Assimilationist Human Rights

Or how the internationalisation of human rights in the 1940s rejected minority protection and privileged assimilation to majority cultures

In a paper recently published in the Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Geschichte (Swiss History Review) with the title ‘The Ambivalent Legacy of Minority Protection for Human Rights‘ (and available in open access) Emmanuel and Mona reflect upon the continuities and discontinuities between interwar minority protection and post-WWII international human rights.

Elaborating upon ideas first presented at the 2018 international symposium The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Historical and Legal Perspectives, Emmanuel and Mona argues that most of the human rights historiography has postulated a clear break between the collective rights tradition of interwar minority protection and the ensuing age of individual human rights. By contrast, they propose a more nuanced account of the transition from the League of Nations’ to the United Nations’ rights system.

The paper builds its arguments in two steps. First it suggests that the minority treaties were a hybrid system containing a mix of individual and collective rights provisions that enabled interwar rights advocates to use the minority treaties as a model for the adoption of human rights instruments proposed at different moments throughout the interwar period. In other words, the minority protection regime of the League of Nations was less based on collective rights than most of the literature has suggested. Furthermore, at the end of WWII, several delegations at the UN strongly defended the inclusion of elements of interwar minority protection within the Genocide Convention (GC) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Although these efforts were eventually unsuccessful, they show that there was no consensus in favour of a pre-eminently individualist conception of human rights at the UN in the second half of the 1940s.

Second, the paper emphasises how, during the negotiations for the GC and the UDHR, opposition to the inclusion of minority protection clauses essentially came from Western diplomats who defended their governments’ prerogative to promote the assimilation of the people inhabiting their territory into the majority culture of the state. To cite just two delegates who were prominent in these discussions, the Brazilian envoy Gilberto Amado resisted the inclusion of an article on cultural genocide within the GC because he believed that ‘sometimes through differentiation, sometimes through the amalgamation of local cultures, a State might be justified in its endeavour to achieve by legal means a certain degree of homogeneity and culture within its boundaries‘. Similarly, the French representative within the Commission on Human Rights motivated his rejection of the inclusion of an article on protection against assimilation in the UDHR with the following words: ‘the historical development of France into a homogenous State had resulted from the extensive and rigorous application of universal human rights to all sections of the population‘. Ordenneau implicitly suggested that human rights and cultural homogenisation went hand in hand.

Emmanuel and Mona concludes that what prevailed during the drafting process of the GC and the UDHR was an assimilationist interpretation of human rights. Rather than being the dawn of an individualist understanding of human rights, the adoption of the GC and the UDHR inaugurated an new international rights regime that in a context of national heterogeneity promised to favour the rights of some groups (national majorities) over those of others (national minorities).

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