In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Colonialism and Human Rights

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Constructing Childhood
  • Human Rights and the Paradox of Colonialism
  • Children’s Rights: Overview
  • The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), 1989
  • The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC)
  • Education, Labor, and Rights

Childhood Studies Colonialism and Human Rights
Elizabeth A. Faulkner, Conrad Nyamutata
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0287


Human rights remain a contested issue, with fierce critiques identifying the irretrievably entrenched colonial logic within them. The United Nations has styled itself as a protector of internationally proclaimed rights of all, adopting a series of human rights instruments since its creation in wake of the Second World War. It is within this context that the role of colonialism and the logics of colonialism in shaping human rights discourse emerge. As human rights are frequently paraded as the hallmark of fundamental freedoms, a series of aspirational goals for which each state is obligated to provide, a specific focus upon the universal acceptance of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) demonstrates the exceptionalism of rights in relation to children. Yet discussions of colonialism and children’s rights remain on the sideline in many ways, mirroring how children’s rights scholarship is often situated at the periphery of human rights scholarship.

General Overviews

The narrative of human rights claims inclusivity; however, as identified by Karl Marx and feminists such as Olympe de Gouges, “human rights” was always an exclusionary concept. For some commentators, human rights are not a construct of protection and advancement but emerge from growing concerns about the rights of white and western European populations in the wake of World War II (1939–1945). Scholars like Makau Wa Mutua have expressed horror at the way modern human rights struggles seem to echo rather loudly the annoying portrait of “savages, victims and saviours” (Mutua 2001). The postcolonial critique has argued that the human rights logic has all too often led to the annihilation of the “Other” (Bhabha 1994). Moreover, the “civilizing mission” that was at the heart of colonialism’s justification remains in the deployment of new imperial forms, such as through representations of children and childhood and children’s rights frameworks. (Howard and Okyere 2022, Faulkner and Nyamutata 2020, Twum-Danso Imoh and Ansell 2014) Children were reimagined and redefined, changing from the legal property of their fathers (the Roman Law principle of patria potestas) to internationally protected and even “sacrilized” citizens of the international community—their position enshrined in dozens of international legal texts and in national law (Linde 2016, Cunningham 2005Zelizer 1994). Furthermore, childhood is often seen as a special period of time, so that children warrant protection due to the their vulnerability and the evils of the world (Faulkner 2023, 52). This links into the position that there is a growing dissatisfaction that childhood studies are not making the desired academic or international development policy impacts that would improve children’s lives (Cheney 2018). An emerging theme is the “decolonization” of childhood studies against the background of a pervasive universalized children’s rights discourse that tends toward protectionism rather than empowerment.

  • Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

    Rethinking questions of identity, social agency and national affiliation, Bhabha provides a working, if controversial, theory of cultural hybridity—one that goes far beyond previous attempts by others. He uses concepts such as mimicry, interstice, hybridity, and liminality to argue that cultural production is always most productive where it is most ambivalent.

  • Cheney, Kristin. “Decolonizing Childhood Studies: Overcoming Patriarchy and Prejudice in Child-Related Research and Practice.” In Reimagining Childhood Studies. Edited by Spyros Spyrou, Rachel Rosen, and Daniel Thomas Cook, 91–104. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.

    In this chapter, Cheney argues for a decolonization of childhood research and practice—both in the conventional sense of confronting Western civilizing constructions of childhood and as a means to challenge the patriarchal underpinnings of the politics of knowledge production about children. This, she contends, will enable childhood studies as an (inter)discipline to not only critically and reflexively question the politics of knowledge production in the academy, but also to effectively question established norms, approaches, and practices in international development work targeting children.

  • Cunningham, Hugh. Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500. London: Routledge, 2005.

    Cunningham’s text investigates the relationship between ideas about childhood and the actual experience of being a child, and assesses how it has changed over the span of 500 years. He narrates the development of ideas from the Renaissance to the present, revealing considerable differences in the way Western societies have understood and valued childhood over time.

  • Faulkner, Elizabeth A. The Trafficking of Children: International Law, Modern Slavery, and the Anti-Trafficking Machine. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2023.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-031-23566-5

    This book charts the emergence, decline, and reemergence of child trafficking law and policy during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It provides a systematic and comprehensive overview of the historical origins of child trafficking by utilizing the wealth of information located within the nondigitized archives of the League of Nations. It focuses on the Committee on the Traffic in Women and Children to engage with League of Nations policy to provide an insightful and original contribution to the current body of literature.

  • Faulkner, Elizabeth A., and Conrad Nyamutata. “The Decolonisation of Children’s Rights and the Colonial Contours of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.” International Journal of Children’s Rights 28.1 (2020): 66–88.

    DOI: 10.1163/15718182-02801009

    Faulkner and Nyamutata explore questions around the provenance and representation of the UNCRC. In particular, the Convention is deemed to enshrine Western notions of childhood upon which its rights were constructed. However, the legacy of the colonial contours of the “new world order” are often excluded within the context of children’s rights. This paper interrogates the power dynamics and colonial legacy upon which views of children are formed.

  • Howard, Neil, and Samuel Okyere, eds. International Child Protection towards Politics and Participation. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022.

    Bringing together influential, established voices and emerging scholars who work on issues related to childhood, youth, policy, and practice, the book offers an important intervention aimed at pushing international child protection discourse and action in more progressive directions. The book argues that more innovative and radical actions are needed to accelerate progress on all child rights issues, to genuinely protect the world’s children from the various adversities they face.

  • Linde, Robyn. The Globalization of Childhood: The International Diffusion of Norms and Law against the Child Death Penalty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190601379.001.0001

    Linde argues that a globalized model of childhood that emerged after World War II was important to the development of the international system, serving to consolidate power and legitimize international institutions and order. He further examines the growth of this globalized model of childhood, one codified today in international law and developed primarily in Europe and the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and diffused from these points of origin throughout the world.

  • Mutua, Makau Wa. “Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights.” Harvard International Law Journal 42 (2001): 201–245.

    This article attempts to elicit from the proponents of the human rights movement several admissions, some of them deeply unsettling. It asks that human rights advocates be more self-critical and come to terms with the troubling rhetoric and history that shape, in part, the human rights movement. At the same time, the article does not only address the “biased and arrogant rhetoric” and history of the human rights enterprise, but also grapples with the contradictions in the basic nobility and majesty that drive the human rights project.

  • Twum-Danso Imoh, Afua, and Nicola Ansell, eds. Children’s Lives in an Era of Children’s Rights: The Progress of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Africa. London: Routledge, 2014.

    The edited collection by Twum-Danso Imoh and Ansell considers the implementation of the Convention both in terms of policy and practice within the African context, and its impact on the lived experiences of children in societies across the continent, focusing on specific themes such as HIV/AIDS, education and disability, child labor, witchcraft stigmatization, street children, parent-child relationships, and child participation. The book breaks new ground in blending legal and social perspectives of the experiences of children.

  • Zelizer, Viviana A. Pricing the Priceless Child : The Changing Social Value of Children. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.

    Zelizer traces the emergence of the modern child, at once economically “useless” and emotionally “priceless,” from the late 1800s to the 1930s. Having established laws removing many children from the marketplace, turn-of-the-century America was discovering new, sentimental criteria to determine a child’s monetary worth.

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