The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

Living Edition
| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

Liberalism, Human Rights, and Western Imperialism

  • Fidèle IngiyimbereEmail author
Living reference work entry



Liberalism is a political theory/philosophy focusing on the rights and freedom of the individual and the inherent equality of persons and peoples.

Western imperialism is the occupation, domination, and exploitation of the rest of the world by the West.

Human rights are inherent and unalienable rights/claims/entitlements that an individual possesses by the virtue of being a social human being living in a socioeconomically and politically organized society.


Combining these three concepts – liberalism, human rights, and Western imperialism – under the same title is unfair to all of them, since each has been the object of extensive study. Yet, taking them up together raises the question of their mutual and reciprocal relationship. In that regard, since the option of exploring each of them is impossible in one essay, the present work will explore the latter, focusing mostly on the commonplace claim that human rights are a new form of Western liberal imperialism.

Western imperialism, for sure, has been widely documented, and imperialism as such is not a new reality in world politics. On the contrary, it was even the rule in ancient times and in almost every corner of the earth. Don’t we talk about Persian, Inca, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Monomotapa, Japanese, and Ottoman empires, to mention just a few! (Lal 2004; Münkler 2007; Schumpeter 1971; Aldrich 2007). Why then has imperialism become a political evil to be fought by all means?

While relatively recently coined in English – it is a creation of nineteenth century (Pitts 2010: 214) – normatively speaking, imperialism is made through domination. From a political point of view, imperialism presupposes the occupation and domination of one people by another, politically, economically, socially, and culturally (Robinson 1972: 118–119; Laurens 2009: 14). As such, it goes against certain norms and values, such as freedom, consent, self-determination, and autonomy, which constitute today’s political discourse. Thus, a people fighting for freedom equals it with fighting against imperialism and domination. However, these very same norms and values are usually linked to liberalism, and this brings up the first problem with combining these terms. How can liberalism be connected with imperialism while it carries in itself anti-imperialist norms and values?

A similar question arises when imperialism is associated with human rights. The latter are believed to have become not only the lingua franca of international politics and discourse (Hogan 2015), but also they are presented as a powerful tool to fight against injustice and domination. For instance, studies show that human rights discourse was important in the struggle against colonization – which was the apex of Western imperialism (Klose 2013; Burke 2010). (Samuel Moyn (2012) seems to argue the contrary concerning the role of human rights in the anticolonial movement.) That being the case, how can such a powerful instrument as human rights be assimilated to its fierce enemy?

These questions are just mentioned to underline the complexity of the relationship between these three concepts. Hence this essay is organized around four points to be developed in four sections. The first point will show how the Western imperialism crystallized around the racial ideology of the civilizing mission – mission civilisatrice – in order to justify the conquest of the rest of the world by the West with the goal of solving its internal problems. In the second section, I will analyze whether liberalism is intrinsically imperialistic, and I will also look at its relationship between liberalism and Western imperialism, since many liberals were hard advocates of imperialism, although some other liberals were against it. In this second moment, therefore, I examine the core norms and values of liberalism to see whether they are congenital to imperialism and their role in supporting Western imperialism. The third point elaborates the claim that human rights discourse is actually the new ideology of Western imperialism, going through some of the different arguments presented by the critics of human rights, such as that human rights are essentially liberal and are used by Western states in order to expand the liberal imperialism even through military intervention, if necessary. Finally, in the last section, I sketch a response to that claim elaborated in the third point showing that, while human rights can be imperialistically defended and used, they (re)present not only a powerful tool against imperialism but also are a means of resistance against local injustices and discrimination. Such a sketch requires a new conception of human rights drawn from local practices of human rights, a conception that takes the whole practice of human right beyond the Western focus.

On Western Imperialism

As already alluded to in the introduction, imperialism entails the domination of one people over another, politically, culturally, economically, and socially. Furthermore, it has been highlighted that imperialism as a political practice is not new. Hence, talking about Western imperialism implies a normative shift in the understanding of the new political practice. It corresponds to a certain historical period during which the Western powers made it their purpose to dominate the rest of the world (Getz and Street-Salter 2011: 213). Independently of the different theories about imperialism (Mommsen 1980), or different schools that define it – for Lenin (1975) it is the highest stage of capitalism, while Schumpeter (1971) defends capitalism from being imperialist – Western imperialism corresponds to what scholars generally call “formal imperialism” (Getz and Street-Salter 2011), or “the true imperialism” (Laurens 2009: 74), or again “high imperialism” (Mommsen 1986: 339). It is agreed that this period extends from the 1870s to 1914. (Jonathan Hart (2008) dates high imperialism from 1830 to 1914 (see Chapter 5)). In relation to Africa, its climax is the Berlin Conference in 1884–1885, when the European powers divided the whole continent among themselves. It is the period when Western powers dominated and exploited the rest of world for their own interests.

During this time, the West was experiencing rapid economic growth due to the industrial revolution and the technological progress, which affected positively the demographic increase. Consequently, European industry needed both raw materials and the market to sell what was manufactured. Furthermore, the growth in industry and demography created the need for physical space for this demographic surplus and places in which to invest the capital surplus. That is why, while the economic factor is the most cited as the cause of Western imperialism, one has to agree with Johan Galtung et al. that Western imperialism had “a multicentered structure” (1980: 141).

As usual, if those economic and demographic problems were not resolved, they threatened political stability because they would have caused social upheaval. Hence Western powers needed the imperialist expansion in order to respond to their own economic, social, and political problems. Statements from political figures of the time attest to that. For Leopold II, then the King of Belgium, there is no possibility of greatness without colonies (Austen 1969: 60); and for the French prime minister, July Ferry, the French needed export markets for its products (Austen 1969: 71).

Hannah Arendt has well captured the imbrication of all these factors, showing that, indeed, Western imperialism was seen as a solution to the evils that were pushing the Western societies to the brink of disintegration. She observes:

Older than the superfluous wealth was another by-product of capitalist production: the human debris that every crisis, following invariably upon each period of industrial growth, eliminated permanently from producing society. Men who had become permanently idle were as superfluous to the community as the owners of superfluous wealth. That they were an actual menace to society had been recognized throughout the nineteenth century and their export had helped to populate the dominions of Canada and Australia as well as the United States. The new fact in the imperialist era is that these two superfluous forces, superfluous capital and superfluous working power, joined hands and left the country together. The concept of expansion, the export of government power and annexation of every territory in which nationals had invested either their wealth or their work, seemed the only alternative to increasing losses in wealth and population. Imperialism and its idea of unlimited expansion seemed to offer a permanent remedy to a permanent evil. (Arendt 1958: 150)

The merit of Arendt’s analysis is how she ties together the three factors at the origin of imperialist expansion. It was not an accident but a solution to internal problems created by conditions internal to Western societies. Imperialism helped to manage the wealth and demographic surpluses which hung over the sociopolitical order. Hence, the expansion was “to offer a permanent remedy to a permanent evil.” Boris Kagarlitsky also notes that imperialism was used to solve social problems. Quoting Cecil Rhodes, the colonialist of the Southern part of Africa, he observes that for Rhodes, “Britain needed to ‘acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced by them in the factories and mines’.” He continues, “this was not merely ‘a solution for the social problem’, but the only way to avoid ‘a bloody civil war’. In other words… ‘if you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists’” (Kagarlitsky 2014: 281).

