Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


UCL IAS Lies: False Promises - Human Rights and the Politics of Hypocrisy

6:30 pm to 8:30 pm, 20 April 2018

False promises.jpg

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IAS Common Ground, Ground Floor, South Wing

The IAS is delighted to welcome Dr Emma Mackinnon, Research Fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, for this talk. 

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt, who had chaired the drafting committee, presented the new document to the American public under the title "The Promise of Human Rights." Recent historians have echoed this claim, arguing that the UDHR represented a promise from the postwar powers, and from the United States in particular, on which to found a new international order. René Cassin, also one of the document's drafters, described the UDHR in France on similar terms: a renewal of the promises of 1776 and 1789. 

 And yet, especially in the two decades following 1948, both countries faced accusations of hypocrisy for openly violating their promises: France for colonial violence and the use of torture in Algeria, the US for racism and white supremacy. Certain critics charged both countries with failing to put stated ideals into practice - with saying one thing and doing another - and demanded the more complete fulfilment of past commitments. But looking to the Algerian resistance, including the work of Frantz Fanon and Ferhat Abbas, as well as to African American activists, particularly Malcolm X, I identify an alternative critique. For such critics, I argue, hypocrisy arose not from the failure to make good on a promise, but from the way the promise itself had been made. Denouncing the promises of the past as lies, they made use of the language of human rights to demand the making of new promises. Returning to this critique allows us to reconsider the meaning of hypocrisy in relation to the making and keeping of promises, and the interplay between universal ideals and imperial practices.

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