Human rights discourses center the “human” in human rights. However, human rights frameworks adopt a limited conception of the notion of “human” that excludes the non-human savage, and non-human nature. The savage, often portrayed as a black body, is unable to claim her rights as a dehumanized being, and has to reluctantly resort to disrupting hierarchies of power through protest and counter-violence. Nature, on the other hand, exists only in so far as it serves human survival and is generally considered to be separate from the human.

What the savage and nature have in common is that they must both be tamed in order to serve the human. At an epistemic level, human rights is unable to make sense of the non-human savage and non-human nature because of its bias toward human exceptionalism on the one hand, and its subsequent evolution as a universal declarationist construct that privileges particular forms of knowledge, on the other. Critical human rights scholars such as Baretto[1] have therefore called for the decolonization of human rights, which he argues, forms part of the broader struggle to decolonize knowledge.

Baretto[2] introduces the idea of “alternate geographies” as a mechanism to decolonize human rights, and argues for the incorporation of rights discourse developed in locations outside Europe. Drawing on Walter Mignolo[3], Baretto suggests that the decolonial project requires a radical reformulation of human rights discourses based on new ways of thinking that are not steeped in eurocentrism. By acknowledging the inadequacy of Euro-American thinking, and recognizing the experiences of those in the Third World, Northern conceptions of human rights can be “renewed from and for the margins”.[4]

But, renewing human rights from the margins continues to assume a Euro-American centered conception of rights. Even if there is a concerted effort to incorporate Southern epistemologies into the global human rights framework, the dominant Euro-American understanding of human rights will remain central. Furthermore, Fanon states that, “[d]ecolonization is the meeting of two forces opposed to each other…”[5] This suggests that the dominant Euro-American understanding of human rights is inherently opposed to a decolonial approach to human rights, and that despite efforts to incorporate a Third World perspective into rights discourses, this perspective will continue to occupy a deferential position. Even if an alternative geography can be constructed that reshapes the genealogy of human rights, will this be sufficient to decolonize human rights? While the approach suggested by Baretto will go some way to decolonize knowledge at an epistemological level since it opens up the possibility of drawing on knowledge sources outside Europe and the U.S., it may not address the problem of rights claims being fundamentally anthropocentric in nature.

Consequently, this paper builds on Baretto’s[6] call to decolonize human rights by suggesting that we consider extricating the “human” from “human rights”. By removing the restraints imposed by the human from human rights, we may be able to not only decolonize, but liberate human rights from its epistemological chains. These chains are tied to colonial ideology which Plumwood asserts “involves a form of anthropocentrism that underlies and justifies the colonization of non-human nature…”[7] Human rights adopts anthropocentric physiognomies that considers the value of nature only in so far as the destruction of natural resources impacts on the ability of humans to claim their rights.

This emancipatory call to de-link human rights from the human is not only a way of confronting the violence of our past and our present, but also an attempt to engage with the evolving future, and in particular, with our growing reliance on artificial intelligence. As the line between what differentiates the human from the machine becomes increasingly ambiguous, we cannot remain locked into an understanding of the human, and of human rights, that is unable to conceive of a framework for social justice that is exclusionary.

We have already seen a discursive shift from human rights as tactics to human rights as sovereignty and human rights as disruption: human rights as sovereignty recognizes the existence of states, non-governmental organizations, and corporations that employ human rights language to entrench power; human rights as tactics draws on rights-based legal frameworks to make claims on behalf of marginalized groups and individuals, that serve as a preamble to emancipation; and human rights as disruption offers a radical reconceptualization of rights claims that are often constructed outside legalistic frameworks to agitate for the disruption of power.

Disruption is often employed by social movements to claim existing rights, or as a mechanism for defying and resisting power.[8] At the same time, these disruptive acts which include legal and illegal protests as well as the destruction of property, are not considered as forming part of the more “acceptable” tactics employed by human rights advocates. Social movements are also less likely to draw on human rights frameworks or formulate their struggle as a human rights claim, suggesting a shift away from human rights discourses.

This move away from human rights by social movements can be contrasted with the increasing invocation of human rights language by repressive regimes and capitalist industries. It is a shift that warrants a reconsideration of human rights discourses and a reevaluation of the very idea of what constitutes the human in human rights.



[1] José-Manuel Barreto, Introduction: Decolonial Strategies and Dialogue in the Human Rights Field, in José-Manuel Barreto (ed.) Human Rights from a Third World Perspective: Critique, History and International Law (2013).

[2] Baretto 2013

[3] Walter Mignolo, Who Speaks for the Human in Human Rights? in José-Manuel Barreto (ed.) Human Rights from a Third World Perspective: Critique, History and International Law (2013).

[4] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference 16 (2008).

[5] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth 27 (1963, 2001).

[6] Baretto 2013

[7] Val Plumwood, Decolonizing Relationships with Nature, in Bill Ashcroft et al (eds.) The Post-Colonial Studies Reader (2006) 504.

[8] Frances Fox Piven, Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America (2006).