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Decolonizing the Teaching of Human Rights?

By César Augusto Baldi

Five talk­ing points to help us ques­tion, decol­on­ize, plur­al­ize and under­line the neces­sity of interculturalism.

Accord­ing to the new Bolivian con­sti­tu­tion, edu­ca­tion is “one of the most import­ant func­tions and primary fin­an­cial respons­ib­il­it­ies of the State”; it is “unit­ary, pub­lic, uni­ver­sal, demo­cratic, par­ti­cip­at­ory, com­munit­arian, decol­on­iz­ing and of qual­ity” (art. 78, I); and, through­out the entire edu­ca­tional sys­tem, it is “intra-​cultural, inter-​cultural and multi-​lingual” (art. 78,II), where its “inter-​cultural char­ac­ter is the means for cohe­sion and for har­monic and bal­anced exist­ence among all the peoples and nations” (art. 98). The Brazilian con­sti­tu­tion asserts the “plur­al­ism of ped­ago­gic ideas and con­cep­tions” in the field of edu­ca­tion (art. 206, III), and the pro­tec­tion of cul­tural rights, access to sources of national cul­ture, and the pro­tec­tion of “expres­sion by groups par­ti­cip­at­ing in the national civil­isa­tion pro­cess” in the cul­tural domain (art. 215, header and §1).

But to what extent can we really say that other cul­tural wis­doms — those of indi­gen­ous peoples, of Afro-​Amerindians, etc. — are no longer silenced, sup­pressed, hid­den, or treated as non-​existent? Is it true to say that the pro­claimed plur­al­ism of ideas actu­ally has a cor­res­pond­ing cog­nit­ive justice?

It would be inter­est­ing to under­take such an exer­cise to ana­lyse how human rights are cat­egor­ised and taught in nor­mal cur­ricula. Accord­ing to the hege­monic line of thought, the sys­tem is gen­er­a­tional: first, civil and polit­ical rights; second, social, eco­nomic and cul­tural rights; then a third gen­er­a­tion of human rights; and per­haps even a fourth (demo­cracy) or a fifth. But is this tra­ject­ory uni­ver­sal — can it be uni­ver­sal­ised — or does it simply hide the tra­ject­or­ies of human rights struggles behind the pro­ject of mod­ern­isa­tion itself?

Think back to just two paradig­matic moments: (1) the French Revolu­tion, seen as a moment in which we con­sol­id­ated liberty, equal­ity and fra­tern­ity, did not recog­nise women’s rights and nor did it ques­tion the enslave­ment of black people; (2) the Uni­ver­sal Declar­a­tion of Human Rights was being debated while large parts of Africa and Asia were colon­ies of the European coun­tries who adop­ted it. They fought against the bar­bar­ity of the Holo­caust, but the mas­sacre of col­on­ised peoples was swept under the car­pet. We can put for­ward, there­fore, sev­eral other top­ics and talk­ing points to help us ques­tion, decol­on­ize, plur­al­ize and under­line the neces­sity of interculturalism.

1. Dis­tinct European modernities

The epi­stem­o­lo­gical priv­ilege awar­ded to the Enlight­en­ment has con­cen­trated atten­tion on the second mod­ern­ity (Eng­land, France and the Neth­er­lands) at the expense of the Renais­sance period and the first mod­ern­ity (Italy, Por­tugal and Spain) in its entirety. This is why dis­cus­sion has focused on the “rights of man”, for­get­ting the con­tro­ver­sial mat­ter of “who counts as human”: the argu­ment between Sepúlveda and Bar­to­lomé de las Casas (who became Bishop of Chiapas, Mex­ico, in 1544) con­cern­ing the rights of indi­gen­ous peoples is a good example.

How­ever, Latin America’s own con­tri­bu­tions have been ignored, as demon­strated by the writ­ings of Gua­man Poma de Ayala (1535 – 1616). The Inca des­cend­ant wrote a treat­ise on good gov­ern­ment, in which he cri­ti­cises the mon­archy; he puts for­ward a new sys­tem of gov­ern­ment (based on a mix­ture of his know­ledge of Span­ish and Inca soci­ety), anti­cip­at­ing a “divi­sion of power”, and pro­duces a rich icon­o­graphy that asks pro­found ques­tions of the colo­nial order. It is there­fore also a mat­ter of recog­nising the exist­ence of an “imper­ial dif­fer­ence” (see Mignolo), which was made evid­ent recently with France and Germany’s use of the expres­sion PIGS to refer to the eco­nomic crises of Por­tugal, Italy, Greece and Spain — that is, South­ern Europe.

