Black Skin, White Masks? Training African Leaders in the Art of Universality

by | 19 May 2017

Lord Lugard at London Zoo with West African Chiefs


I was intrigued to see the recent advertisement for the Academy Africa Fellowship at Chatham House, a prestigious, London-based think tank on international affairs, with a Royal Charter granted in 1926, and originator of the famous ‘Chatham House Rule’. In its advertisement, Chatham House seeks fellows who will, as part of their Leadership training, undertake a research project of their ‘own design’. The project must be conducted under one of four Chatham House programmes, including the International Law Programme. It is here that my interest was piqued. The named research topic is ‘African Perspectives on international law’.

You can see the full advertisement here:

‘African governments may differ from those in the West and elsewhere in their perceptions and approaches to various aspects of international law’, the description states.  ‘There is evidence of this, for example, in attitudes to international criminal institutions, to the jurisdictional reach of national courts, and to the institutional relationship between the African Union and the United Nations.’ Fair enough. It then goes on to state that ‘[p]roject proposals should focus not so much on the academic discourse stemming from “third world approaches to international law” [ed. TWAIL] but on solutions which encourage the universality of international law.’

I wondered about this prohibition. My first reaction was to smile at the idea that TWAIL should elicit enough anxiety to be the only intellectual tradition named explicitly by an institute with a Royal Charter, as unwelcome in the programme. Ironic recognition for those international lawyers who spend their time thinking about global inequality, marginalisation, oppression and racism. Why not discourage other ‘academic discourses’, constructivists, realists, feminists, economic pragmatists or critical legal scholars? Singling out TWAIL is a barometer of sorts, indicating that Chatham House at least, thinks that the kind of bright young ‘citizens of Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal or South Africa’ who would apply would know about, and might want to think with, these ‘third world approaches’.

But why might that be a problem? I wondered what the person who wrote the ad had been reading, and what idea they had of TWAIL. I thought I might write to the Director, and ask her what kinds of projects they wished people to ‘focus not so much on.’ I may write to her yet, but the clue about what ‘third world approaches’ represent for Chatham House – as is often the case – lies in the grammar.

The ad invites fellows to conduct research on ‘African Perspectives on international law,’ but to focus on ‘solutions which encourage the universality of international law’. And yet in between the evidence of what ‘differs’, and the posited need for ‘solutions’, there is no stated problem. There is only the fact of the difference in ‘perception and approach’, which must therefore be the problem. The ‘solution’ to this problem of difference, is for fellows to learn to ‘encourage the universality of international law.’

One could ask, why if it is already ‘universal’, does it need to be ‘encouraged?’ The answer is because the universality referred to is a claim, not a fact. In this usage, the ‘universal’ applies everywhere and to everyone, not because it does in fact apply, but because it should apply. It is a claim that the values and forms of an international law which originated in Europe and its imperial encounters, are not particular to their historical origins, but universally applicable. If they meet difference which disproves their ‘universality’ as a matter of fact, that difference is a problem, and should be transformed.

This is not to say that these values and forms are necessarily bad or good (though much has been written on that question). It is simply to say that asserting one’s particular values as universal, and acting in the world as though they are, is a familiar mode of power. It was central to imperialism and the civilising mission, and remains key to the ideas of development, structural adjustment, and humanitarian intervention of recent times. Maybe everyone thinks their values are the best, but only the powerful can actualise that belief. Anybody can ‘think global and act local’, but one must be rather more powerful to think local and act global. Tony Blair understood this, and put it succinctly in the speech he gave at Sedgefield now some 13 years ago, justifying military action in Iraq as part of a broader effort to ‘defend our security’ through ‘the spread of our values’. ‘These values’, Blair said, could only be advanced ‘within a framework that recognizes their universality.’

From Macaulay to the aid industry, a civilising pedagogy has always involved the natives learning to ‘recognise’ the universality of European values, and to confess the particularity of their own. Training young African leaders to encourage their own people toward the ‘universal’, and asking them both to disavow difference, and any intellectual engagements which invite them to do otherwise before they begin? This is how an ‘African approach’ becomes an African person adopting a European approach.

Sundhya Pahuja is Professor of Law, Melbourne Law School.


  1. Chatham House rules!

  2. Will Chatham House see their mistake as overtly mentioning their bias against TWAIL? Will they in the future just say nothing at all, or even that TWAIL is welcome, but then secretly screen out applicants drawing on TWAIL? It seems that would be the best technique to try to maintain hegemony.

  3. I, too, smiled when I read the rejection of TWAIL by Chatham House. But the irony lies in their title which is: ‘African perspectives on International Law’. What will African perspective look like without TWAIL? It’s akin to inviting a feminist scholar to write about sexual violence under the Rome statute with an instruction that the scholar should not employ any feminist approach. How will such exclusion work? The ad reminds one of the 1938 Czech saying ‘O nás, bez nás’ – About us, without us!

  4. And this post finally paid off. Chatham House reviewed the ad and removed the offending sentence. The new post ended with ‘[m]isleading references in a previous version of this advertisement to the preferred focus of the project have been dropped’. Is this victory for TWAIL? Now I know the importance of every effort to speak out.
    Thank you professor Sundhya for raising this issue. I hope they are sincere, I just hope.

  5. I just cant stomach modern imperialism perpetuated by Scholars trained by Chatham Nonesense.


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