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Human rights and colonialism
Human rights as colonialism?
Britain did not invent slavery, but it made the most of it, carrying slaves from Africa across the Atlantic world and earning large profits from the trade. Then it invented abolition as an international force. A decade after the 1772 Somerset case made slavery illegal in Britain, antislavery activists there formed a society to suppress the international slave trade. They persuaded Parliament in 1807 to pass a law authorizing the Royal Navy to seize slave ships; in 1833 Parliament ended slavery throughout the empire.
The British government thereupon redoubled its antislavery efforts, employing commercial carrots and military sticks to get other countries to take the emancipation pledge. By no means did those other countries all appreciate the British pressure. Residents of Texas, then an independent but poor republic, definitely could have used the money expanded commerce with Britain would have provided; but the Texans declined to be lectured to regarding what they considered a domestic institution. Instead they took refuge with the United States, where slavery was protected by the Constitution.
This episode underlined an abiding tension in campaigns for human rights. Historically, advocates of human rights cast themselves as foes of colonialism; even today, they assail what they call neo-colonialism as it regards great powers pressuring smaller countries.
Yet campaigns for human rights are, in a basic way, themselves colonialist. The mere act of calling something a human right—whether personal liberty, religious freedom, or access to education—betrays the same attitude that supported colonialism. The colonialist presumed to tell the colonized what to do; the human rights advocate does the same thing. The colonialist enforced his views with arms; the human rights advocate employs economic and diplomatic sanctions. And sometimes arms, as when Woodrow Wilson in 1917 led an American war make the world safe for democracy, and when George W. Bush in 2003 supplied a similar justification for invading Iraq.
To be sure, economics underpinned colonialism. But all the colonialists contended, and nearly all believed, that they were bringing civilization to the peoples they conquered. Human rights advocates make the same claim, albeit in updated language. Human rights campaigners presume to know what constitutes acceptable behavior everywhere, and not just in their own countries (this universalism is what distinguishes human rights from civil rights). Such presumption typically strikes the objects of the campaigners’ criticism as unfavorably as the colonialists’ claims struck the people they colonized.
This isn’t to say that efforts on behalf of human rights are unjustified. When bad things happen to people, third-party concern is commendable. But before concern gives rise to coercion, the third parties ought to weigh their actions carefully. And they should put themselves in the shoes of those whose behavior they are trying to change.
Should girls in Afghanistan be given an education equal to that of boys? Most people in the West would say yes. But in the long scheme of history, educational equality is new even in the West. Not till the late 1960s did Ivy League colleges in the U.S. admit women. Conservatives in Afghanistan can credibly consider Westerners pushy to demand that Afghanistan arrive at the same destination at almost the same time.
Is democracy a human right? Should China be criticized for not allowing elections? Maybe, but American democracy had huge holes in it until the civil rights reforms of the 1960s, and it remains patchy in spots today.
Is freedom to proclaim one’s sexual orientation a human right? It wasn’t in the American military under the don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy, which persisted until 2011.
Do people have a right not to be killed by their government? They don’t in America, if they have been convicted of certain crimes.
The lesson in all of this is—or ought to be—humility. Go ahead and try to save the world, but don’t be surprised if the world resists the salvation you offer. People don’t like being told what to do, especially by those who have only recently achieved the salvation they flog.