The interesting question for today is whether the same idea of imperialism as a solution to internal problems of the developed countries is not still at work in the international relations between the Western world and the developing world and, as such, has become a settled model in international cooperation. For indeed, if the conviction was that to avoid civil upheaval Western countries had to become imperialist, that is, to strive for “unlimited expansion,” what could have replaced it in today’s world order? This question is particularly relevant for the African case where a new version of “scramble for Africa” is at work, with the only difference that today there are also Asian powers – such as China (French 2014), looking for space and place for their demographic and capital surpluses.

Although these are the factors that led to Western imperialism, they could not be spelled out crudely without offending the public opinion; “civilized nations” could not just state that they were expanding their colonies to solve their own problems. Even a perspicacious analyst such as Hobson (1902) argues that imperialism was not economically beneficial. There had to be a clean discourse to justify why people and capital were being exported into heathen lands; otherwise it could have been morally unbearable to these souls bathed into Christian traditions. Clearly, there was a need for a morally acceptable justification of the imperialist domination, and this justification came under the civilizing mission – mission civilisatrice – ideology. According to this ideology, Western powers were not going out to hunt for gold and other precious metals, nor were they exporting their surpluses to prevent social unrest. Rather, they were on a mission of higher order: civilizing the backward societies and communities. Such an enterprise was assured to gain even Christian endorsement, with missionaries playing, at times, the role of intermediaries between tradition and change (Lawrence 2014: 145; Scally 1975: 29), or simply being the precursors to imperialist occupation (Robinson 1972: 123).

Civilizing mission was also politically correct and was recommended by a moral duty emanating from a “political metaphysics,” to quote Jules Ferry, the French Prime minister. For him, the imperialist expansion was needed for humanitarian and civilizational purposes, and this responsibility relied on superior races. He asserts, “it must be stated openly that, in effect, superior races have rights over inferior races…superior races have a right, because they have the duty to civilize other races” (Austen 1969: 71–72). From these observations, it is obvious that the civilizing mission was wrapped in a racist theory, categorizing some races as superior others inferior, with a moral duty to elevate the latter by the former to the level of civilization. With civilizing mission, the real imperial motives were forgotten to the benefit of this humanitarian endeavor of superior races vis-à-vis the lower ones. Imperialism was no longer a self-interested enterprise but rather a response to a moral call for the superior races to civilize lower ones; and the latter had to receive it as a benevolence.

Needless to say that the superior races are the white/Caucasian, while at the bottom of humanity are the dark ones/Negro, and in middle are the Mongolian/yellow. Science, arts, and cultures are bestowed on the superior races; that is the reason why they have the metaphysical duty to bring them to lower ones (Curtin 1972: 8–9). As A.P. Thornton rightly observes, the civilizing mission was so well crafted that “intelligent people everywhere believed they were the masters of progress and the servants of a civilizing mission” (Thornton 1977: 32). The civilized people had to civilize the uncivilized. The pair civilized-uncivilized is the foundation of the civilizing mission ideology.

Nevertheless, the moral discourse acceptable to sensitive souls for its justification was not enough for imperialism; it also needed a legal framework. Hence the coincidence between the birth of positive international law and the high imperialism period was not an accident. Some of the international lawyers of the time developed categories based on both a racist theory and the pair civilized-uncivilized, in order to supply the recognition or denial of sovereignty. As Martin Koskenniemi underlines, most of them were committed to the civilizing mission and wholeheartedly believed in the civilizational progress (Koskenniemi 2011: 3).

This is not, however, particular to this period. Reading Francesco de Vittoria – who is considered to be the father of modern international law – Anthony Anghie (2006) argues that imperialism is actually the origin of international law. For him, international law was developed when Western societies encountered the non-Western world, in order to facilitate colonization. “The fact of cultural difference” between Western and non-Western societies is the key concept to the construction of international law. This is illustrated by authors such as James Lorimer (1883), Pascal Fiore (1911), and John Westlake (1894) who, in way or another, constructed their theories on the civilized-uncivilized pair. They gave power and authority to European nations to colonize non-European people, denying the latter political recognition. The agency in the recognition process was granted to the civilized European nations, while other peoples, because they were qualified uncivilized, could not have a space in international law.

The contradiction (Ingiyimbere 2017: 37–38), however, is that the same international law that denied recognition to non-European nations as full members of international order allowed the latter to enter into agreements through treaties so that European powers could occupy their lands and exploit their peoples and their wealth. If non-European peoples were not deemed worthy of recognition on the civilizational checkerboard, how could they be allowed to enter into agreement through a treaty with European nations? The question does not call for an answer since positive international law was meant to further the cause of imperialism, by providing a legal framework that could supplement the moral discourse of the civilizing mission ideology. From this perspective, Emmanuelle Jouannet is right when she remarks that “if we understand imperialism to mean domination and the imposition on others of one’s own legal and economic systems, it cannot be denied that classical, Eurocentric international law both accompanied and legitimated this imperialism” (Jouannet 2007: 382).

The begging question here is whether international law has changed its course and mission. A law that was conceived through and for the cause of imperialism has it fundamentally changed in order to serve the interests of non-European nations, or is it still the instrument of imperialist domination? Again, this question is raised to underscore the different pockets that imperialism can hide and which anti-imperialism has to uncover.

To conclude this first section, we gather that Western imperialism is taken to mean high imperialism, that is, the period from the 1870s to 1914 during which, Western powers occupied and exploited most of the rest of the world, in order to respond to their economic, social, and political needs. They did so through the disguise of the civilizing mission ideology as a justificatory discourse, embedded into the nascent international law as its legal scheme. Now that we have delineated its contours, we can examine its relationship with liberalism.

Liberalism and Western Imperialism

Historically speaking, it is almost impossible to dissociate liberalism from Western imperialism as the latter developed during the spread of liberal ideas (Hausser et al. 1952). However, it is not just a historical coincidence. Some scholars contend that liberalism is intrinsically imperialist. For Uday Mehta (1999), the link between liberalism and colonialism is not accidental; they are congenital to each other because of the liberal belief in progress. It is the same view of Alan Ryan who argues that “liberalism is intrinsically imperialist” and even suggests that “we should understand the attractions of liberal imperialism and not flinch” (Ryan 2012: 107). In other words, there are solid grounds to examine what liberal imperialism entails.

According to Ryan, liberal imperialism is equivalent to liberal interventionism and is understood as “the doctrine that a state with the capacity to force liberal political institutions and social aspirations upon nonliberal states and societies is justified in so doing” (Ryan 2012: 107). Dan Cox follows the same line, defining liberal imperialism as “the aggressive foreign policy of forcing, through direct military action and soft-power coercion, democracy and a respect of Western notions of civil and political rights on the world” (Cox 2013: 634). These definitions share the identification of imperialist seeds inside liberalism itself, which are the liberal beliefs in internationalization of liberal norms developed in the Western world, without paying regard to local cultures and practices. Liberalism then embodies imperialism through its universalist orientation. Nevertheless, it is one thing to be universalist and another to impose universal ideas on others. Liberalism becomes imperialist when it presupposes that its normative ideals and sociopolitical institutions are the best and consequently should be imposed by all means on nonliberal societies. Pitts captures it when she observes that “liberalism arguably remains marked by features that rendered it often supportive of imperial domination, including commitment to progress and a teleological view of history, a suspicion of certain kinds of cultural or ethical particularism, and a hospitable stance toward capitalism and the economic exploitation of nature” (Pitts 2010: 216). This means that the core components of liberalism are at the origin of its connection with imperialist domination.