2. Bour­geois revolu­tions and anti-​systemic uprisings

Although at that time in his­tory indi­gen­ous people were con­sidered car­ri­ers of the soul (a “priv­ilege” that black slaves did not have recog­nised by the Cath­olic Church, nor by bour­geois revolu­tion­ary move­ments), the fact is that the human rights nar­rat­ive emphas­ised only bour­geois revolu­tions (espe­cially the French Revolu­tion and the Amer­ican Revolu­tion). Con­com­it­ant with the so-​called “Revolu­tion­ary Era” (1789 – 1848), two “silenced” insur­rec­tions took place in the lands we now call Latin America.

First was the revolu­tion in Haiti (1804), which was to become the first black nation — of illit­er­ate slaves — to become inde­pend­ent, abol­ish slavery and estab­lish, amongst other achieve­ments, equal rights for chil­dren born out of wed­lock, and the pos­sib­il­ity of divorce.

Second was Túpac Katari and Bar­to­lina Sisa’s move­ment (1780 – 1781) in Bolivia, against Span­ish rule, which would lead to a pro­found reor­gan­isa­tion of the com­munity and the cre­ation of new forms of polit­ical and com­mer­cial nego­ti­ation. It was a battle ideo­logy that sug­gests, draw­ing on the Aymara word pachak­uti (rad­ical change), that the present can incub­ate another time, which is both a future and a re-​imagining of the past. A “tra­di­tion of the defeated” would see all its eman­cip­at­ory ener­gies rein­vig­or­ated with the 1952 revolu­tion, the gas and water wars (2003), the debate on the rights of nature, indi­gen­ous lead­er­ship, and dis­cus­sion of the “Indian Revolu­tion” led by the Aymara intel­lec­tual Fausto Rein­aga (1906 – 1994). In Katari’s words as he died, “Today I die, but thou­sand upon thou­sands of us will come back”.

These struggles for inde­pend­ence are not cel­eb­rated with count­less bicen­ten­ar­ies and their prin­cipal act­ors are not “cri­ol­los”. They are the move­ments of oppressed black and indi­gen­ous peoples against the bed­rock of the colo­nial sys­tem and their vic­tory over it.

3. African dia­spora and slavery

In the sev­en­teenth cen­tury, vari­ous nar­rat­ives by freed slaves — deal­ing with slavery, a “life without mean­ing”, the need to recog­nise the dig­nity of all regard­less of race and geo­graph­ical ori­gin — were avail­able for study. Why have they been for­got­ten, as though slavery were a mere pothole on the road to mod­ern­ity and not the wicked face of the “colo­ni­al­ism of power”? How can books talk about France’s his­tory without con­sid­er­ing its inter­ac­tion with its colon­ies, when the colon­ies’ stor­ies are always remembered in the con­text of depend­ence on the met­ro­pole? It is unima­gin­able that a sys­tem that las­ted more than 400 years in Brazil (the coun­try has been inde­pend­ent for less than 200 years) should be con­sidered an event of little import­ance rather than a “crime against human­ity” (Durban Declar­a­tion), and, moreover, be deemed a con­stitutive part of the mod­ern system.

Colo­ni­al­ism is the other face of mod­ern­ity, but this is hid­den from recog­ni­tion. Otto­bah Cugoano (1757 – 1791), who was born in Ghana and edu­cated in Eng­land, not only pro­posed meth­ods for end­ing slavery, but also for com­pens­at­ing African nations for the dam­age caused and for leg­al­ising work. For Cugoano, human beings are equal and free “not in rela­tion­ship to gov­ern­ment but in rela­tion­ship to other human beings”. Olaudah Equiano’s (1745 – 1797) account was sim­ilar. And then there’s Sojourner Truth’s (1797 – 1883), which cri­ti­cised not only racial inequal­ity, but also dis­crim­in­a­tion against women, at a time when US cul­ture placed white women on a ped­es­tal but ignored black women. This was not just an abol­i­tion­ist dis­course, but also a defence of women’s rights.

