Universal rights? Jayes Dylan Page Sebastian, Challenging Rights-Based Redress: White Supremacy, Heteropatriarchy, Settler Colonialism and the Promise of the Universal, PhD dissertation, UC Riverside, 2021


Abstract: This dissertation engages how the framework of ‘universal rights’ is a modern concept inherently tied to colonialism. I show how rights-based redress is in fact a limited means for contemporary movements seeking to challenge structures of colonial state violence because the ongoing structures of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism remain intact within colonial-modernity. Using a methodological genealogy centered in Critical Ethnic Studies, legal history, and critical rights discourses, I engage this dynamic through the work of 16th century Spanish jurist Francisco de Vitoria as he configured a set of universal rights to justify Spanish colonialism. I trace this work to its 20th century re-uptake in the rise of International law as it bolstered the development of universal human rights regime by maintaining the colonial relationship of Mandate colonialism into neocolonialism through the United Nations. I argue that the formation of what we think of as modern and universal rights developed because of and through the colonial relation of modernity to produce and maintain power imbalances through hierarchies of race, class, gender, sexuality, among other disciplining vectors. In locating the relationality of rights as emergent and related to colonial power, and not as separate from it or even emancipatory from it, I contend we can understand both the promise and the ‘paradox’ of rights as in fact essential to the maintenance of the current global socio-political order.

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