It has already been underlined that Western imperialism was the domination of nonwestern societies in all their vital sectors by the West between the 1870s and 1914. During this period, many liberals supported empire and imperialism under the same ideological justification of civilizing mission, and liberal imperialism was tied to the civilizing mission (Mantena 2010: 45). They believed that uncivilized societies would benefit from the imperialist project in freedom and progress. Understandably, such a belief had to be founded on the racist distinction between the civilized and uncivilized, between superior and lower races, from which arose the “metaphysical” duty of superior races to civilize the lower ones; they had to believe in this universal vocation of some races over others. Thus, it is once more difficult to dissociate liberal thought from the rise of Western imperialism. As Pitts once again rightly notes, “whether we apply the term liberalism strictly to theories developed after 1810s, when ‘liberal’ became a political category, or more broadly but conventionally to the languages of subjective rights and self-government stemming back to the early-modern period, the evolution of liberal thought coincided and deeply intersected with the rise of European empire” (Pitts 2010: 216).

The enmeshing between liberalism and Western imperialism is not only because of the moral support of the civilizing mission ideology; it is also found in the development of positive international law. Started in Brussels under the Association internationale pour le progrès des sciences sociales, the founders had the goal of furthering liberal ideas. In Koskenniemi’s words, “the Association internationale advocated liberal ideas, religious tolerance, freedom of opinion and free trade, as well as the development of contacts between peoples” (Koskenniemi 2011: 12). In addition to this pronounced liberal leaning of the positive international law, they saw themselves as the juridical conscience of the civilized world (Koskenniemi 2011: 41). This is a clear indication that they bought into the dichotomy civilized-uncivilized, and they sided with what was considered to be the civilized world. In other words, the imperialist dimension of liberalism was ingrained in the positive international law.

This point is made evident by reading some representative of liberalism at the age of high imperialism. (Jennifer Pitts (2005) studies the attitude of many liberal figures both in Britain and France toward imperialism, and their views are quite different. Uday Mehta (1999) is also a good source for some British liberals.) James Mill talks of non-European societies “from the South Sea island nomads to the peoples of the Chinese empire [as] rude and barbarous” (Pitts 2005: 131). Under such circumstances, they do not deserve self-rule; rather, as in the case of India, British rule has to be imported and implemented through colonialism in order to help them grow from “social childhood to social maturity” (McCarthy 2009: 168). His son John S. Mill pushed even further in justifying the need and benefit of imperialism, also distinguishing “rude,” “savage,” and “uncivilized” peoples from the civilized ones. Once more, the dichotomy between civilized-uncivilized was the operative concept. Not only did it denote a categorization of peoples – which entails hierarchy between them – that operative concept also presupposed that those using it believed in the ideological justification of the Western imperialism; they adhered to Jules Ferry’s “political metaphysics,” which gives superior races the duty to civilize the lower ones.

For J. S. Mill, the classification of peoples into those two categories determined the nature of political institutions corresponding to each, providing consequently the raison d’être of imperialism. According to him, the savages could not bear the weight of free institutions; therefore, only a despotic government was the best option for them. In his own words, “a people in a state of savage independence, in which every one lives for himself, exempt, unless by fits, from any external control, is practically incapable of making any progress in civilization until it has learnt to obey.” Hence, “to enable to do this, the constitution of the government must be nearly, or quite, despotic” (Mill 1998: 232).

Before even highlighting the imperialist tone of this statement, it is a contradiction to say that there is a people if everyone lives by him/herself; if it is a people, the assumption should be that there has to be a certain social organization – however basic it might be! – to facilitate social cooperation. Not acknowledging this is already a bias against nonwestern societies and a basis for justifying invasion, since it is believed that one is not entering a constituted political entity. Second, there is the belief in “progress in civilization.” This is not offered as a choice; it is presented as a must for the so-called savage people. Therefore, as it has to happen, the only form of government that can lead them to it is a despotic one. It should be underlined that for John S. Mill, despotism is not an end in itself; it is a means to reaching civilization, which comes through obedience. He writes, “despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be of their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end” (1971: 263).

Mill connects the liberal belief in progress with the teleological view of history, as Pitts notes (2010: 216), and he represents a common view for the educated Europeans of his time. According to Koskenniemi, “by the 1870s the assumption of human development proceeding by stages from the primitive to the civilized had come to form the bedrock of social anthropology and evolutionary sociology that provided much of the conceptual background for cultivated European reflection” (Koskenniemi 2002: 102). Nevertheless, Mill’s argument would not have promoted imperialism had it stopped there. But he went further. Not only did the savage people not deserve self-representative government, but they could not even produce a good despotic ruler to teach them how to obey. Hence, they had to get the despot from outside.

With these views, imperialism was normatively justified. If there had to be progress in the civilization of “barbarous” peoples, and the latter could not afford the means to that end, then those with the means had a moral duty to provide them. Translated into imperialist terms, the civilized nations had to provide despots for civilizing the barbarians; the latter had to be “governed by the dominant country, or by persons delegated for that purpose by it…[and] when the domination they are under is that of a more civilized people, that people ought to supply it constantly” (Mill 1998: 454). Once more, the civilized people were required by a moral duty to civilize the uncivilized people, and it was presented as benevolence.

With such arguments, it becomes difficult to defend the view that classical liberalism was not imperialist in its core and that it was not in connivance with the Western imperialism. Even Eileen Sullivan who thinks that most of English liberals were anti-imperialists concedes that “with his entire theory, Mill has been the most important intellectual figure in transforming English liberalism from a dominantly anti-imperialist theory to a very sophisticated defense of an expanding British empire” (Sullivan 1983: 617). As the above development shows, Mill’s argument is not only for the British empire; it is rather a liberal normative theory of imperialism, because it is built on liberal norms to justify why one people can rule over another.

Following Ryan’s and Cox’s definitions of liberal imperialism, there is no need to ask whether liberal imperialism disappeared with the physical end of Western expansion – technically marked by the decolonization movement, although the latter has been labeled or taken to lead to a neocolonialism (Fanon 1996). On the contrary, it is a commonplace claim that Western imperialism has continued under liberal imperialism which pervades international politics and economic systems, by instituting the liberal international order (LIO) before which all countries have to bow. Established after the World War II under the hegemonic leadership of the United States of America in connection with its European Allies (Ikenberry 2010), a few years ago (2010), Ikenberry was convinced that LIO is here to stay and that it would maybe change its leadership and not really its foundational norms. Today with the arrival of Trump in the US politics and the increase of nationalism, protectionism, and populism in the Western world, he (2018) wonders whether it is not the end of the liberal order. LIO gained monopoly after the Cold War, celebrated in the now famous Francis Fukuyama’s End of History. While for many the establishment of LIO represented the dreamt democratic peace through free trade and international cooperation based on international norms, others consider it as the continuation of the imperialistic project that started with Western expansion during the formal imperialism. For Inderjeet Parmar, “LIO is a class-based, elitist hegemony – strongly imbued with explicit racial and colonial/imperial assumptions – in both US domestic and foreign relations” (Parmar 2018: 152). This system applies different standards “internally and externally” (Parmar 2018: 157), that is, it is favorable to Western societies while constraining non-Western societies, sometimes even through military interventions. In its many policies on liberal norms of democracy and human rights (Hinnebusch 2012) and neoliberal economic measures that mostly affect nonwestern societies, there is an outcry that LIO constitutes “a new age of liberal imperialism” (Rieff 1999), enforced through humanitarian intervention.

