Graduate Student Research Reflection: Emma Mackinnon

The Pozen Family Center for Human Rights supports doctoral student research that makes a significant contribution to the study and field of human rights. The grants may be used during a fifteen month period and awardees are asked to submit a report or reflection upon completion. 


By: Emma Mackinnon, Political Science
2015 Pozen Research Grant for PhD Students Awardee

When advocates of human rights are accused of imperialism, the charge generally takes one of two forms: that the ideas themselves are culturally specific, premised on a Western image of a rights-bearing individual, and yet imposed as if they were universal, or that the ideas may be laudable, but in practice they are used as a mask for imperial projects. My work aims to reframe the relationship of human rights to empire, by exploring the ways in which the concept itself has been shaped in relation to imperial agendas, including ideologies of race, as well as the ways in which the concept of human rights has been contested and revised in order to contest those imperial ambitions. The history of the concept, I claim, is also a political history, and its formation in the period from the 1940s through the 1970s (a period that is particularly contentious among human rights historians), has been bound up with the politics of race and empire. To show this, I focus on political contests over the legacies of American and French foundational rights commitments in the mid-twentieth century, tracing the ways in which articulations of human rights by France and the US contained the disavowal of alternative forms of human rights politics. I argue that certain accusations of human rights hypocrisy continued to rely on forms of universalism that were compatible with an imperial narrative, while other critics of France and the US used the idea of human rights differently, contesting the lies present in US and French foundational rights promises, and appealing not to moral universalism but to a reckoning with history in order to re-found those promises.

Support from the Pozen Center allowed me to conduct the research for two chapters of my dissertation. The first concerns the writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here, I reconstruct conversations within the drafting committee about race and empire in relation to self-determination, the right to petition, minority rights, and the separation of the declaration from the later rights covenants. I use as an entry point the NAACP’s petition to the UN, An Appeal to the World, edited by W.E.B. DuBois, offering an account of its reception to suggest it was more influential than previous accounts have indicated. Through archival research in René Cassin’s papers in Paris, France, Eleanor Roosevelt’s papers in Hyde Park, NY, and John Humphrey’s papers in Montreal, Canada, I show an intersection between French and American narratives of progress, and the reflection of that narrative in the UDHR.

The next chapter follows conversations about empire in the contest over French colonial violence in Algeria. I begin from France’s efforts to promote the UDHR, and the new international human rights project, starting in 1949, looking to the UNESCO Human Rights Exhibition, as well as radio broadcasts and other educational programming organized and sponsored by the French government. I argue that these efforts carried forward a narrative of human rights in which rights were an achievement, something which people learned to see themselves as worthy of. This narrative was compatible, I argue, with France’s defense of its actions in Algeria, where it claimed to be enforcing law in order to advance rights, part of a broader colonial mission to elevate people into a category of universal humanity. Here, I draw on internal correspondence within the French government as well as correspondence with the Red Cross and the UN. France’s opponents, who pointed to torture, indefinite detention, and other abuses as instances of human rights hypocrisy, did not contest France’s narrative, but rather claimed France had gone off course, often through an appeal to an alternative, humanitarian universalism. In contrast, other opponents of French rule diagnosed a different kind of hypocrisy: it was not that France was violating its founding promises, or failing to make good on them; rather, those promises had always been a lie, perpetually deferred as a means of maintaining paternalistic control. Here, I draw on materials from the Archives Nationales and the UNESCO archives in Paris, the Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer, in Aix-en-Provence, and the Centre des Archives Diplomatiques de Nantes, including material that remains under restriction, to which I gained access by petition, as well as material that has only recently become accessible.