“One of the most dangerous documents ever produced”: the United Nations, the Global South and the politics of race in the early decolonization era, ca.1946-1955

Presented by Caio Simões de Araújo

Monday, 27 August, 2018 - 15:00

In 1952, the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) agreed to establish a commission to study the “racial situation” in South Africa, a topic that had been raised in the organization since 1946, when India first brought the “treatment of Indians” under white rule to the global diplomatic spotlight. The creation of this commission was unprecedented, and opposed by many governments who saw it as a clear violation of the UN Charter in its paramount principle, that of non-interference on member states’ domestic affairs. To many in the West, the “race question” was becoming increasingly politicized and mobilized by anti-colonials to subvert the rules of conventional interstate diplomacy and push a “dangerous”, because transformative, political agenda. This view was expressed, for instance, when the British Colonial Office considered the commission’s 1953 report as potentially “one of the most dangerous documents ever produced in the United Nations.” Surely, by 1954, the “race question” had already been object of much debate, in the corridors of the United Nations in New York as well as in the offices of UNESCO, its specialized agency in Paris. UNESCO’s mid-century advocacy in the field of race relations and anti-racism led to much criticism in the West and in South Africa, which became the first non-communist country to withdraw from the organization in 1955. In this paper, I want to take the South African example as a pretext to revisit the global politics of race in the early decolonization era. The timeframe is limited by the first conversation on South African racial policies at the UN, in 1946, to the country’s withdrawal from UNESCO, in 1955. I argue that the “race question” emerged in the post-1945 global order as an eminently international problem and, as such, was increasingly and crucially negotiated (and struggled over) in institutionalized diplomatic spaces, such as the UN and its specialized agencies. I intend, however, to recover the history of anti-racism in its post-colonial trajectory and configuration. The paper, thus, focuses not on the presumed Western origins of post-war anti-racism, but on its global ramifications in the Global South. In particular, I am interested in mapping out a Southern dialogue on the “race question” taking place between India, Brazil and South Africa, which were all major international players in the early decolonization era. I argue that each of these countries developed their own “solution” to the global “race problem” and attempted to mobilize their diplomatic machineries to present these ideas abroad, as a means to achieve prestige, legitimacy and recognition in the international stage.

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