However accurate all these criticisms against liberalism are though, it remains to be underlined that resistance and contestation against imperialism were/are also rooted in liberal tradition. Sullivan contends that John S. Mill had actually inherited a liberal tradition that was anti-imperialist (Sullivan 1983: 599) and Andrew Fitzmaurice corroborates that opinion saying that there were both a critique and a justification of imperialism at the heart of liberalism. (Fitzmaurice 2012: 124). Thomas McCarthy (2009) also shows that there were many liberals who opposed imperialism. Even Mehta, who rather contends that liberalism is intrinsically imperialist, acknowledges Burke as a liberal who challenged the British empire. And Parmar who argues that LIO is imperialistic also recognizes that it was first conceived as anti-imperialist and anticolonial (2018: 160).

Under such conditions, while not completely agreeing with him, McCarthy is right to observe that:

given this diversity of views, it seems to me an oversimplification to argue…that imperialism is constitutive for liberalism as such, especially since the critiques advanced by anticolonial liberals have typically appealed to liberal values. On the other hand, it is undeniable that mainstream of liberal thought, running from Locke through Mill to contemporary neoliberalism, has continually flowed into and out of European-American imperialism, and that ideas of sociocultural development have been integral to that connection. (McCarthy 2009: 169)

I do not completely agree with McCarthy that imperialism cannot be attributed to liberalism as such, because it has been shown that the support of imperialism was constructed based on core norms of liberalism. However, he has a point to underscore that anti-imperialism also drew from liberal norms. Therefore, one can conclude with Fitzmaurice that “liberalism has been characterized by conflict over empire” (Fitzmaurice 2012: 124), because it is hard to dissociate liberalism from Western imperialism. In fact, some liberals thought imperialism would be good for the protection of natives. For instance, as once more Koskenniemi writes, the founders of international law “were liberals who supported the turn to formal empire in order to protect the natives from the greed of companies and ensure the orderly progress of civilizing mission.” He adds, “they were imperialist not irrespective of their liberalism but as a consequence of it” (Koskenniemi 2011: 3). With such evidence, it would be hard to completely absolve liberalism as such from its involvement with imperialism.

Now, today, there is a claim that Western imperialism has changed its face and girded itself with the new fashion of human rights. The next section looks closely at that.

Western Imperialism Under the Cover of Human Rights

Many Third World and postcolonial scholars have been decrying human rights as the new ideology invented to cover Western imperialism. Indeed, having been formally interrupted by the decolonization movement, the unlimited expansion that was characteristic of high imperialism could not continue openly without hurting the moral sentiments of “civilized nations.” Thus, forced to leave the newly acquired colonies, the West had to find another way to stay there, and it did so by leaving in place local bourgeoisie installed to protect Western interests (Fanon 1996). But that being the covert fact, the West once more could not state crudely and assume it openly. Thus, there is a need of another moral discourse to conceal this new stage of imperialism and that is, these scholars claim, the role of human rights.

It is worth recalling that Western imperialism was meant to solve political, economic, and social problems of the Western nations but had to be justified in a morally acceptable discourse of the civilizing mission. That is how it could garner the support of intellectuals and galvanize missionaries for such a noble cause, hence the support of some liberals who conjured up a robust normative argument and put in place a legal framework in order to attain that end. The claim then is that the human rights corpus has embodied the same role of an ideology for advancing Western domination over the rest of the world, and it has also taken on a legal form in order to be effective in pushing forward the Western imperialist goal. For David Holloway, “the idea of ‘human rights’ substitutes for, and becomes indistinguishable from, older terms such as ‘progress’ or ‘civilization,’ and the gamut of racialized ideologies depicting white Anglo-Americanism as the engine of these values that first became part of the dominant US culture’s explanations for its own domestic hegemony during the nineteenth century” (Holloway 2009: 32). Normatively speaking, the claim amounts to saying that human rights idea itself is imbued with the same characteristics of Western imperialism: the racial hierarchy and the civilizing mission entrusted to superior races toward the lower ones.

Makau wa Mutua captures the whole critique through a metaphor of savage-victim-savior (SVS) (Mutua 2002; Ingiyimbere 2017: 39–52). For him, human rights have become the ideological tool that the West, under the United States of America’s leadership, has found to perpetuate Western imperialism. It should be underscored that here Western imperialism is understood as the imposition of liberal values and norms on nonwestern societies. Thus, for the critics, when British and French leaderships waned, the United States took over; and while the former hailed civilizing mission ideology as the reason for the expansion, today human rights discourse provides the moral discourse for the Western world to continue the salvific mission of the “burden of white man.” According to Mutua, the human rights corpus depicts nonwestern societies as savages, which still need civilization by becoming liberal; it demonizes nonwestern states and officials as savages who violate human rights, and yet it remains silent when the same rights are trampled by Western states. It institutes double standards in evaluating human rights, because it is designed to advance the Western interests by targeting nonwestern cultures. That is why, for Mutua, human rights corpus is rather Eurocentric; it is constituted with Western values of democracy and human rights, and it aims at imposing them on other cultures without taking into account their normative systems.

The whole point of this first metaphor of savage in relation to today’s Western liberal imperialism is that, like the formal imperialism then needed to portray the new societies they were conquering as savages, barbarous, and uncivilized in order to justify itself, so too does the current liberal imperialism need to depict nonwestern societies as savage so that the West can perpetuate its domination. In that sense, although human rights discourse is heralded to protect victims and improve sociopolitical structures, it is a sham because it is used to hide the Western liberal domination over the rest of the world. That is why human rights discourse is labeled an ideology.

The anchor of this new imperialism, however, is the victim, and this is the second term of the metaphor SVS, and it is also a metaphor on its own. Presented as impoverished, weak, and helpless, the victim epitomizes the savagery of the nonwestern cultures, which the civilized world cannot tolerate. This victim is always from the nonwestern societies, displayed to the Western public in order not only to justify once more why the West cannot sit back and watch, but also to gain public moral support. Images of victims of human rights violations in the West or by the West are rarely presented to the public, and not even talked about, because this would affect the purpose of the whole enterprise, as it would reveal the West’s own vulnerability. Furthermore, having presented the victim as helpless facing the ferocity and savagery of nonwestern states, there is only one moral option: to help her.

These kinds of images and discourses were the same used during the formal imperialism to arouse moral sentiment toward the “poor natives” and the need to protect them, without asking what the protector would gain in return. They portrayed the indigenous rulers as cruel and savage on the one hand and, on the other, the helpless local populations as victims of these heartless rulers. Thus, the civilized public could not fail to support imperialism thus presented and seen as a salvific mission toward those poor souls. Mutua argues that it is the same dialectic operating with/in human rights discourse.

The third metaphor is that of savior which, as it sounds at the outset, has a religious flavor; it combines “Eurocentric universalism and Christianity’s missionary zeal” (Mutua 2002: 30). The West feels that its natural duty is to come to rescue, as a salvific act, those helpless and poor victims of the savagery of nonwestern cultures. Those cultures need to be fixed – saved – once and for all, by bringing them the values and norms that lead to civilization: the Western liberal values and norms of human rights. The West needs human rights discourse to justify its return to nonwestern societies; otherwise it could be accused of recolonizing the nonwestern world. Furthermore, for carrying out that salvific mission, the Western world needs proselytizers who are ready to go on the new expeditionary missionary work, as they did during the time of high imperialism. Hence, for Mutua, the new instruments of the contemporary civilizing mission of human rights are:
  1. (i)

    The UN institutions – which are sent to monitor nonwestern states in their human rights performance

  2. (ii)

    The international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) – which are mostly from the Western world and are concerned only with the records of liberal human rights outside the Western world, ignoring the status of human rights in their own respective countries.

  3. (iii)

    The Western states that condition their cooperation with nonwestern states by their respect for human rights and liberal democracy in a unilateral way, since nonwestern states do not have any power to impose conditionalities for their cooperation with the West.


