Oct
11

The Concept of Human Rights in Africa

"Human rights talk constitutes one of the main elements in the ideological armoury of imperialism. Yet from the point of view of the African people, human rights struggles constitute the stuff of their daily lives. For these two interconnected reasons, human rights talk needs to be subjected to a closer historical and political scrutiny." (p. vii)

The above quote is drawn from the book "The Concept of Human Rights in Africa" (1989) by Issa G. Shivji (Professor of Law, University of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania). Shivji writes with a fire that ignites. Parts are dated, as one would expect from a book published in 1989,  others remain provocative and topical for today. This is well worth a read for anyone interested in human rights, and in particular those looking for alternative voices on the subject. Chapter 1 (on the discourse) is reflective of the 80s, however the historical review of the legal basis of human rights remains important. The critique waged in Chapter 2 puts down "fundamental premises" and "political and ideological consequences of such a discourse on the anti-imperialist, democratic struggles of the broad masses", which inspire continued debate and discussion. The latter chapters, on the way forward and examples of dominant and revolutionary tendencies, is situated at the end of 1980s but provides examples for how analyses might be undertaken of more recent human rights agreements. This book was also published by CODESRIA (as a number of other books by African authors in the social sciences). Some quotes:

"Just as in the early Christian crusades it was legitimate to save the soul even if it meant trampling the body, so in the human rights crusade it was fair to protect rights even while napalming the humans. 'Human rights ideology' is an ideology of domination and part of the imperialist world outlook. Like other ideologies of domination in yester-epochs, the dominant human rights ideology claims and proclaims universality, immortality and immutability while promulgating in practice class-parochialism, national oppression and 'patronising' authoritarianism." (p. 3)

"Classical democracy is linked with the Western bourgeoisie which arose in Europe during the revolution that overthrew feudalism in, what have since been called, bourgeois democratic revolutions. The bourgeoisie marched apace and within a century transformed their countries of birth while marauding the rest of the world and planting its fangs all over the globe, including Africa. While unashamedly taking under its wings varied reactionary and backward social forces, from feudalists to zamindars and chiefs..." (p. 5)

"Since the second world war, human rights talk has been one of the central planks in the foreign and domestic ideologies of the United States. It is clearly expressed in the cold-war struggle with the Soviet bloc on the one hand, and in the oppression and domination of the Third World, including Africa, on the other. In some periods more intensely than others, the human rights ideology has been used by different regimes in the US on both these levels. In this regard it has played a double, if contradictory, role. On the international level, it is a rationalization for interference and intervention as well as domination of the Third World countries ('in the interest of democracy and free world') and on the domestic level it is an important element in reproducing the hegemony of imperial-bourgeois ideology by bolstering the image of the US as a country maintaining civilised human standards internationally." (p. 53)

"This should not come as a surprise to any African who has the slightest knowledge of reality beyond the thin veneer of official imperialist 'brain washing'. Who does not know that Mobutu, who gracefully presides over death and detention chambers of Zaire, was installed by the CIA? Who is so ignorant as to forget that the Lion of Juddah (Haile Selassie), who turned his country into a jungle where people in their thousands starved to death in fear and famine, was one of the greatest beneficiaries of US military arsenal? Many know that the US is one of the staunchest allies of [apartheid] South Africa; the military supplier of UNITA in Angola; the benefactor of dictators like Banda and Moi and the protector of Liberia's military nincompoop Samuel Doe. On the one hand, these facts are so well-documented that they need no repetition, yet on the other hand they have been so successfully suppressed in the mainstream human rights scholarship that they need to be broadcast from roof-tops." (p. 55) 

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Mar
24

Culture and Imperialism

 Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) is a foundational text in critical studies, as of this writing was cited nearly 70,000 times. In 1993 Said wrote Culture and Imperialism, which broadens the view, broadens the literature, and engages more literature from the liberation activists and writers, but is cited less (at of this writing nearly 30,000; which still makes it an extremely well read and cited book). The book is longer than Orientalism, at 492 pages (in my Vintage print), which is expected given the wider scope. From a development studies perspective, the connection might appear limited, as the book focuses largely on literature. However, I think this is essential reading and it challenges how people are portrayed, critically analyzes language, justifications made for 'intervention', and offers great insight for anyone reading (or writing) reports (which are often plagued with horrendous orientalist and colonialist attitudes).

