Se-shauna Wheatle is a Research Associate in Public Law at Durham Law School. In 2013, she produced a report funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, entitled ‘Adjudication in Homicide Cases involving Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) Persons in the Commonwealth Caribbean‘. She tweets @seshauna.
The controversy at the end of 2014 over the lyrics to the BandAid 30 Christmas charity song ‘How Can they Know its Christmas’ represents the tension, the struggle that is at the heart of this blog post. The song’s description of West Africa as ‘a world of dread and fear’ and its invocation to listeners to ‘bring peace and joy this Christmas to West Africa’ paints a picture of a desperate and dismal region that needs to be rescued by Britain. Though, of course, the song was motivated by a drive to provide assistance to the fight against the Ebola virus afflicting several countries including Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, the lyrics sparked discourse about a recurrent ‘white saviour complex’ and a perception of the global south as desperate and helpless. This debate invites us to consider how we can engage meaningfully to solve the world’s problems, to enhance social justice and equality without unwittingly perpetuating stereotypes and thereby undermining the very efforts we seek to champion.
It is with these questions in mind that I believe human rights researchers and activists have to confront the critique that modern engagement, particularly in issues of rights and development, is approximate to a ‘new age imperialism’. The ‘imperialism objection’ in this sense has been accurately depicted by Nick Bamforth as ‘involving the imposition of a (stronger) imperial power’s laws on (weaker) colonies’. This presents a picture of a process of the subjugation of the local population to the legal authority of a more powerful, distant jurisdiction.
Substantive Value Argument and Methods of Engagement
In exploring and responding to the imperialist critique, it is critical to distinguish between the value arguments and value objectives sought to be achieved on the one hand, and the techniques that we use to accomplish these goals on the other. By value objectives and arguments I refer to the goals (for the purposes of this blog, rights-enhancing goals) sought to be achieved by engagement activities. I’ll draw most of my arguments from the advocacy for gay rights expansion and the reaction to the advancement of gay rights. Methods of engagement are quite broad and range from academic research to political lobbying and from litigation to economic pressure, sanctions and boycotts.
Complaints of imperialism are directed at both the specific value objective and engagement methods. So, the claim is often made that gay rights advocates are attempting ‘the imposition of the values of one country on another’. This is an imperialist objection directed at the value objective of equal rights for the gay community. So political leaders such as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe have campaigned against what they characterize as ‘the threat of moral corruption posed by homosexuality’, protesting that it was inappropriate for Europeans and North Americans ‘to use their moral standards rather than prevailing local values’ to judge local activities. These sorts of arguments reflect the common moral relativist stance that rights claims are ‘local and particular in character’, that ‘ideas about human rights do not emerge from any conception of a common, universal humanity’.
Similarly, there are repeated objections to the fact that policy reform demands are being made by foreign governments, and foreign or international NGOs. But, while the imperialist complaint is directed at both value objectives and engagement techniques, I assume that we have to start from the premise that we will not relinquish our values or surrender our claim of widespread (or universal) application of values we hold dear. We certainly ought not to accept the pure relativist argument which would require that claims for equal dignity on the part of sexual minorities must be based on and limited to perceptions of the ‘traditional values’ of the local society. To cast the matter as Dworkin does, justice demands transcultural standards to evaluate our societies, there must be ‘some reflective basis for deciding which of our traditional distinctions and discriminations are genuine and which spurious…We cannot leave justice to convention and anecdote.’ So, we cannot abandon our objectives of advancing dignity and equality which underpin many rights efforts. Whether engagement- particularly engagement that relies on law that is external to the target jurisdiction- is imperialistic depends, instead, on the degree to which actors involved in the effort occupy ‘socially empowered or disempowered positions’.
