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Echoes of Colonialism: A Willful Amnesia in International Relations


[1]

The phrase “never forget” has been used frequently following tragic historical events worldwide. While it is meant to inform future generations with benevolent intentions, the reality is that many parts of history are often forgotten. For example, the period of colonialism and its impacts has been an era we have continuously aimed to reverse as its effects continue to be felt among many people. However, the era of colonialism continues to impact non-western countries today. Thus, if we follow the phrase “never forget” we must revisit the forgotten and overlooked aspects we take as normal in Western countries. The critical post-colonialist analysis does just this, to offer a new perspective on how we view history and highlight the whitewashing of colonialism within the field of international relations.


Professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaii, Sankaran Krishna argues that within the field of International Relations, there is a sense of “willful forgetting” when it comes to important aspects of history, and in this context particularly that of colonialism and race.[2] He states, “[The] discipline of IR was and is predicated on a systematic politics of forgetting, willful amnesia, on the question of race.”[3] This is because history has followed a process of abstraction, where details of encounters are often downplayed, eliminated, or told from the Western perspective.[4] In addition, the history we teach can also be done through deferred redemption, where the ‘winners’ and ‘ losers’ are not equally represented ( western vs. non-western countries).[5] As the adage goes: “History is written by the victors.”


Within the field of International Relations, the concept of war is portrayed as the act of non-democratic states, while democratic states are seen as the peacekeepers in the international arena.[6] This arises through the Western definition of war, which follows Western sovereignty and often downplays Western conflicts. The Vietnam War which was caused by the United States led to an immense amount of suffering but within foreign policy and American history, it has been understated through mainstream narratives. ‘Apocalypse Now’ is a film that parodies and contemplates early media portrayal of war. The opening scene with its dramatic music and shots, and the satirical faux righteousness of the American soldiers, encourages the viewer to question mainstream Western narratives on the Vietnam War which painted America as the hero, without considering the political and historical effect on Vietnam and its civilians. More contemporary examples of media that perpetuates the heroic narrative include Ken Burns’s 2017 Vietnam War Documentary, ‘The Vietnam War’ which while aiming to show the “real” Vietnam conflict, was criticized for relying on essentialist aesthetics.[7] This act of telling history from the Western or ‘winner's’ perspective has created a dominantly white narrative within history, and a willful amnesia around the question of systemic racialized violence and how it impacts our daily lives.


International law has historically aided in suppressing non-Western populations by allowing Western nations to obtain their territory in a ‘legal’ manner. Through the action of treaties, agreements, and laws the colonial powers were able to establish control over foreign lands and indigenous people. International law provided a superficial appearance of legitimacy to these actions. For example, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, European powers established colonial empires in Africa and Asia allowing territories to be “legally” divided among themselves. However, this act was illegal as Western powers were able to manipulate legal documents to justify their new territory by taking advantage of native peoples. Though history and Western education have led us to believe that these practices are no longer done and sovereignty is more equally upheld, it is far from the truth.


To further this idea through a more modern lens, this paper will look at two modern-day examples. The United Kingdom has refused to comply with an International Justice Court ruling regarding the Chagos Islands.[8] In the 1960s, the UK forcefully removed the Chagos population to allow for a US military base. Recent rulings in 2019 by the ICJ have stated that this action violates the islander’s right to establishment and sovereignty and the UK had to back off.[9] However, the UK has ignored this ruling and used its international law interpretation to justify its actions.[10] Furthermore, in 2016, The United States government pushed for the Dakota Access Pipeline to be installed which would threaten the water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.[11] This pipeline was approved without consultation of the tribe leading to a breach of human rights, indigenous rights, and a threat to environmental degradation. There was an international uproar and protests from many of the indigenous communities due to the lack of consultation and inappropriate decision-making when it came to land and resources. However, the project was completed in 2017 and has violated the rights of indigenous communities without any international law involvement.[12] Both these cases show a breach of international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights further explaining that history has repeated itself once again.


Though the phrase “never forget” has been used to educate future generations not to make the same mistakes made by previous generations, the truth is that many things are often forgotten and ignored. Thus, post-colonialist analysis endeavors to retell the perspective of non-Western countries and uncover the whitewashed history. According to Sankaran Krishna, the concept of willful forgetting within the field of IR has contributed to the lack of attention to race and the dominance of white history.[13] Furthermore, international law and historical definitions have aided the process as seen through the examples of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Chagos Islanders. Though there has been progress made, history should never be viewed only from one perspective but be examined through a post-colonialist lens. This is the only way we can lead the next generations to a more equitable and inclusive future.


Endnotes

[1] Pixabay, “Globe Map Africa - Free Photo on Pixabay,” Pixabay, accessed May 31, 2023, https://pixabay.com/photos/globe-map-africa-colonial-british-2637126/.

[2] Sankaran Krishna. “Race, Amnesia, and the Education of International Relations.” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 26, no. 4 (2001): p. 401

[3] Ibid, 401.

[4] Ibid, 401.

[5] Ibid, 403.

[6] Ibid, 406.

[7] Schindel D, Hyperallergic 2017. In Ken Burns’s Vietnam War Documentary, Claims of Objectivity Obscure Patriotic Bias. https://hyperallergic.com/408347/in-ken-burnss-vietnam-war-documentary-claims-of-objectivity-obscure-patriotic-bias/

[8] "UN Court Rejects UK Claim to Chagos Islands in Favour of Mauritius," The Guardian, January 28, 2021,https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/28/un-court-rejects-uk-claim-to-chagos-islands-in-favour-of-mauritius.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] "Dakota Access Pipeline Protests Put Right to Water Center Stage," Human Rights Watch, November 2, 2016,https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/11/02/dakota-access-pipeline-protests-put-right-water-center-stage.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Sankaran Krishna. “Race, Amnesia, and the Education of International Relations.” 404.




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