Violence and Human Rights: Can They be Compatible?

by Robyn Sulkko

Mandela at the Rivonia Trial

Randall Williams is an instructor of literature at the University of California, San Diego. In this chapter of his book The Divided World: Human Rights and Its Violence, Williams argues that the commitment of Amnesty International to their nonviolence clause marks the beginning of the international human rights movement being in support of state violence and having little to do with the anticolonial movement. 

Williams explains that Amnesty International became of the most prominent and influential nongovernmental organizations advocating for human rights after the second world war largely because of their preoccupation with “prisoners of conscience”. The prisoners were those people who had been physically prevented from expressing their beliefs which they truly believed. This phenomenon is important, according to Williams, for the study and understanding of the international advocacy for human rights because it arguably contributed to their prominence. 

Amnesty International was also concerned with creating a consensus regarding human rights advocacy internationally. They wanted to create a framework of politics that transcended state politics and borders. This helped avoid the Cold War politics that penetrated all politics at the time. 

The organization’s first controversy was regarding their decision to strip Nelson Mandela of his status as a prisoner of conscience due to his public support for the use of violence in the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa. This was a very high-profile case internationally which meant that Amnesty International received significant criticism and a flaw in their commitment to this consensus and their nonviolence clause was revealed. 

Williams explains that the modern nation-state, especially the colonial state, is based on its monopoly of the use of violence within its borders. By remaining committed to the nonviolence clause, Amnesty International proved that it would not support violent resistance toward an oppressive state. It also showed that it supported colonial states by implying that states are the only ones who can use violence legitimately, and that when they do so they are not acting incorrectly. 

Most importantly, because of these claims, Williams argues that at this time the international human rights movement separated itself from and even existed in contradiction to the anticolonial movement. This belief about the use of force showed that those advocating for human rights had a profound misunderstanding about the realities of colonial states and their historical contexts. 

Williams says that it is important when studying the history of human rights to separate discource from practice which means that we must analyze what human rights activism was actually doing at the time for the anticolonial movement. Prisoners of conscience formed a significant group in the human rights movement after the Second World War and Nelson Mandela and those like him revealed a key issue in the politics at the time, which must be analyzed and evaluated to understand human rights advocacy now and why it may not be effective. 

Questions for your consideration and discussion:

Williams says that Amnesty International’s belief about the use of violence firmly distinguished the human rights movement from the anticolonial movement. Is this a compelling argument?

How do you think Nelson Mandela’s support of the use of violence affect the human rights movement at the time? Do you agree that it reveals weaknesses in the approach to advocacy commonly found at the time? 

Do you believe that the dichotomy between discourse and practice is as significant as Williams argues?

One thought on “Violence and Human Rights: Can They be Compatible?

  1. In response to your last question, I believe that when looking at the history of human rights its crucial to see what the theory of the movement were compared to the actions of the movement from world leaders and the people who felt oppressed. Theory and action are not always the same. For instance how powers in support of the UDHR committed the very violations that they agreed should not be committed. Without looking at both discourse and practice we cannot understand the full picture or understand why there was a divide between the two.


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