The complex nature of power dynamics across identities becomes evident when we consider the impact of rights movements encouraging economic boycotts. One such movement was the ‘Stop Murder Music Campaign’ launched by a variety of foreign gay rights groups directed against homophobic Jamaican dancehall music. The value motivations behind such campaigns cannot be dismissed. The songs targeted by the campaign include the notorious ‘Boom Bye Bye’ by Buju Banton, which contains lyrics that explicitly advocated violence against gay men:
Boom bye bye
Inna batty bwoy head
Rude bwoy no promote no nasty man
Dem haffi dead
Loosely translated, this means:
Shoot and kill a gay man in the head
Rude boys don’t promote gay men
They have to die
Unfortunately, however, there were two crucial strategic missteps that played to the imperialist objection. First was the problem of inclusion of local groups. The main Jamaican gay rights advocacy group JFLAG, was not consulted prior to this campaign nor involved in the planning. JFLAG explained that:
“The truth is we aren’t even involved in these anti-murder-music campaigns today and, in most cases, we are alerted of these protests through our local media.”
The second error was that the boycott campaign took insufficient account of the economic and social inequalities that emerge alongside – and are intersectional with -the LGBT inequities in the local state. So, as a representative of JFLAG noted, there was a need to be cognizant of the “livelihood of [dancehall] artistes and the many people, and I am sure this includes LGBT people, that depend on these artistes for their daily survival”.
This is a quintessential example of a perfectly laudable goal of discouraging violence against LGBT persons; yet, one result of the effort was to further marginalize the local LGBT rights advocacy group and to undermine efforts at convincing the wider population that LGBT Jamaicans are in truth Jamaicans who not only advocate for their rights but who have the interests of fellow Jamaicans in mind. This dilemma is expressed in JFLAG’s statement that:
“while we have had significant issues in the past with the lyrical content of much of the music, dancehall and reggae are an inalienable part of being Jamaican”.
The perennial issue for consideration that we must keep foremost in our thoughts is ‘who is this ideology serving?’
In writing this blog, I also sought the perspective of an activist who has been campaigning for gay rights in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean for many years. He expressed his view that ‘there is urgent need for us to hear southern ideas coming from southern voices’. He noted that ‘[t]here has been growing discontent among some human rights defenders that we have failed to develop our indigenous rights struggle.’
Indeed, many states in which these human rights efforts are being waged (in East and West Africa, India, the Caribbean), are locales with an extensive history of colonial subjugation. They are home to populations with an ingrained memory of oppression from the empire. As the Jamaican activist put it ‘foreign faces demanding respect for foreign ideas at the risk of the imposition of self-legitimized sanctions will invariably cause rebellion among these people.’
A significant aspect of this issue is pragmatism. Local activists are best acquainted with their own communities and best suited to identify the traditions that can be tweaked to help effect change. A domestic violence activist in Malaysia explained that ‘charging in as an outsider doesn’t bring change – it brings resentment and may be counterproductive as people get uber-protective over their cultural practices and societal norms’.
From the perspective of the proliferation and long-term success of the rights movement, we must allow those most directly affected to speak in defence of their own rights. This direct assertion can allow for a powerful response to claims of imperialism.
This is especially true for local activists who are accused of westernisation. The more local activists speak and are heard, the greater the opportunity to claim those values of equality, as ‘ours’ as well as ‘theirs’, as belonging to the global south as well as the global north. This is a further step towards true universalism.
The Way Forward
Embracing Dignity and Equality: True embrace of underpinning values such as dignity and equality demands that we self-consciously reflect on how we can bring those values to bear not only in the objectives of our work but also in the methods by which we seek to achieve those goals.
Ongoing Deliberation: We must engage in continual deliberation that tests our assumptions, challenges our perspectives and pushes us to participate in true collaborative action.
Respecting Difference: Finally, a crucial step in addressing the imperialist complaint is a commitment to respecting difference. Researchers and activists must be inventive, finding the means to respect and celebrate our cultural and other differences while enhancing the universal human rights condition. This is in keeping with the invocation of one of the more innovative rights-protecting institutions in the world- the Constitutional Court of South Africa – that respect for equality ‘mandates acceptance of the principle of difference itself’.