The Embarrassment of the West

A Klose Analysis

by Haylie Roy-White

This is a clip from the movie “La Bataille d’Alger” directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. The film was released in September of 1966, four years after Algeria’s independence. The film follows the life of Algerians and Front de la Liberation National (FLN) members during the Algerian French war of 1954 to 1962. This photo demonstrates forced segregation and excessive military control, a common theme in the movie and in Colonialism. The lady looking at the soldier is a member of the FLN, both women and men participated in the fight for independence, regardless of how violent protests became.

   Fabian Klose is a Senior Researcher at the Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG) in Mainz, Germany. His topics of interest include Human Rights, Humanitarian Law, Colonialism and Imperialism during the 19th and 20th centuries. In his chapter, titled “Source of Embarrassment; Human Rights, State of Emergency and the Wars of Decolonization”. Fabian Klose argues that documents from the Human Rights discourse, created after World War Two, would Internationally embarrass colonial powers that were leading the debates on Human Rights. In his chapter, he analyses two particular demonstrations of anti-colonialism during the 1950’s in Kenya and Algeria, and chose both these nations as his main focus for his PhD project Human Rights in the shadow of Colonial violence: the wars of decolonization in Kenya and Algeria.”. Kenya had been a British colony from 1920 to 1963 and Algeria was under French control from 1830 to 1962. Klose questions how nations such as France and the United Kingdom, both democratic countries who placed themselves at the head of Human Rights discourse, deny the very same Rights promised in these documents to the inhabitants of colonized territories. He reveals how both France and Britain chose to legalize extreme colonial violence and occupation as a solution to end anti-colonial and national movements.

“Colonialism denies human rights to people it has subjugated by violence, and whom it keeps in poverty and ignorance by force.” Jean Paul Sartre

After World War two, discussions at the United Nations surrounding Universal Rights reached all the way to Asian and African countries. Scholars from these nations were excited and inspired by Human Rights documents and used them as a moral basis for their political demands and reformations. Klose restates that The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) from 1948 granted basic rights for every individual, and article three of The Geneva Convention a year later secured these rights, even during times of conflict. Other documents, such as the international covenants on Human Rights established the rights of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and most importantly the right to petition.  If these rights were applied in nations that were under colonial occupation, it would become evident that several social, cultural, political and economic rights were being breached by colonial governments. We had discussed petitioning against colonial powers previously in class, Klose emphasizes how the right to petition would reveal what he termed colonial embarrassments. This is because petitions would reveal the effects of imperialist motives, including colonial powers being held accountable for the damage caused to their overseas colonies. According to Hersch Lauterpacht, quoted in klose’s chapter, he claims that petitioning is the only way for the Human Rights regime to be informed and mobilized against gross human rights violations. The British UN delegation condemned petition for this reason, because it would risk UN intervention in their colonies and threatens their colonial dominion. The UK even persuaded its other allies, France and Belgium, to adopt the same position that strictly rejected petitioning.

Klose reveals that colonial rule does the exact opposite of what is set down in a number of articles in the UDHR, and if this was exposed internationally, it would indeed be a source of embarrassment for Colonial Powers. In order to preserve their political and economic hold over colonies, Great Britain and France resorted to the legal tool of declaring a state of Emergency. When a state of emergency is initiated, all legal determination is deactivated including elementary human rights and the application of the UDHR. Colonial powers are allowed to treat all inhabitants within the state of emergency with no legal obligation to protect them, this allowed the use of extreme colonial violence. In Kenya and Algeria, a state of emergency was initiated by colonial governments as a reaction against anti-colonial and national movements. Inhabitants of both countries were subjected to intense racism, interrogation, arrests, torture, violence, relocation, displacement and poverty on a daily basis. Minor conflicts and uprisings were met with heavy military and police force. By using the term emergency, Klose argues that France and Britain were able to hide the reality of the violence perpetuated and gave them a legal reason for not applying human rights. Under the State of emergency, the right to petition was abolished and violations going on could not be brought to the international attention of the UN.

           Fabian Klose concludes that the source of embarrassment for the West is revealed in a paradox. On the one hand, the western countries like France and Briton were leading discussions on Universal rights, yet refused to make these rights truly universal. According to Klose, the West believed it was far more important to maintain colonial domination rather than promote Universal Human Rights. The economic and political grasp over colonial territories was threatened by the very same documents the west composed, and once scholars and civilians of subjugated territories began to use these documents in their fight for liberty, Western powers intervened violently.


What are concepts of Colonialism? Looking at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, do these concepts go against this document?

Can the Kenyan and Algerian anti-colonial activism and violence be justified by the UDHR? What about the state of emergency?

Based on Fabian Klose chapter, how is Jean-Paul Sartre quote true? what are some examples that prove it’s true, let’s talk about this in class!

One thought on “The Embarrassment of the West

  1. In response to your first question, colonialism in its essence something that takes away the rights of the people who have been colonized and take control of the land. The governing powers took away people’s right to property, expression, culture, religion and so much more. The UDHR can be seen as a contradiction to all the horrible acts that colonialism allowed for. There are articles that focus on the protection of property rights, religious freedom, freedom expression, a persons right to be recognized as a person and as the declaration states all ” without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” Indigenous groups were distinguished as different than the colonizers. Indigenous populations were considered as a group of people who deserved fewer rights, if any at all. UDHR can be seen as something in theory that goes against colonialism, which is why colonial powers tried to negate the legitimacy of the UDHR in colonial territories. If there was no contradiction or support for the populations under colonial rule then colonial powers would have had nothing to worry about and would not have taken such extreme measures such as declaring a state of emergency to disrupt how the UDHR was supposed to protect people.

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