This process is reminiscent of the tutelage that undergirded the formal imperialism of the past, believed to help the nonwestern societies to progress toward civilization but without granting them political recognition and equality in bilateral or multilateral cooperation.

Thus, the SVS (savior-victim-savior) metaphor – whose terms are themselves metaphors – exemplifies the ideological dimension of human rights discourse at the service of the continuation of Western liberal imperialism. Indeed, while the human rights corpus itself is made of many generations of human rights, such as socioeconomic and cultural rights, as well as the right to development, the Western world is only concerned with the liberal rights, that is, the civil and political rights. It does not consider other rights, such as economic and sociocultural rights, as real rights because, it is said, they are not easily enforceable. This is another reason why, for some scholars, human rights discourse has become an ideology to advance the liberal culture over the nonliberal societies, for if it were a genuine fight for human rights, there would be no discrimination against nonliberal rights. Thus, the real content of human rights as ideology in the hands of the West is not the actual known Bill of Rights as enshrined in the international instrument – Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Rather, when the West invokes human rights, it is referring to liberal values and norms where “liberal” means “human rights and the rule of law, representative democracy in governance, economic liberalism and free markets open to international trade and foreign investments, religious and cultural pluralism and the efficacy of science and technology” (Bowden 2009: 186). These norms have been set as the standards for nonwestern states in order to be accepted as a worthy member of the society of nations, namely, the civilized nations of the West. To attain civilization is to conform to these standards, and a failure in fulfilling them qualifies states as “rogue” and gives rise to Western intervention in the name of the protection of these rights.

Now, just as the civilizing mission ideology found a “juridical conscience” in the nascent positive international law, human rights discourse also has been incorporated into international human rights law that Western states can activate when they want to invade a nonwestern one, not only as a moral justification but also as a legal argument. As Anghie puts it, “human rights is deployed as both argument for invasion and then, the invasion having been completed, as an argument for transformation, in which international human rights law…stands for the norm that must be achieved in order to bring about a ‘civil state’ thus, supposedly, bringing about international stability.” He adds, “it is in this way, through the invocation of human rights, that what might be seen as an illegal project of conquest is transformed into a legal project of salvation and redemption” (Anghie 2005: 303). This again is a further reason to consider the contemporary human rights regime as an ideological instrument for the West to dominate the rest of the world.

However, although all these points highlight the ideological dimension of human right discourse, there is no area where the intersection between human rights and Western imperialism is more clearly demonstrated than the so-called humanitarian intervention, that is, the military intervention for protecting human rights. For some authors, humanitarian intervention in the name of human rights is simply another form of neocolonialism. For instance, for Jean Bricmont (2006) through humanitarian intervention, the West uses “human rights in order to sell war.” For while there can certainly be a moral case for human intervention in certain circumstances of gross human rights violation – what Michael Walzer calls situations that “shock the moral conscience of human kind” (2006: 107) – those who oppose it show how selectively it is conducted (Ayoob 2004) and how it is always directed against nonwestern states by the Western ones. Crimes committed by Western states or their allies are overlooked, whereas when it comes to nonliberal states, international institutions and Western states under the pressures of Western international nongovernmental organization (INGO) appeal to human rights in order to invade those states with a declared goal of transforming them into liberal states (Fearon and Laitin 2004).

This obsession with installing liberal institutions in the whole world as a condition of international stability is inspired by the myth of “the democratic peace” according to which – following Immanuel Kant’s idea of perpetual peace – democratic countries do not fight each other (Rawls 1999). Hence, only liberal democracies should enjoy the nonintervention from external forces, whereas they have a moral duty to export and defend civil and political rights where they are not yet established or are being threatened. In that way, they can bring a bit of civilization to other parts of the world which are still barbarous. (Téson 1988, 2005).

The way authors such as Téson justify humanitarian intervention confirms the suspicion of its opponents as being a neocolonialism, serving the liberal domination of the world. Indeed, the parallelism between imperialism and humanitarian intervention is appalling.
  • First, only the West is given the responsibility to carry out humanitarian intervention, in almost the same terms the international lawyers were using to justify high imperialism.

  • Second, only Western political institutions are recognized as truly sovereign, and, therefore, they are the standard for sovereignty. Any different political model which is not based on the liberal one is “not civilized”. Therefore, it is a candidate for a civilizational lesson. Needless to say that such a practice violates the cornerstone of today’s international order built on state sovereignty.

  • Finally, humanitarian intervention is not really conducted for the benefit of the nonwestern society but rather for the expansion of liberal domination, and this justifies another reason given by the critics of humanitarian intervention.

For some of these scholars, victims, who are supposed to be the reason for humanitarian intervention, are just proxy and never the real motives. Victims are used as an acceptable reason for invasion, and this affects the purpose of human rights themselves, because they are meant to empower people (Orford 2003), and yet humanitarian intervention is based on the image of a victim who is helpless and completely passive (Mégret 2009), without any agency in what is happening in his/her name. Hence, for Mahmood Mamdani, humanitarian intervention claims to protect political and civil rights, but it is actually a lie, since “rather than rights-bearing citizens, beneficiaries of humanitarian order are akin to recipients of charity. Humanitarianism does not claim to reinforce agency, only to sustain bare life” (Mamdani 2010: 54–55).

Once more, the practice of using a victim as proxy is not new because it was also used to justify formal imperialism as a way of saving natives from their savage rulers. The result was the occupation and exploitation of the occupied lands, under the pretext of protecting victims. Mamdani notes that “when it came to lands not yet colonized, such as South Asia and a large part of Africa, they highlighted local atrocities and pledged to protect victims against rulers” (Mamdani 2009: 276). The parallelism with humanitarian intervention is not difficult to draw as it invokes the victim as the reason for intervention, but the Western powers end up occupying the country with the goal of implanting liberal institutions for Western liberal interests. In recent years, examples are abundant, from Iraq to Libya through Afghanistan. Fearon and Laitin observe, “as with classical imperialism, we increasingly see the strongest states taking over, in part or in whole, the governance of territories where Western-style politics, economics, and administration are underdeveloped” (Fearon and Laitin 2004: 12). In other words, there are solid reasons to claim that human rights are being used by the West for liberal imperialist ends.

These criticisms of human rights as ideology implemented through humanitarian intervention are even supported by some defenders of human rights and humanitarian intervention, because they see human rights as an efficient means at the disposal of the West to increase its influence over the rest of the world. Jack Donnelly, who is a leading proponent of international human rights, does not flinch at finding the same legitimacy for human rights as that of the civilizing mission. According to him, “despite the fatal tainting of the language of ‘civilization’ by abuses carried out under (and by the exponents of) the classical standard of civilization, internationally recognized human rights share a similar legitimating logic” (Donnelly 1998: 15). He commends the missionary zeal manifested by Western states in their foreign policy to use human rights in 1980s and 1990s, in order “to spread the benefits of (universal) values enjoyed at home.” Moreover, the imperialist negative consequences “should not immobilize us in the face of abuses of power by murderous dictators hiding behind legal norm of sovereignty or a claim to radical cultural difference.” Rather, “something like a standard of civilization is needed to save us from the barbarism of a pristine sovereignty that would consign countless millions of individuals and entire peoples to international neglect” (Donnelly 1998: 15–16).

Donnelly’s views do not need comment, as their similarity with the imperialist ideology is clearly asserted, especially that he himself affirms that they share the same “legitimating logic.” The West sets standards that everyone else has to conform to, and it has the obligation to spread them outside the West. “Others” and the nonwestern values and cultures are judged barbarous and murderous, while “Us”, Westerners, enjoy “universal values”; the standards of civilization.

