Before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), there was the Pan-African Congress’s Declaration to the Colonial Workers, Farmers, and Intellectuals (1945).
It opens with an unambiguous condemnation of imperialism:
The delegates of the Fifth Pan-African Congress believe in the right of all peoples to govern themselves. We affirm the right of all Colonial peoples to control their own destiny. All Colonies must be free From foreign imperialist control, whether political or economic. The peoples of the Colonies must have the right to elect their own governments, without restrictions from foreign powers. We say to the peoples of the Colonies that they must fight for these ends by all the means at their disposal.
The object of imperialist powers is to exploit. By granting the right to Colonial peoples to govern themselves that object is defeated. Therefore, the struggle for political power by Colonial and subject peoples is the first step towards, and the necessary prerequisite to, complete social, economic and political emancipation.
The Fifth Pan-African Congress therefore calls on the workers and farmers of the Colonies to organise effectively. Colonial workers must be in the front of the battle against Imperialism. Your weapons-the Strike and the Boycott-are invincible.
In 1947, South African Peter Abrahams wrote that the congress raised the “banner” against “Imperialism, against man’s political and territorial domination by other men.” Abrahams, along with many who attended the conference, was a socialist. He concluded his brief reflection on the conference with a rallying cry: “Forward to the Socialist United States of Africa.” It would not be inaccurate to rename the 1945 meeting as The Fifth Pan-African Socialist Congress.
The scope of the Pan-African Congress was universal, describing “the right of all peoples to govern themselves.” It provided a vision for how the world could be free from “political and territorial domination.” And it did so by starting from the perspective of “Colonial peoples,” affirming the right of those people to “govern themselves.” Notably, this Declaration did not specify the forms of governance that should be used—the states created by colonial imaginations are not privileged as ideal forms of political and social organization.
This Declaration recognized that the modern world’s primary division of power was between colonizing powers and colonized people, a distinction buttressed by systems and practices of knowledge and power. It was a distinction not simply between those with power and those without, but–as Frantz Fanon and Sylvia Wynter have shown–between those considered human and those considered sub- and non-human.
The group of thinkers and activists gathered at the Pan-African Congress, included George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, Hastings Banda, I.T.A. Wallace Johnson, Jomo Kenyatta, and W.E.B. Du Bois. For the most part, they were activists and students, leaders of small organizations instead of big political parties and major institutions. Some would become presidents, but at this moment, they weren’t; when these words were declared, they gathered to imagine a different kind of world.
As far as I know, none of the people who gathered in Manchester in 1945 participated in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As historian Samuel Moyn writes, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “was less the annunciation of a new age than a funeral wreath laid on the grave of wartime hopes. The world looked up for a moment. Then it resumed its postwar agendas.” It was a footnote in a discussion about how to balance power in the postwar period. But it was less a guide than an adornment.
Article 1 reads, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
If I were to read this Article as I was taught in primary and high school, I would say it articulates an ideal, and that the goal has been to realize the ideal, and perhaps that the work of striving to realize the ideal is more important than achieving the ideal. The journey is more important than the destination, and all other similar clichés.
But if we strip away this language of unrealizable ideals, we notice what has been erased from this Article. First, it ignores the history of enslavement, and especially the principle of partus sequitur ventrem—the child follows the condition of the mother. Central to enslavement and colonialism, this principle meant that children of the enslaved and the colonized were considered enslaved and colonized, even when fathered by enslavers and colonizers. It was enacted precisely to distinguish between those born free and those born enslaved and colonized. You could say the article contradicts that principle; you could also say it ignores it.
But it also clear the the Universal Declaration of Human Rights refused to acknowledge (or contradict) the contemporary distinction between colonizer and colonized, which was at the very heart of the Declaration to the Colonial Workers. On the contrary: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was understood to be compatible with imperial ventures, according to Moyn. The Pan-African Declaration understood imperialism as the main impediment to global emancipation, but the United Nations declaration simply ignored imperialism and colonialism.
When Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ostensibly opposes slavery and forced servitude–“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all forms”—we find the words “imperialism” and “colonialism” conspicuous in their absence. Slavery—or, as Black scholars have taught us, enslavement—is located in the past; imperialism and colonialism were much too present, much too necessary to the imperial powers who gathered to assemble this Declaration. And so, despite the universal pretensions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is a document that supports imperialism.
When I first thought about these two documents and the worlds they imagine, I wanted to know who was in both rooms. Who imagined and drafted and debated and revised and circulated these documents? Yet, the more I thought about it, I shifted my question. In those rooms, who swept the floors, polished the desks, set out tea or water, sharpened pencils, operated sound systems? Who set up and cleaned up? Who took shorthand and typed notes? Who translated? Did they imagine themselves as the addressees and beneficiaries of these processes? Did they—the workers—know there was a document addressed to them?
I used to be uneasy about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And when I learned a little more, I discovered that it was not addressed to me. So I’m not sure if the resources it provides—the frames and languages—can ever compensate for the human it imagines, who can never be me. I’m not sure I have the patience to insist that I am somewhere in its footnotes and marginalia. I am the addressee of the Pan-African Declaration, as are all those on the side of freedom.