2008). and Koskenniemi,11Martti Koskenniemi, “Colonization of the ‘Indies’: The Origin of International Law?” in La idea de América en el Pensamiento Ius Internacionalista del Siglo XXI, ed. Yolanda Gamarra (Zaragoza: Institución Fernando el Católico, 2010), and “Empire and International Law: The Real Spanish Contribution,” University of Toronto Law Journal 61 (2011). Koskenniemi includes within this tradition the work of Ernest Nys, in particular his Les Origins Du Droit International (Charleston: Nabu Press, 2012). who work from the perspective of the European Critical Legal Studies (…)

The Table of Contents and the first pages of the Introduction can be consulted here.

José-Manuel Barreto is an associate in the Unit for Global Justice at Goldsmiths, University of London.

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