Clifford Orwin, on his part, illustrates how humanitarian intervention serves Western interests and the protection and expansion of Western “civilization.” As he puts it, “with rare exception, humanitarian intervention is an encounter between Western or Westernized nations and non-Western ones, between lands where liberal democracy and technology have triumphed and land where they have not. It is… ‘an encounter between two kinds of societies’ of which the one characteristically shrinks from violence while the other takes its dominion for granted” (Orwin 2006: 203). Clearly, humanitarian intervention is a civilizational struggle, through which the Western world is extending its liberal influence and domination. It is the Western imperialism continued under more neutral means; “it is the white man’s burden purged of its inconvenient whiteness. Precisely because it passes for nonpolitical, the relief of suffering affords a uniquely uncontroversial ground for political action” (Orwin 2006: 16). Put otherwise, humanitarian intervention is the political action of the Western powers continuing to conquer the rest of the world.

These views are also confirmed by Western political figures who are honest enough to acknowledge that humanitarian intervention is meant to defend Western interests and spread Western values. For instance, Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, once said that “our actions are guided by a more subtle blend of mutual self-interest and moral purpose in defending the values we cherish. In the end values and interests merge” (Blair 1999). Indeed, values and interests merge because from the receiving end they are the same; they are all liberal interests. As for Bill Clinton, the former US president, “global interdependence requires global values commonly or evenly applied. But sometimes, force is necessary to get the space for values to be applied” (Jamison 2011: 365). In other words, humanitarian intervention is used to spread and defend the Western liberal interests in states and cultural spaces that resist them.

Following all these factors, it would be difficult to deny that human rights discourse has become the new way to continue liberal Western imperialism, making the three terms of the title – liberalism, human rights, and Western imperialism – quite fitting together. However, in the next section, despite this ideological use, I argue that human rights actually offer a means of resistance against both the Western imperialism and local oppression and injustice. But to do so, they need to be reconceived. Such a reconception is the goal of the following section.

Human Rights as an Anti-imperialist Tool

As the previous section substantiates, human rights discourse can be and has been used for imperialistic goals through humanitarian intervention. At the same time though, the same human rights discourse has been instrumental in fighting imperialism, such as colonialism. This claim, however, is not enough for demonstrating and defending that the contemporary paradigm of human rights embodies in itself an emancipatory power. Rather, the latter has to be shown as belonging to the human rights corpus per se. To do so, it is first important to distinguish the contemporary paradigm from the modern paradigm of human rights, following the authoritative work of Upendra Baxi (2006).

By modern paradigm, Baxi means the development of human rights during the enlightenment through different declarations of rights, which sprang up in the Western world – for instance, the American Declaration of Independence or the French Declaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen. Sure enough, rights contained in these declarations were of liberal inspiration, and they constituted what is today known as the first generation of human rights (Ishay 2004). Most importantly, however, although they came about as means of resistance against oppression and injustices, they incarnated exclusion as they were mostly concerned primarily with white middle class property owning men, following the liberal political theory of John Locke. That is the reason why they could be used to justify and further imperialism and colonialism. As Baxi remarks, “the foremost role performed by these was to accomplish the justification of the unjustifiable: namely colonialism and imperialism” (Baxi 2006: 44). Furthermore, the rights contained in those declarations did not have the pretention to a universal applicability, for they were framed for particular political societies. For instance, the French Declaration was never thought to be valid beyond the French kingdom, neither was the American Declaration meant to oblige every human being. In this regard, the validity of the modern paradigm of rights was limited in its outreach.

Contrary to the modern paradigm, the contemporary human rights paradigm was developed after World War II, and is more complex and richer, and includes more than just liberal rights. In addition to the latter, the actual human rights corpus also comprises socioeconomic and cultural rights, which originated from other ideological backgrounds, such as communism and socialism. It also contains rights formulated with the emergence of decolonization and the Third World, which are concerned with rights of peoples and right to development. Thus, the contemporary paradigm embraces all the human rights instruments that constitute the current human rights practice.

Thus, although the contemporary paradigm of human rights shares the same emancipatory goal with the modern one, it is already clear that the two paradigms differ in their operating logic. While the modern paradigm was a tool of resistance for the white, middle-class men only – excluding women, children, and nonwhite peoples! – the contemporary paradigm is intrinsically inclusive and is meant to reach out to every human being, and it is formulated with inputs from different backgrounds. Once again, Baxi is on target when he notes that “the processes of formulation of contemporary human rights are increasingly inclusive and often marked by intense negotiation between the practitioners of human rights activism and of human rights repression” (Baxi 2006: 47). This observation by Baxi on the formulation of the contemporary human rights corpus is especially accurate when one looks at the commission that elaborated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Morinsik 1999; Glendon 2001). It was composed of members from different countries with different cultural backgrounds, although an objection can still be made that most of them had been educated in the West. Although valid, the objection would not deny the effort of inclusiveness displayed by the diversity of the commissioners. Despite this, critics contend that this contemporary paradigm of human rights is an ideology, which purports the Western liberal imperialism.

Thus, two things can be acknowledged as a way of responding to this claim.
  1. (i)

    Firstly, the contemporary human rights corpus cannot be normatively rejected as simply being liberal, because it comprises different generations of rights that originated from different ideological backgrounds and it was motivated by diverse political and socioeconomic conditions.

  2. (ii)

    Secondly, it cannot be rejected on the account that these rights were formulated by Westerners only for non-Westerners, because their formulation involved more than just Westerners, as shown by the members of UDHR’s commission.


Nevertheless, the critics can still push further their charge, showing that, although the commission was diverse, Western members were the majority and the non-Western members had received their formal education in the West. Furthermore, they could continue underlying that the whole idea of International Bill of Human Rights originated in the atrocities happening in the West – especially the Holocaust – and not in the political and social conditions of nonwestern societies. In that sense, critics might claim, as it stands today, it cannot be disputed that the contemporary corpus of human rights has a Western imprint. And when one recalls the Western imperialistic use of these human rights – as it has been already shown! – there remains a good reason to suspect that the contemporary human rights corpus is a tool for extending and maintaining Western liberal imperialism.

This claim is valid and is grounded on solid facts because none can deny the Western historical origin of contemporary human rights regime. However, to limit its practice to the Western imperialistic use of human rights against the nonliberal world would be unfair. For human rights are also invoked in other contexts outside the West, and most of the time not for imperialistic motives, but rather as means of resistance against imperialism and local injustices and domination. My thesis, therefore, is that, in order to do justice to the practice of contemporary human rights, one has to study how they are being used in different contexts throughout the world. Such a study allows one to retrieve the emancipatory power of human rights because it disentangles them from the Western prism and leads to understanding them afresh. As Mark Goodale notes, “to study what human rights do is to study what human rights are” (Goodale 2006: 4). Once a new conception is achieved, it can then be tested whether it offers a satisfactory response to the arguments developed by the critics to demonstrate that contemporary human rights is an ideology serving to cover up Western liberal imperialism.

Now, since the goal is to reconceive human rights from what they do, the question is: What do human rights do? Though simple, the question is rather complex, because what human rights do can only be grasped through the actors who call upon them. And since the main actor of international politics is the state, most scholars have found that there is good reason to first focus on what human rights do to the state and what state does with human rights.

