4/29 | Adom Getachew

From Principle to Right: The Anti-Colonial Reinvention of Self-Determination

In the mid-twentieth century anti-colonial nationalists appropriated the language of self-determination to call for an end to imperial rule in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. From early historians and theorists of decolonization such as Rupert Emerson and John Plamenatz to more recent writings by Erez Manela and others, this appropriation is largely understood as an extension and universalization of a Wilsonian principle. However, this idea that anti-colonial nationalists merely globalized the principle of self-determination to apply to the non-Western world misses a crucial innovation: Between the 1940s and 1960s, self-determination was no longer a principle but became a right. This paper traces how and why anti-colonial nationalists and newly independent states advocated for a right to self-determination that would be included in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights by the 1960s. Through the debates at the United Nations General Assembly and its Third Committee, I illustrate that the transition from principle to right was not a straightforward development, but rather a contested reinvention of self-determination. Despite opposition from western states and against the UN charter’s limited reference to self-determination, anti-colonial nationalists successfully refashioned self-determination as a right that all peoples ought to enjoy. I argue that this reinvention of self-determination shifts the ways in which we theorize sovereignty and the relationship between collective and human rights.

Adom Getachew is a Provost Career Enhancement Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago. She received her PhD in African-American studies and Political Science from Yale University in 2015. She holds a B.A. in African-American studies and Political Science from the University of Virginia. Her research interests are situated in the history of political thought, with specialized interests in international law, theories of empire and race, black political thought and post-colonial political theory. Her dissertation titled “The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination: Towards a History of Anti-Colonial World-Making,” excavates and reconstructs an account of self-determination offered in the political thought of Nnamdi Azikiwe, W.E.B Du Bois, Kwame Nkrumah, Eric Williams, Julius Nyerere and Michael Manley during the height of decolonization in the twentieth century. The dissertation illustrates that these anti-colonial critics, intellectuals and statesmen reinvented the concept of self-determination as a project of world-making in which they reconceived international political and economic relations. Although anti-colonial nationalism and self-determination are often characterized by the narrow goal of overcoming foreign rule in order to constitute nation-states, this study shows that Black Atlantic anti-colonialists developed a critique of international hierarchy and sought to create a post-imperial world order predicated on the principles of national autonomy and equality. Adom’s dissertation drew on archival research in Barbados, Ghana, Switzerland, Trinidad and the United Kingdom and was supported by the Ford Foundation, the Yale MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, the Institute for Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, the Yale International Security Studies program and the Stuart Taylor Grant in the Department of African-American Studies.

In July 2016 Professor Getachew will begin a tenure-track position as a Neubauer Family Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago.