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The First RISOS Forum: Considering An-Na’im’s Decolonization of Human Rights

  February 8th 2022

Written By Maurisa Zinira

The various challenges that accompany the implementation of human rights continue to receive attention. At the academic level, discussions about human rights concepts and practices raise and escalate debates, especially relating to the implementation of ineffective legal frameworks. In the RISOS (Reading in Social Science) forum initiated by the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) and PUSAD (Centre for the Study of Religion and Democracy) Universitas Paramadina on January 28, 2021, this issue was discussed in depth by reviewing Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim's book entitled Decolonizing Human Rights.

Using the headline “Decolonization of Human Rights: Considering An-Naim's Offer”, this inaugural RISOS forum included three keynote speakers—Usman Hamid (Executive Director of Amnesty International Indonesia), Diah Kusumaningrum (Lecturer at the Department of International Relations UGM), and Ihsan Ali Fauzi (Chair of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy). Not fewer than sixty participants attended the premier discussion, among the participants were scholars, activists, researchers, and university students.

In his welcoming speech, Zainal Abidin Bagir—the director of ICRS—officially launched RISOS as an academic initiative deliberately held as a forum for mutual learning about the development of social sciences. This monthly agenda is designed to discuss research-based scientific findings and is expected to be a space for sharing perspectives among scholars and researchers of social issues. Served as the prelude to the upcoming RISOS events is Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim’s book that was published in December 2021. 


On An-Naim’s Decolonizing Project of Human Rights

The book Decolonizing Human Rights reflects An-Naim’s concern about the futility of international law-based human rights. Through his book, An-Naim attempts to challenge the established international human rights that were stipulated exclusively by the world’s core countries. He is deeply concerned by how international human rights potentially harms humanity since the concept of human rights protections has been dependent on the international legal regime and is inherently colonial. The international system of human rights is built on the premise of uniformity in norms and institutions as echoed by colonial powers who claim to speak on behalf of humanity on a global scale. Those powerful state groups arbitrarily prescribe their own norms and values ​​as the universal model of human rights and make its statutes and provisions for ex-colonial countries to enter the international community and therein becomes another form of colonization over people from peripheral territories.

It is in this context that An-Naim offers decolonization of human rights. By decolonizing he means “an ongoing dynamic process of reversing the colonial domination of the norms, institutions, and processes for protecting human rights in order to bring all aspects of the system into conformity with the rationale of equality of all human beings in dignity and rights.”[1] Through the concept of “Three Cs”—concept, content, and context, An-Naim proposes to dismantle Western hegemony in the construction of international human rights. In concept, the idea of ​​universal rights as proclaimed by the international regime is difficult to implement at the practical level. One of the reasons relates to its content, in which the claims and norms used to define the universality of human rights are exclusive to the winner of the Second World War. This brings a paradox to the implementation because considering the context, how can universal rights be practiced without distinction in distinctive contexts? Such imperial projects—according to An-Naim—expect uniformity to presume authority through their hierarchical power in international institutions like the United Nations.

Offering the Three Cs, An-Naim proposes that each community develop their own concept of human rights. In concept, human rights must emphasize human dignity and self-determination. In content, it must reflect the fulfillment of human dignity rights through the praxis of self-determination, and in context, it must develop from the local context in which human rights are practiced.

According to Usman Hamid—an intellectual human right activist, An-Naim’s theory is significant. The three Cs concept is an important reminder for those working on human right activism to re-examine and reevaluate the terms and concepts that have been used to promote peace and justice. He reflects that the concept of human rights of which many activists have been buzzing about so far are not isolated from the bias of colonialism which silences voices from the margin, sometimes upon their consent to comply with the so-called universal. Colonization does not only take form in the displacement of nations due to different skin color or ethnicity. Usman states that it could also mean displacement of ourselves from the way we originally think and feel, that is displacement from our state of origins.


The Need for Cultural Transformation and Political Mobilization

The present universal concept of human rights that relies on international law is currently not in line with the spirit of liberation. An-Naim said, "Human rights should be a means to the end of ensuring respect for the dignity of each and every human being, everywhere in the world, by virtue of her humanity, without any requirement or qualification other than being human".[2] Therefore, as emphasized by Diah Kusumaningrum, the universality of human rights should be about the subject that must be protected, that includes every human being without distinction of race, gender, religion, and social origin. For this reason, the formulation of human rights—as addressed by An-Naim, should not be biased towards certain groups. It must be formulated inclusively by involving actors from various contexts.

Even so, Kusumaningrum mentions that An-Naim is not a cultural relativist. She notices that he does not reject the values ​​that have been understood as universal human rights because after all, these rights reside in any individual. What An-Naim wants to encourage through this decolonization project instead, is the opening of equal space and opportunities between the northern and southern worlds in the construction of universal human rights. If the claims of the citizens of the North can be considered as part of the universal human rights content, then the claims of those in the south, who are not winners from the second war, must also receive the same amount of respect and consideration.

To open this possibility and make the system work, An-Naim notes the need to advance human rights through cultural transformation and political mobilization. Cultural transformation means that the paradigm to conceptualize human rights should be shifted from a state-centric to people-centric model, namely by creating a community culture that upholds human dignity that encourages organic change in society through community-based social movements. Through political mobilization and legal mechanisms, human rights values ​​that grew out of the community context are to be institutionalized into human rights content and concepts of universal value. 

At the end of the discussion that lasted for two hours, all the speakers extended their appreciation to An-Naim's offering on ​​human rights decolonization. Each speaker acknowledged that such a concept is important to reevaluate current concepts and practices of human rights. Though Ihsan Ali Fauzi notices that some ideas are not clearly elaborated, he indicates that An-Naim’s view can be a point of departure to develop a more inclusive system of human rights protections. Following that, more empirical research on human rights needs to be augmented to map the needs and dynamics of humanitarian work in the field. 


[1] Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, Decolonizing Human Rights (Cambridge University Press, 2021). p.20

[2] An-Naim. p. 21