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Lecture | Contemporary History and International Relations Research Seminar (CHIRRS)

UN Human Rights Politics at the Sunset of the French Empire

  • Marco Duranti (University of Sydney)
Monday 13 November 2017
Contemporary History and International Relations Research Seminar (CHIRRS) year 2017 - 2018
Johan Huizinga
Doelensteeg 16
2311 VL Leiden

This talk revisits the study of French colonial rights discourse through an investigation of the reception in postwar France and its overseas empire of the 1945 United Nations Charter and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, comparing it to the reaction to the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. By the time the codification of new international human rights standards was underway at the United Nations, French republicans had justified colonial rule for more than half a century in the name of realizing the universal enjoyment of the “rights of man”. The drafting of human rights accords at the United Nations and Council of Europe placed French governments in the awkward position of having to take an unequivocal public stance on the question of whether all French colonial subjects should be afforded the same rights protections as individuals in the metropole. French delegates involved in the negotiations over these texts regarded them as constitutive of a single coherent body of international norms derivative of French declarations of rights and constitutional texts since the French Revolution. Yet French officials were deeply divided as to their compatibility with the assimilationist language of the French constitution, the pluralism of colonial law, the potential repercussions on French colonial rule and the inclusion of exceptions clauses that would limit their application in colonial territories. The same conflicting views on the subject emerged amongst champions of greater individual and collective rights for the subject peoples of the French empire. When evaluating whether anti-colonialism was a human rights movement, we must account for not only the attributes of anti-colonialism itself but also the contradictions of French colonial rights discourse that that impacted on the awareness and mobilization of postwar human rights standards across the French empire. 

Marco Duranti is Lecturer in Modern European and International History at the University of Sydney. He is currently spending a term at the University of Cambridge as a Visiting Fellow at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law. His research specialises in the history of international law, norms and organisations. He is author of The Conservative Human Rights Revolution: European Identity, Transnational Politics, and the Origins of the European Convention (Oxford University Press, 2017). 

Discussant: Paul van Trigt (Institute for History, Leiden University). 


CHIRRS brings together historians, area specialists and international relations specialists to address 20th century topics from Brexit to the Muslim world and from French decolonization to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

If you would like to attend the seminars or to be added to our mailinglist please send an email to chirrs@hum.leidenuniv.nl.

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