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The Limits of ‘International Man’: Émile Giraud, Global Human Rights, and Decolonisation (1947-1962)

Published: 13 January 2023 - Emanuele Podda

In my PhD thesis I explore the life and works of French jurist, Christian Democrat politician, and international civil servant Émile Giraud (1894-1965). Giraud, a hitherto neglected historical figure, worked for most of his life for the League of Nations (1927-1946) and the United Nations (1947-1954) Secretariats. While at the UN, he acted as head of the Research Section of the Human Rights Division between 1947 and 1950, contributing to the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948).[1]

Emile Giraud

Figure 1. Photograph of Émile Giraud, c.1960, private collection.

If one of the primary aims of my research is to document the vital contributions Giraud made to the definition of genocide, minorities and refugees’ protection, and the development of international law, I was forced to acknowledge how his internationalist posture was always accompanied by a persistent colonial frame of mind. This emerged specifically when he was confronted by the decolonisation movement starting from the late 1940s. Therefore, his individual case allows us to closely observe the ‘limits’ of what Frédéric Mégret has defined as ‘international man’, meaning that typology of Western internationalist actor dominating global governance in the first half of the twentieth century.[2] In the specific case, Giraud openly supported a restrictive application of human rights to colonised people.

The UDHR and Decolonisation

To be sure, the original UDHR draft outlined by Canadian lawyer John Humphrey with the cooperation of Giraud does not contain any provision referring to the right to self-determination – a primary juridical support for decolonisation.[3] Although the UN Charter (1945) contained such disposition, the colonial powers – with Churchill’s Great Britain at the front – pressured US President Roosevelt for its restrictive application to the German Reich.[4] It remains the fact that during the debates surrounding the drafting of the UDHR (1947-1948), representatives from the Soviet Republics and the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia – with their own objectives in mind - tried to introduce amendments tending to underscore the application of human rights to colonised people.[5] Indeed the latter part of Article 3 of the final draft reflects this intervention. According to it, human rights are granted to the inhabitants of any territory ‘whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty’.[6] This was a slight improvement with respect to the original Secretariat drafts. Indeed, in their original formulation of Article 3 Humphrey and Giraud had made no reference to colonial subjects whatsoever. Moreover, Soviet representatives also unsuccessfully attempted to insert a clause concerning self-determination and the right of every person to their culture and language.[7] The resistance that they encountered from the part of Western European representatives was symptomatic of an attitude which Giraud soon came to embody.

Drafting Convention

Figure 2. Giraud, Vespasian Pella and John Peters Humphrey (R to L), working on the Convention on Genocide, c. 1949, McGill University Archives.

Giraud in Eritrea

In 1950 the UN was called to decide on the fate of Eritrea – formerly an Italian colony at the time under threat of being annexed by Ethiopia. The UN therefore established a temporary administration in Asmara, and with a resolution approved on December 2, 1950, it reached the choice to make Eritrea a federal entity within Ethiopia possessing its own constitution. Giraud, who had left the UN Human Rights Division for the Legal one at the beginning of 1950, was charged with drafting such constitution. He visited the country in the summer of 1951, an experience which strengthened his opposition to decolonisation. In a confidential memo forwarded to the French government significantly entitled ‘The Solution Given by the United Nations to the Eritrean Problem – Anti-colonialism’,[8] Giraud deprecated the attitude of the UN vis-à-vis the former Italian colonies – notably Libya and Eritrea. Indeed according to him they should have not been granted self-rule. By contrast, they should have been returned to Italy or kept under International Trusteeship. What had prevented this from occurring, Giraud argued, was a new, dangerous ideology: anti-colonialism.

