On Minorities, Postcolonial States, and International Law 

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Professor Mohammad Shahabuddin discusses how his latest monograph examines the role of minorities in the formation of post-colonial States.

Professor Mohammad ShahabuddinMohammad Shahabuddin is Professor of International Law & Human Rights at Birmingham Law School.

Whereas the majority of states, including Western liberal democracies, are not completely immune from ethno-nationalism,[1] why are postcolonial states more vulnerable to this phenomenon? Also, why do postcolonial states respond to ethnic tensions in the manner in which they do? What role does international law play in all of this? And, what is the way forward? I engage with these compelling questions in my new book, Minorities and the Making of Postcolonial States in International Law (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

Offering an analysis of the geneses of ethno-nationalism in postcolonial states, I argue that nationalist elites address the problem of ethno-nationalism in general and minorities in particular by identifying the postcolonial state itself as an ‘ideology’. Here I rely on John Thompson’s notion of ideology as a set of ways in which ideas and meanings help create and sustain relations of domination through a series of general modes of operation and strategies of symbolic construction.[2] The ideological function of the postcolonial state vis-à-vis minorities takes three different yet interconnected forms: the postcolonial ‘national’ state, the postcolonial ‘liberal’ state, and the postcolonial ‘developmental’ state. As ideologies, the three visions of the postcolonial state inflict various forms of marginalisation on minorities but simultaneously justify the oppression in the name of national unity, liberal principles of equality and non-discrimination, and economic development, respectively.

International law, as a core element of the ideology of the postcolonial state, contributes to the marginalisation of minorities. It does so by playing a key role in the ideological making of the postcolonial ‘national’, ‘liberal’, and ‘developmental’ states in relation to: continuation of colonial boundaries in postcolonial states, internal organisation of ethnic relations within the liberal-individualist framework of human rights, and the economic vision of the postcolonial state in the form of ‘development’ that subjugates minority interests.

First, the ideology of the postcolonial ‘national’ state is intrinsically connected to the process by which homogeneous national states are made within the confines of colonial boundaries. The making of the postcolonial ‘national’ state leads to the marginalisation of various minority groups, for these minorities often find themselves on the wrong side of state boundaries and under the jurisdiction of hostile new states. International law unequivocally facilitates the ideological function of the postcolonial national state by prescribing the continuity of colonial boundaries, which were drawn arbitrarily without any regard to the ethnic makeup of the population. As a result, minorities are denied the legitimate right to self-determination. Minority oppression in the hands of hostile national states and the ensuing ethnic conflicts are direct results of this. With the reification of the nation-state format the core of the international legal imagination and as the building block of the international order, international law legitimises the marginalisation of minorities as the leftover of the state-making process. International law, at the same time, dissimulates the vulnerabilities of ethnic minorities in the name of national unification. In this way, international law advances the ideology of the postcolonial ‘national’ state through a number of general modes of ideological operation.

Second, given the dominance of liberal universalism in the aftermath of WWII, the ideology of the postcolonial ‘liberal’ state promises a post-ethnic world order and offers the template for the internal organisation of ethnic relations in postcolonial states. International law with its liberal underpinning feeds into the vision of the postcolonial ‘liberal’ state, which is then translated into an ideology to marginalise ethnic minorities within the liberal framework of equality and non-discrimination. Liberal individualism in international law continues to shrink the scope of external and internal self-determination, thereby perpetuating the vulnerability of minority groups. Also, within the individualist human rights framework, the international law of minority protection, offered as a fall-back position to groups that have been denied the right to self-determination, fails to adequately protect minorities. Taking these methods together, international law facilitates the ideology of the postcolonial ‘liberal’ state with fragmentation and legitimation as its ideological modes of operation. Working through these modes, international law diffuses minority groups into individual subjects of human rights, and legitimises the denial of minority group protection within the constitutional architecture of the postcolonial ‘liberal’ state. In this sense, the diffusion of minority groups into individual citizens, followed by their subjection to a human rights regime that maintains formal equality among citizens, is seen as the very precondition of the postcolonial ‘national’ state.

Third, the ideology of the postcolonial ‘developmental’ state, operating along the line of the same liberal ideological vision, puts forward the agenda for the postcolonial state’s internal and external organisation of economic affairs. The developmental ideology not only results in the marginalisation of minorities but also serves to legitimise and gloss over asymmetric power relations that produce such marginalisation. Development projects disproportionately target minority lands and forests, with long-term devastating effects on the cultures and the very existence of minorities. International law provides a framework within which international actors and postcolonial states suppress minority interests in the name of economic development, whereas minorities – being politically marginalised – suffer the most due to such development activities. In this way, international law advances the ideology of the postcolonial ‘developmental’ state through legitimation as its ideological mode of operation. Such legitimation of minority oppression in the name of economic development glosses over the existing structural power imbalance between the minority and the dominant majority in the political as well as the socio-economic domain. Thus, dissimulation as a mode of ideological operation also comes into play. Since the very notion of development is conceived as an integral part of the transition narrative of modernity, international law at the same time reifies the centrality of ‘development’ in the making of the postcolonial state, undermining minority rights concerns. And finally, given their common liberal-individualist ideological premise, the merger of the discourse on development with that on human rights – as expressed in the right to development – diffuses minority groups into individuals, with fragmentation as the ideological mode of operation. In this sense, the ideologies of the postcolonial ‘national’, ‘liberal’, and ‘developmental’ state are interconnected and depend on each other for fruition.

The book, thus, offers an ideology critique of the postcolonial state and examines the role of international law therein. It also calls for a renewed international law approach to minority rights and the question of statehood – one that considers the unique nature and background of postcolonial states and, at the same time, pays attention to minority perspectives going beyond state-centrism, liberal individualism, and neoliberal developmentalism. My arguments in the book are substantiated with case studies. First, to develop a general framework of the ideology of the postcolonial state, I look at Indian nationalist movements and the question of minority protection. I then focus more specifically on the cases of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar and the hill people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in Bangladesh to expose the role of international law in the ideological function of postcolonial states.


[1] By ‘ethno-nationalism’, I mean nationalist consciousness based on ethnic identities and ensuing claims towards statehood, regional autonomy, or other political arrangements.

[2] See, John B. Thompson, Ideology and Modern Culture: Critical Social Theory in the Era of Mass Communication (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990).


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