From the Introduction, contextualizing this book in relation to Orientalism:

"What I left out of Orientalism was that response to western dominance which culminated in the great movements of decolnization all across the Third World. Along with armed resistance in places as diverse as nineteenth century Algeria, Ireland, and Indonesia, there also went considerable efforts in cultural resistance almost everywhere, the assertions of nationalist identities, and, in the political realm, the creation of associations and parties whose common goal was self-determination and national independence. Never was it the case that imperial encounter pitted an active Western intruder against a supine or inert non-Western native; there was always some form of active resistance, and in the overwhelming majority of cases, the resistance finally won out." (p. xiv)

"Readers of this book will quickly discover that narrative is crucial to my argument here, my basic point being that stories are at the heart of what explorers and novelists say about strange regions of the world; they also become the method colonized people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their own history. The main battle in imperialism is over land, of course; but when it came to who owned the land, who had the right to settle and work on it, who kept it going, who won it back, and who now plans its future - these issues were reflected, contested, and even for a time decided in narrative." (p. xv)

From the text:

"As I shall be using the term, 'imperialism' means the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory; 'colonialism', which is almost always a consequence of imperialism, is the implanting of settlements on distant territory... In our time, direct colonialism has largely ended; imperialism, as we shall see, lingers where it has always been, in a kind of general cultural sphere as well as in specific political, ideological, economic, and social practices." (p. 8-9)

"The slow and often bitterly disputed recovery of geographical territory which is at the heart of decolonization is preceded – as empire had been - by the charting of cultural territory. After the period of 'primary resistance', literally fighting against outside intrusion, there comes the period of secondary, that is, ideological resistance, when efforts are made to reconstitute a 'shattered community, to save or restore the sense and fact of community against all the pressures of the colonial system', as Basil Davidson puts it. This in turn makes possible the establishment of new and independent states." (p. 268)

"One of the first tasks of the culture of resistance was to reclaim, rename and reinhabit the land. And with that came a whole set of further assertions, recoveries, identifications, all of them quite literally grounded in this poetically projected base. The search for authenticity, for a more congenial national origin than that provided by colonial history, for a new pantheon of heroes and (occasionally) heroines, myths, and religions - there too are made possible by a sense of the land reappropriated by its people." (p. 290)

"Fanon foresaw this turn of events. His notion was that unless national consciousness at its moment of success was somehow changed into a social consciousness, the future would hold not liberation but an extension of imperialism. His theory of violence is not meant to answer the appeals of a native chafing under the paternalistic surveillance of a European policeman and, in a sense, preferring the services of a native officer in his place: On the contrary, it first represents colonialism as a totalizing system nourished in the same way" (p. 343).

"In Fanon's world change can come about only when the native, like Lukacs's alienated worker, decides that colonization must end - in other words, there must be an epistemological revolution. Only then can there be movement. At this point enters violence, 'a cleansing force,' which pits colonizer against colonized directly" (p. 347)

"The most disheartening thing about the media — aside from their sheepishly following the government policy model, mobilizing for war right from the start — was their trafficking in 'expert' Middle East lore, supposedly well informed about Arabs. All roads lead to the bazaar; Arabs only understand force; brutality and violence are part of Arab civilization; Islam is an intolerant, segregationist, 'medieval', fanatic, cruel, anti-women religion." (p. 379-380)

"For two generations the United States has sided in the Middle East mostly with tyranny and injustice. No struggle for democracy, or women's rights, or secularism and the rights of minorities has the United States officially supported. Instead one administration after another has propped up compliant and unpopular clients, and turned away from the efforts of small peoples to liberate themselves from military occupation, while subsidizing their enemies. The United States has prompted unlimited militarism and (along with France, Britain, China, Germany, and others) engaged in vast arms sales everywhere in the region" (p. 386)

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Aug
08

Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism

Notes from Lenin's (1916) book "Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism":

  • "Imperialism emerged as the development and direct continuation of the fundamental attributes of capitalism in general. But capitalism only became imperialism at a definite and very high stage of its development… Economically, the main thing in this process is the substitution of capitalist monopolies for capitalist free competition. Free competition is the fundamental attribute of capitalism, and of commodity production generally. Monopoly is exactly the opposite of free competition; but we have seen the latter being transformed into monopoly before our very eyes, creating large-scale industry and eliminating small industry, replacing large-scale industry by still larger-scale industry, and finally leading to such a concentration of production and capital that monopoly has been and is the result" (p. 88)
  • "uneven development and wretched conditions of the masses are fundamental and inevitable conditions and premises of this mode of production. As long as capitalism remains what it is, surplus capital will never be utilized for the purpose of raising the standard of living of the masses in a given country, for this would mean a decline in profits for the capitalists" (p. 63)
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