Address by Professor Abdullah An-Na’im

The Cross-Cultural Human Rights Centre was privileged to be addressed by Professor Abdullah An-Na’im on 30 May 2018 at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. The keynote given by Professor An-Na’im concerned the topic of ‘Decolonizing Human Rights,’ discussing some of the most fundamental contradictions and continued forms of colonialism that persist in the field of human rights.  Professor An-Na’im is known in both Human Rights and Legal circles for his scholarship on cross-cultural dialogue, and aptly started his keynote by addressing the problematic reality of a human rights monologuethat in part drives the need for decolonisation.

To start, An-Na’im emphasised the transcendental nature of human rights, whereby human rights, unlike any other system bestows rights on people by virtue of their humanity.  In this regard An-Na’im laid out that no other qualification of membership is necessary, rendering human rights a pivotal and fundamentally valuable system in a diverse world.  An-Na’im pointed out however, that these rights often conflicted with civil rights, where the latter pertains to the rights of the citizen and not the human.  An-Na’im pointed out that civil rights, though often seen as synonymous with human rights, are given by the state that qualifies who is entitled to a set of rights, whereas human rights remain fundamentally the ownership of every human being.

Following from this, An-Na’im spoke of a fundamental misnomer in current understandings of human rights. This misnomer is embodied in the widespread idea that liberal societies enjoy rights the most, hence the drive to render ‘illiberal’ societies ‘liberal.’  The reality however reflects a different scenario whereby people and communities in the so-called liberal world increasingly do not enjoy rights by virtue of their humanity. Despite these realities however, Western societies are often thought of as the harbingers of human rights, particularly as a result of their attention and emphasis on civil rights.  An-Na’im however brought these realities to the fore and questioned their very assumptions as part of the process of ‘decolonizing human rights.’ Equally, he stressed that the reality and recognition that not a single state applies human rights to all people by virtue of their being human is integral to dismantling the idea of a hierarchy of compliant states.

Instead what has emerged, according to An-Na’im, is liberal relativity that seeks to shame all other societies for being relativist, when liberal states themselves are complicit in neo-colonialism abroad coupled with internal oppression. He went on to note that, if anything, the vast majority of humanity is not concerned with civil liberties, but instead are pre-eminently focused on ensuring human dignity through the base of socio-economic and cultural rights. Undoing this confusion of human rights with civil rights should form a critical basis of decolonising human rights.

An-Na’im highlighted three core ideas, namely the importance of concept, content and context.  As applied to human rights it is the concept that is universal, the content controversial and contested, and the context often forgotten.  For An-Na’im, including these three ‘c’s into how human rights are approached is indispensible to decolonisation.  He argued that we have been led to subscribe to a simplistic notion of success, in which rights are protected only when elites are committed to certain values. The ultimate political prize, namely, the state, however, determines such values. Ensuring that the drive of human rights protection is not confused with the quest for state power is therefore essential to realising human rights that matter (and not rights dressed as human rights that are mobilised to quench the thirst for state power). Finally, as a way out of the impasse, An-Na’im proposed internally driven cultural transformation and political mobilization as the best if not the only mechanisms to achieve sustainable change and human rights protection.

The keynote address was followed up by discussants, Prof. Eva Brems, Stacey Links and Vivian Aiyedogbon all of whom pointed to different challenges to the process of decolonisation. Some of these included, the limits of ‘dismantling’ the state to ensure people centred human rights approaches, the limits of a state-focus as the ultimate site of colonisation, as well as the challenges associated with a variance of ‘content’ of human rights across societies and communities.

Professor An-Na’im’s keynote address was well received and sparked lively debate.  As a centre we thank him once again for taking the time to address and challenge our thoughts on human rights in the reality of a multicultural world. (this summary is a slightly edited version of a text kindly drawn up by Stacey Links)