Supported for different reasons by the US (idealism) and the USSR (Machiavellianism), as well as by those formerly colonial countries who had already reached their independence (Egypt and India for example) this posture should have been staunchly opposed by colonising countries. Giraud underscored how he was no hard-core colonialist, deeming that the Age of Empires had come to an end. However he still considered supposedly ‘underdeveloped’ colonies to be in need of European tutelage. We note here the repetition of the well-known trope of the French ‘civilising mission’, which Giraud fully endorsed. Indeed, by comparing colonial countries to underaged people, Giraud maintained that ‘freedom is not the primary need of every individual’. By contrast, ‘at a certain stage of their lives, individuals are mainly in need of assistance and protection rather than freedom’. As long as they had not reached the age of maturity, they were to be denied the enjoyment of those allegedly universal rights which he had contributed to establish only some years earlier.

After the UN – Between Anticommunism and Civilising Mission

After that Giraud had taken his retirement from the UN (1954), he continued to voice his opposition to decolonising movements in the pages of the French newspaper Combat and of the Revue Politique et Parlementaire. Two overarching themes emerge: the idea of ‘civilising mission’ and anticommunism. On the one side, Giraud continued to insist on the supposed ‘benefits’ of European colonialism. For example, in an article touching on the independence of Belgian Congo published in 1960, Giraud contrasted the barbarism of Congolese leader Lumumba with the sound and progressive Belgian administration.[9] This despite the fact that the atrocities committed by the Belgians in the Congo Free State first and Belgian Congo later had already been vastly documented.[10]

Moreover, in a piece entitled ‘Decolonisation and the Right to Dispose of Others’ appearing in 1962, Giraud repeated the thesis according to which, even if all men and women are entitled to human rights, they cannot fully enjoy them ‘before having reached the age of maturity’. Until then, ‘they are the parents’ – and therefore the colonising countries – ‘who have the duty of raising their children and providing them with an education’.[11] This because, in the context of the Global Cold War, Giraud feared that formerly colonised people – which he compared to gullible children - could be easily misled by communist propaganda, ending up assuming a confrontational attitude vis-à-vis Western countries. It was indeed on these grounds that he also opposed the liberation of French Algeria in 1956.[12]

Figure 3. Photograph of UN Commission arriving in Eritrea, January 1950, UN Audiovisual Archives.

Giraud’s case testifies to the colonial and racist limits of ‘international men’. The micro-historical enquiry reveals itself as a useful tool to explore their mental universe – and incidentally the real spirit which informed the early outputs of international cooperation. In relation to the UDHR, we can observe how, in the mind of its drafters, it was not thought to really apply equally to everyone. If its silence on colonised people is already telling, reconstructing Giraud’s thought allows us to confirm its underlying racist bias. Away from triumphant narratives of transnational encounters and progressive destiny, we must be always aware of the contradictory and exclusionary nature of the first experiments in global governance.

Emanuele Podda is a PhD candidate in French Studies in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Warwick.

[1] Charles Rousseau, ‘Émile Giraud’, RGDIP, 37 (1965), pp. 305-309.
[2] Frédéric Mégret, ‘The Rise and Fall of ‘International Man’’, in Critical International Law, eds. Prabhakar Singh and Benoît Mater (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
[3] “Drafts - United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, McGill University Archives, MG 4127/CT 2 1988-0102.01.
[4]; Samuel Moyn, Human Rights And The Uses of History (Verso: London, 2014), p. 59.
[8] Émile Giraud, ‘La solution donnée par les Nations Unies au problème de l’Erythrée – L’anti-colonialisme’, 15 June 1951, Archives Diplomatiques du Ministère des Affaires Étrangères, 372QO/130.
[9] Émile Giraud, ‘Les surprises de la décolonisation du Congo Belge’, Combat, 2 August 1960, pp. 1 and 7.
[10] See, for example, Edmund Dene Morel, Red Rubber (London: Fisher Unwin, 1906) and Placide Tempels, ‘La philosophie de la rébellion’, L’Essor du Congo, 31 August 1944, pp. 17-23.
[11] Émile Giraud, ‘La décolonisation et le droit de disposer des autres’, Combat, 16 January 1962, pp. 1 and 5.
[12] Émile Giraud, ‘Les aspects internationaux de la question algérienne’, Revue Politique et Parlementaire, 58 (1956), pp. 18-33.
Images reproduced under fair use (scholarly).