Reflecting on human rights, cultural relativism and neo-colonialism

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Philip Omorogbe

As we advocate for “fundamental” freedoms around the world, we must recognise that our version and understanding of freedom is neither final nor universal. Liberal values are progressive and relative. We must ensure that we are not enforcing a certain value but rather we are encouraging people to critique their own systems and develop values that enable human growth.

This summer, I interned at PEN International, an NGO headquartered in London, England, that advocates for free expression around the world.  Working at PEN International raised something of a personal conflict. As a Nigerian-Canadian, I’m very aware of the harmful impact colonialism has had on my country, my culture and my mindset. I’m particularly wary of the lasting inferiority complex that resulted from colonialism: many colonized societies continue to view their cultures as inferior and blindly accept the colonizer’s perspective. Interestingly, my work at PEN International concerns protecting Kenyan and Nigerian languages, most (if not all) of which have been neglected in favor of English, a direct result of colonialism. This work, combined with my new life in London—a city bursting with relics of Britain’s colonial enterprise in its museums, its immigrant population, its affluence and its global importance—were constant reminders of the lasting effect of colonialism.

When I started my internship, I was concerned that the work of NGOs may be a form of neo-colonialism. I questioned whether NGOs play a role similar to Christian missionaries during colonialism. Christian missionaries worked hand in hand with colonial authorities and formed an essential component of colonial foreign policy. Missionaries humanized and rationalized the colonial enterprise to colonized communities and to the world, and in this way, soothed dissent toward colonialism. In return, missionaries were allowed to continue their work, funded and protected by colonial authorities. Though missionaries were ostensibly independent from the colonial enterprise, missionary work was essential to colonialism—both worked in lockstep and allowed each other to proceed and succeed. In this way, missionary work is intimately tied to the harms of colonialism given its function as a crucial aspect of colonial diplomacy.


I was also concerned that many NGOs including PEN International are based in Western nations and many of these NGOs sometimes portray Western ideals as universal ideals. During colonialism, missionaries also portrayed Western ideals, albeit Christian values, as universal. Undoubtedly, some of these values were urgently needed: an emphasis on literacy and the rejection of harmful cultural practices including twin killing to name a few.  However, missionaries also imposed many harmful values as universal. Missionaries, along with British colonialists, inculcated the powerful scourge of homophobia that continues to plague and inform laws in many former British colonies including Kenya and Nigeria. Now, Britain and British NGOs vigorously oppose these laws.

And so, even though I realise that free expression is urgently needed, I wonder whether our current understanding of free expression is universal. In fact, current discourse on free expression and its limits remains unsettled. In the US, free expression means an unlimited freedom to express even powerfully hateful expression. For instance, the right of holocaust sympathizers to march through Skokie Illinois, a town with a large number of holocaust survivors, is constitutionally protected as free expression. Meanwhile in Canada, this type of expression is substantially limited by hate speech provisions in both our Criminal Code and provincial Human Rights Codes.

Even within the PEN network there’s no consensus on the limits of free expression. In late April, PEN American Center awarded Charlie Hebdo the Freedom of Expression Courage Award. This award led over 204 prominent PEN members including Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje to boycott the award ceremony in protest. These writers argued that Charlie Hebdo cartoons were deeply offensive and oppressive to France’s minority groups, and should not be celebrated with a Freedom of Expression award.

Given the continually evolving nature and relativity of values, I worry that NGOs may advocate for what we in the West currently believe to be superior and universal. In so doing, we deprive communities of the chance to evolve their own values, or worse, encourage these communities to reject ideals that we may later understand to be immensely valuable.

Working with PEN International has given me an opportunity to see NGOs from a different perspective. I have seen the urgent need for human rights work. During my internship, PEN International helped a Bangladeshi secular writer escape imminent death after his colleagues were viciously murdered. I have also seen the passion and sincerity that my colleagues at PEN International have as they advocate for free expression. More importantly, I have seen PEN International’s cultural sensitivity as it engages with free expression. PEN International’s model of engaging directly with independent PEN Centres as it conducts its advocacy allows PEN to work from a bottom-up rather than top-down perspective. By doing this, PEN International’s work is driven by local communities rather than dictated from London. However, I still recognise a power imbalance because PEN International controls advocacy efforts in these countries as it controls their funding. And because NGOs are often funded by foreign aid department of Western nations, NGOs are ultimately part of Western foreign policy.

As I continue working at PEN International, I have come to this understanding: as human rights advocates, we must recognise the ever-present risk of cultural supremacy and the fallibility and evolving nature of liberal values. As we advocate for “fundamental” freedoms around the world, we must recognise that our version and understanding of freedom is neither final nor universal. Liberal values are progressive and relative. We must ensure that we are not enforcing a certain value but rather we are encouraging people to critique their own systems and develop values that enable human growth. In this way, we are not imposing our values as superior and branding other’s values as inferior. Rather, we—human rights advocates as well as those receiving our message—occupy an equal level as progressive thinkers, continually striving for a better world.Additionally, as human rights advocates we must seek complete and real independence. We must operate for the sake of promoting human rights around the world and not as a tool for foreign diplomacy even if this means questioning the current source of our funding. This is not only critical for our legitimacy, I believe it is the only way we can ensure that we are not complicit in perpetuating Western supremacy and the harms that come with it, much like the inferiority complex colonialism has left its wake. This is what will differentiate our work from that of colonial-era missionaries and what ensures human rights advocacy is not a form of neo-colonialism.