Concerning what human rights do to the state, they have noted that the contemporary human rights paradigm has, at least in theory, challenged state sovereignty as the individual has become a concern for the international community (Beitz 2009). Today, the individual has instances beyond a particular state to vindicate his/her rights when they are trampled upon and when the state is unwilling or unable to protect them. State sovereignty is normatively judged according to its human rights performance. It can no longer shield itself under its sovereignty when individuals’ rights are violated inside its borders. In other words, human rights have become the warrant of state sovereignty, and from this perspective, we are led to the question: What does state do with human rights? The state uses human rights for protecting and enhancing human dignity, by respecting, protecting, and fulfilling the individual’s human rights and/or peoples’ rights (Lafont 2013). By doing so, the state enhances its sovereignty and comforts its international stature, because today the respect of human rights is part of international obligations. It is needless to recall that this is a normative argument.

However, this central role of state underlies the paradox of human rights practice, a paradox that necessitates the need to reconstruct the whole practice differently. Indeed, the history of human rights is a story of resistance to oppression and injustice mostly orchestrated by the state. Yet, the international order, which is supposed to be concerned with the fate of individuals, is founded on states, and it protects their sovereignty, whereas states are the main and dangerous violators of human rights. As Micheline Ishay rightly captures it, “we find ourselves pondering the role of the state as both the guardian of basic rights and as the behemoth against which one’s rights need to be defended” (Ishay 2004: 8). That is why a state-centered analysis of the practice of human rights runs into a wall because, as Rawls (1999) has shown, most of the time, states are more concerned with power, prestige, and interest than the moral reasonable means to maintain international order. That is why some states can easily use human rights for their imperialistic goals, while others pay lips tribute to them, enforcing those which advantage them and rejecting or neglecting those which do not foster their rational interests.

Consequently, the problem with such a state-centered analysis is that it cannot uncover the emancipatory potential of human rights, because it only reveals how states manipulate them. Therefore, there is a need of a new model which decentralizes the analysis from the state, without excluding it. Such an analysis has to identify the other main actors involved in the actual practice of human rights and unveil the reasons beyond the state of those who appeal to human rights. Another reason for not focusing the human rights practice exclusively on the state is that the Westphalian model of nation-state is waning and regional blocks are emerging with more and more decision-making power over the classical nation-state. Furthermore, state is no longer the only entity threating human rights; some transnational and transborder entities – for instance, companies, industries, or terrorist groups – can be detrimental to the respect, protection, and fulfillment of human rights. For all these reasons, I suggest that we look at local practices of human rights in order to reconceive human rights in their emancipatory power. From there, it can be shown how they become a means of resistance against every sort of imperialism and oppression and how the new conception offers a better response to the critics who consider human rights as an imperialist ideology. (For a long development on this point, see Ingiyimbere (2017: 229–86).)

Thus, in addition to the state – which is the main actor in the world order! – the first observation that one makes when analyzing human rights practice outside the official space of the state is the tremendous role played by human rights activists. They are the ones who lobby and even draft the major human rights documents, and without their work, few states would sign human rights treaties or take initiatives to plead the cause of human rights. Once the texts are adopted, human rights activists put pressure on states to ratify and implement them (Smith-Cannoy 2012; Wotipka and Tsutsui 2008; Finnemore and Sikkink 1998). They also translate the international texts into the local (in general terms, by local I mean the space below official space occupied by the state) languages and cultures, so that these international norms become relevant to those who need them in their fight against oppression and injustices in their particular contexts. Sally Merry calls these activists the people of the middle (2006). They are the ones who popularize human rights, put pressure on states, and educate local communities about them. They can work as independent individuals or be organized in nongovernmental organizations, and they are engaged in all areas of human rights. This diversity allows human rights practice to be multi-sectorial.

Hence, human rights activists constitute the cornerstone category in the decentralized practice, and they are subdivided into two groups. On the one hand, there are local non-state actors (LNSA), who work in local contexts, and on the other hand, there are international non-state actors (INSA) who work in regional and international organizations. As a reminder, these actors play a leading role in the drafting, adoption, ratification, and implementation of human rights instruments.

At the second level, once people learn about human rights – thanks to human rights activists – they use them in their struggle for justice and against oppression. Some people call upon them to challenge cultural norms which are oppressive – for instance, women who fight against gender violence and injustices against women (Merry 2005). Others appeal to human rights for gaining or protecting their cultural heritage, as in the case of indigenous groups (Goodale 2007). Not only are human rights used to challenge and change political culture and institutions, but they are also invoked to push for socioeconomic improvement (Young 2012). They are even summoned to fight the violation of human rights by the multinational companies which, with the complicity of the ruling elite, conduct activities that harm local communities. The people or groups of people who appeal to human rights discourse in their different and diverse fights do not do so because human rights are Western or because they want to become westernized. Rather, they resort to human rights because of the discursive power of human rights and their mobilizing capacity for political action (Beitz 2009). They find in human rights discourse a source of empowerment, which is not available in their cultural or political normative systems. That is why and how every group of people chooses the kind of rights that are relevant to its situation, without rejecting the other categories of rights. This fact underscores the vital role of the human rights activists who, through their network and pressure activities (Keck and Sikkink 1998), make sure that human rights instruments are legally ascertained, so that they can provide a solid moral and legal discursive source for political action, for people who need it in their different local situations.

This is not peculiar to the nonwestern world. Rather, it applies everywhere because political oppression and socioeconomic injustices can be found everywhere. As Jack Mahoney puts it, “all human cultures without exception are subject to constant scrutiny, evaluation and challenge by a doctrine of human rights, and none is ethically sacrosanct or immune from such critique” (Mahoney 2007: 110–111). This critical and discursive power of human rights that enables political action is beyond what can be politically manipulated by states in their pursuit of self-interests, because it is exactly meant to resist such state’s behavior.

At a third level, the state-decentralized practice of human rights also shows the increasing role of regional blocs in the practice of human rights (Davies 2015). While not always obvious, today individuals can bring to court and, sometimes, win against state’s policies that violate their basic human rights. Although European Union is a good example in this regard (Kanstroom 2012), cases can be found everywhere today, because many regional blocks have included the respect of human rights in their constituting acts and have even created institutions to that effect – although the effectiveness of some of them might be wanting. These regional blocs, thanks to the network of human rights activists, can put pressure to the source of violation of human rights, be it from an individual state or a regional threat, and bring about improvement.

Once more, human rights discourse proves itself to be a means of resistance that empowers peoples who, otherwise, would not have found how to deal with their situations. In such cases, human rights are not seen as imperialist instruments at the disposal of the Western states in order to perpetuate Western imperialism. Rather, they offer a new tool to people to resist some of the Western negative impacts on their lives and their communities or to challenge local injustices and oppressive normative systems, and this is done in diverse contexts.

Once these other actors – human rights activists, peoples in local contexts, regional blocs, and other international institutions – are included in the human rights practice, human rights are not seen as instruments for states only; they are not even mainly meant for states. Rather, they reveal themselves to be an empowering source for those fighting for human dignity in every form. That is why they can be conceived as “standards empowering individuals or groups of individuals…in order to resist, through different levels of influence, any source of threat endangering their basic interests” (Ingiyimbere 2017: 250).

This conception of human rights as means of resistance allows, I would submit, to defend the contemporary human rights regime against the claim that it is an ideology meant for covering up the Western liberal imperialism.
  1. (i)

    To start with, those who appeal to human rights do not do so because they necessarily like liberal culture or because human rights are Western. Rather, people appeal to human rights because of their discursive power and political effectiveness vis-à-vis their concrete situation. In other words, those using human rights discourse have their own justification of human rights, which is not necessarily the liberal origin or liberal inspiration of human rights. In addition, it has been demonstrated that the human rights corpus is more than just liberal rights. Therefore, it is reductive vis-à-vis the contemporary paradigm of human rights per se to claim that it is only liberal.

