Decolonizing Human Rights: Sovereignty, Tactics and Disruption

by | Jan 9, 2017

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About Kayum Ahmed

Kayum Ahmed is Division Director at the Open Society Foundations in New York where he leads the Public Health Program’s global work on access to medicines and innovation. He also teaches a class on socioeconomic rights as an adjunct faculty member at Columbia Law School.


Kayum Ahmed, “Decolonizing Human Rights: Sovereignty, Tactics and Disruption” (OxHRH Blog, 09 January 2017) <> [date of access].

For those of us engaged with human rights, as students, activists and lawyers, I want to suggest that at some point in our engagement with rights discourses, we have had to acknowledge that while human rights offer the possibility for emancipation and justice, they can also be used to entrench existing power relations.  This duality within human rights stems from the fact that the human rights project is a colonial one, strongly connected to the adoption of the Universal Declaration in 1948, and remains a largely colonized field. Consequently, in order to draw on human rights as a source of emancipation, human rights itself must be emancipated and decolonized.

Based on this argument, I want to make two claims: first, within the human rights field, a discursive shift is currently taking place; a shift from what I refer to as, ‘human rights as tactics’, to ‘human rights as sovereignty’ and ‘human rights as disruption’. Human rights as tactics encapsulates the belief that rights are inherent, as well as the idea that rights serve as a preamble to other forms of emancipation and possibility. Rights are therefore tactics that are employed by states, NGOs, vulnerable groups and individuals, as well as the UN to claim certain entitlements and protections on behalf of others or for themselves.

Human rights as sovereignty recognizes the existence of entities such as the state, conservative civil society organizations, and businesses, all of which attempt to entrench power through the creation of self-serving narratives embedded in human rights language. Critical scholars such as Perugini and Gordon describe for example how conservative human rights organizations seeking to legitimize Israel’s military warfare, including the killing of Palestinians, and the dispossession of Palestinian land, use international humanitarian and human rights law to justify their actions.

Human rights as disruption can be seen as an issue-based approach to rights claims, which are often constructed outside existing legal frameworks in order to agitate for the disruption of power. Social movements such as #BlackLivesMatter in the U.S. offer an example of human rights as disruption, in that this movement employs strategies of disruption that often operate outside the paradigm of human rights law.

While these approaches to human rights are not necessarily new, I believe that human rights scholars (i) often focus their attention on human rights as tactics, (ii) understate instances of human rights as sovereignty, and (iii) largely neglect emerging approaches to human rights as disruption.

The second claim I would like to offer is that human rights as sovereignty and disruption have their genesis in the global South. Drawing on Comaroff and Comaroff’s argument that the global South is the driving force of theoretical and social trends today, we could argue that human rights as sovereignty and disruption represent an approach to rights discourses that was first developed in the global South and subsequently exported to the North. The North-South binary is inherently problematic, and has been used to depict the ‘South’ as a late arrival to modernity. The Comaroffs, however, assert that it is the South that first feels the effects of world-historical forces and the South that first decodes them theoretically and innovates political responses to them. These ideas then migrate to the global North. What is new here is that, rather than argue that the colonies were the first laboratory of modernity, the Comaroffs contend that the South is anticipating, even driving, the political, economic, and cultural modalities of the future of Europe and America.

Socio-economic rights for instance, are primarily being developed in the global South, in countries such as India, South Africa, Colombia and Argentina, and being transported to the North. We therefore need to look towards the global South as the architect of discourses on human rights, particularly socio-economic rights.

Acknowledging that the field of human rights is tainted by its colonial origins, it is also important to recognize that human rights claims continue to be an important tactic in the struggle for emancipation. This contradiction or tension within human rights discourses, underlies what I believe to be a discursive shift in the human rights field, that can in some ways be traced back to its colonial roots.

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1 Comment

  1. Jennifer Sawicz

    Dear Dr. Ahmed – Thank you for reporting on conditions in the global South. I appreciate your upholding of S. Africa as a model for countries who are still behind the curve on human rights, like Burma. The world needs to know that postcolonial states like Burma are struggling with promoting human rights. In media reporting, tragic suffering such as the Rohingya’s is often portrayed as “communal violence”, when in reality they are the victim of a persecution. Identifying the situation in Burma correctly is very helpful. Unfortunately, shifting the blame for failed human rights efforts to colonialism and the global North absolves leaders like Suu Kyi from doing their duty to protect the human rights of their citizens. Thanks again and we look forward to your continued coverage.

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