4. Second pro­cess of decolonization

Hav­ing recently reached the fiftieth anniversary of the UN Declar­a­tion on the Grant­ing of Inde­pend­ence to Colo­nial Coun­tries and Peoples (1960), the import­ance of the struggles of Asian and African peoples in the pro­cess of estab­lish­ing human rights in the wake of the Second World War deserves re-​evaluation. It is worth con­sid­er­ing not just the lead­ers of the pro­cess (Nyer­ere, Sam­ora Machel and oth­ers), but also con­tri­bu­tions by Fanon, Glis­sant and Césaire, from the point of view of black rights, and all the con­tri­bu­tions that have been made in Asian coun­tries (of which the “sub­al­tern stud­ies” of India are just one small part) and — let’s not for­get — those that don’t fit a markedly sec­u­lar mould, such as “Islamic fem­in­ism” or even the “indi­gen­ous fem­in­ism” movement.

We also shouldn’t for­get that sec­u­lar­ism in the colon­ies served the colo­nial pur­poses of keep­ing women sub­ser­vi­ent. This post-​colonialism, how­ever, is of a dif­fer­ent hue from the res­ult of the first decol­on­iz­ing pro­cess (the inde­pend­ence of the Amer­icas) and their dif­fer­ences should be recognised.

5. Use of other tech­niques and vocabulary

The use of lit­er­at­ure, cinema and the visual arts in dis­cus­sions of human rights has become com­mon. This is bene­fi­cial since aesthetic-​expressive ration­al­ity was col­on­ised for a long time by sci­entific and legal reason. It is import­ant, non­ethe­less, that it is not just the medium that is altered: what we need is to change the lan­guage of the debate itself. This should not just be with regard to the con­tent, but also the enunciation. Antigone, for example, has been used in the teach­ing of law to estab­lish the oppos­i­tion between nat­ural law and pos­it­iv­ism, a European debate that was laid out by Hegel, in the eight­eenth cen­tury, on the basis of Greek tragedy. What about using the three Theban plays, as Judith But­ler did, to dis­cuss “aber­rant par­ent­age” (after all, Anti­gone is the daugh­ter of Oed­ipus and Jocasta, her grand­mother), het­ero­norm­ativ­ity, sex­ism and pat­ri­archy? How would these ques­tions trans­form if, instead of the “Oed­ipus com­plex”, the debate was recon­figured from the point of view of an “Anti­gone com­plex” (George Steiner)?

At the National Uni­ver­sity of Singa­pore, Syed Farid Alatas and his col­league Vin­eeta Sinha have spent many years devel­op­ing a dif­fer­ent study of soci­ology. Instead of just ana­lys­ing the “classics” — Durkheim, Weber and Marx (white European men) — their stu­dents are encour­aged to work with con­tri­bu­tions by Ibn Khal­dun (Tunisia), José Rizal (Phil­ip­pines), Benoy Kumar Sarkar (India) and Har­riet Mar­tineau (Eng­land), amongst oth­ers. In their opin­ion, this is the way to show that “there were also white women and non-​European men and women in the nine­teenth cen­tury who the­or­ised the nature of emer­ging mod­ern societies”. How about start­ing a sim­ilar move­ment in the study of human rights? Per­haps this way we could defeat the “epi­stemic racism” and “change the geo­graphy of reason” (Lewis Gor­don). Or, as Wal­ter Ben­jamin would say, we might “wrest tra­di­tion away from a con­form­ism that is about to over­power it” and write a “his­tory against the grain”.

César Augusto Baldi, PhD can­did­ate at Pablo Olavide Uni­ver­sity (Spain), is Advisor to the Brazilian Regional Fed­eral Court 4th Region and the editor of Direitos humanos na sociedade cos­mopol­ita [Human Rights in Cos­mo­pol­itan Soci­ety] (Renovar, 2004).

Trans­lated by Alex Higson.

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