  2. (ii)

    Second, thanks to their critical power, human rights can be used to challenge Western imperialist ambitions over the rest of the world. That is how and why movements against neoliberal policies such as anti-globalist movements or Wall Street movements can be organized using human rights discourse in its complexity (Rajagopal 2003, 2006). In other words, human rights reveal themselves not to be only for nonwestern societies.

  3. (iii)

    Third, while the imperialist ideology of civilizing mission considered victims as proxy for imperialist expansion, this analysis has revealed that in the contemporary practice of human rights, victims are the subjects of their own fights, instead of being passive receptors. They are the ones who lead the fight, and the external help comes in as a solidarity gesture around a common cause.


These were the main arguments put forward by critics to justify why human rights corpus is an imperialist ideology.

Concerning humanitarian intervention, if the decentralized practice is applied, it would be no longer the Western powers which decide when and where to intervene but rather the regional organizations which are close to the case. While international institutions and Western states could contribute financially and logistically, they should not be the ones to lead the intervention, except when the local means and mechanisms have been exhausted and failed. The responsibility of these regional organizations in carrying out humanitarian intervention would allow to avoid neocolonial invasions and belie the neocolonialist rhetoric. For some nonwestern ruling elites resort to neocolonial discourse in order to hide the crimes they are committing against their own people. If the humanitarian intervention is conducted by neighboring countries, the claim no longer stands because most of the countries involved share the same colonial history.

Furthermore, such intervention excludes the meddling of Western powers for their imperialistic goals. And if they do, human rights discourse still avails to activists and those opposing it as a tool for contestation and resistance. As to the fears of selectivity in implementing humanitarian intervention, they would also be reduced because the countries that are members of the regional blocs have common interests to protect for their common benefit. In other words, the new conception of human rights proposes a new model of conducting a humanitarian intervention that would curb the Western imperialist ambitions hidden in their interventions but also debunk the neocolonialist rhetoric usually advanced by local elites to cover their crimes against their peoples.

These regional developments and the critical power of human rights also help see the ways in which international law and the LIO – which we saw are in connivance with Western imperialism – can be challenged. Indeed, once many conflictual cases are resolved at the regional level and new economic powers arise from the nonwestern parts of the world, new practices different from the Western model will arise, and voices of change and reform of international order will appear. And here again human rights discourse provides a powerful tool in that struggle. Indeed, since human rights are recognized by many Western states, framing the claims into the human rights language will offer a common basis for discussion and help bring back home what a Western imperialist mind could have thought to be for non-Westerners only. Nonwestern societies will use human rights language to raise claims against Western violations of human rights outside. Just as the human rights discourse contributed to the anticolonial discourse (Burke 2010; Klose 2013) – which was certainly unintended by the imperialist countries at the time – the same human rights discourse offers a very effective means to resist today’s Western imperialism in all its forms, be it political, economic, or cultural.

In fine, the claim that human rights have become an ideology for Western liberal imperialism is derived from looking exclusively at the human rights practice of some Western states, and this is a fair observation because, once more, states are most of the time concerned with their interests, power, and prestige. In that regard, they can easily manipulate even human rights in order to achieve their goals. However, an analysis and a conception of human rights drawn from the larger picture of human rights practice ushered in by the contemporary paradigm show that the latter is essentially a means of resistance against any form domination and injustices. How effective this means is and whether it is the best among other means of resistance are different questions beyond the present essay.

From this point of view, then, the combination of liberalism, Western imperialism, and human rights which, at the first look, seemed to be for the benefit of the spread of Western imperialism, turns out to contain its own anti-imperialist antidote under the contemporary paradigm of human rights, provided it is understood from local practices and captured in its emancipatory power.


The aim of this essay has been to explore the relationship between liberalism, human rights, and Western imperialism. The three having been objects of extensive scholarship, I took the option of looking at their relationship through the claim that human rights have become a new ideology to perpetuate Western liberal imperialism. Hence my first point looked at the meaning of Western imperialism, which was carried out through the imperialist ideology of the civilizing mission. Racially embedded, it was built on the antithesis binary civilized-uncivilized, standing for the relationship between superior race and low races. The former was thought to have a moral duty to civilize the latter. The civilizing mission was an ideology because it concealed the reality that Europe needed empire to solve its internal problems. That ideology was helped by positive international law which provided a legal framework to the imperialist conquest.

The second point explored whether liberalism is imperialist in its core norms and values, given that the birth of this imperialist international law was inspired by liberal ideas. The section established that it was not accidental that liberals supported imperialism and that liberalism became an imperialism on its own. It flowed from the liberal belief in progress, the teleological view of history, and the necessity of civilization. Hence liberalism could not and cannot resist to internationalize itself by all means – even through imposition if need be! – disrespecting other cultural normative systems, instead of choosing restraint as Georg Sørensen (2011) would suggest. On the other hand, though, liberalism also contained seeds of resistance, and many liberals were anti-imperialists, causing a conflict within liberalism itself about empire. However, with the liberal international order and its neoliberal economic institutions, the liberal imperialist dimension is difficult to hide. Critics, therefore, use these facts to claim that human rights have become an ideology of the West to pursue its perennial ambition of making the whole world in its own liberal image.

My third point, therefore, elaborated this claim, showing that there are indeed good reasons to suspect human rights as helping the West to maintain its imperial domination. Although composed of different generations, human rights originated from Western contexts, and some politicians in the West do not hide that they are using human rights to advance their own interests. Furthermore, some proponents of human rights justify them as new standards of civilization that the West has to use to bring civilization to barbarous lands. To apply the imperialist categories to human rights discourse demonstrates what some scholars are claiming that human rights are indeed an imperialist ideology. This is increasingly obvious in the so-called humanitarian intervention, which target non-Western states, while shielding Western states and their allies. Furthermore, most of the time, the invading countries claim to be protecting the human rights of the victims while they are actually pursuing their own economic and diplomatic interests. That is why victims are simply wrapped into the human rights discourse in order to justify a military intervention ordered to protect Western interests.

In face of these arguments which cannot be easily dismissed, I suggested, in the fourth and last section, a new conception of human rights that helps retrieve their emancipatory power and show that human rights can also become an anti-imperialist instrument. The new conception is decentralized from the state and looks at the practice of human rights from local contexts. It reveals a constellation of many actors working in synergy, with human rights activists as the engine of the whole practice. This practice shows that human rights embodies a very powerful critical and discursive capacity that is capable of animating political action to resist any kind of threat to individual’ and people’s basic interests, be it from the imperialist side or from local authorities. I hope to have exhibited the emancipatory power that is contained in the contemporary paradigm of human rights discourse which can be used against imperialism.

So far, however, I have been insisting on the power of human rights discourse as a tool or means. This is to say that human rights do not work magically. Human rights discourse, just like any tool, needs a subject who knows how to handle it in order to be effective to the maximum of its potentiality. For it to deliver its emancipatory power, current human rights regime needs people who believe in the power of that critical discourse and who have the capacity to guide political action and use that power accordingly. It is only under such conditions that human rights will become the powerful means to resist Western liberal imperialism. Moreover, human rights critical capacity is also internal to the human rights discourse itself, in order to become more effective in its empowering role. That is why new ideas and new mechanisms are created, and new initiatives started. But without people committed to the anti-imperialist struggle through human rights discourse, Western powers and other powers might continue to manipulate them in order to maintain the domination of the world and protect their imperialist interests.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Arrupe Jesuit UniversityHarareZimbabwe