Decolonizing international relations: 5 key questions

Katie McCann shares insights on how to implement decolonial practices from an event with Jasmine Gani and Halima Begum

From left to right, Jasmine Gani, Isabel Muttreja and Halima Begum speak on decolonizing international relations at the Chatham House Second Century London Conference on the 24th of June 2022. Photo by Joseph Osayande.

The debate surrounding decolonization in international relations has been subject to renewed interest in the long aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests. At Chatham House’s annual London Conference in June 2022, International Affairs convened a panel with Jasmine Gani and Halima Begum to explore decolonization in international relations, drawing on discussions that began in the January 2022 special issue of the journal on race and imperialism.

Below, we share 5 key questions from the discussion on how to implement decolonial practices in research and policy spaces.

1) What is decolonization?

In order to decolonize, we must first understand colonization. While decolonization is often thought of as a historical term, denoting the official process of empire formally retreating from colonial outposts, both colonial and decolonial practices exist today.

More than the possession of territory, colonization involves the extraction of resources, the displacement of people, and the development of an ideology that constructs humanity within a racialized hierarchy.

For example, Jasmine Gani highlighted the contemporary challenge of neo-colonialism. She mentioned that this is expressed in the UK and other colonizer states through practices such as gentrification, which see the racial hierarchies of imperialism manifest in contemporary community relations.

Halima Begum argued that it is important to recognize that decolonization is a social movement as much as an academic or policy paradigm. It underpins the patterns of racial hierarchies which exist both in the former colonies, and in community relations in colonizer states today.

2) How are organizations and individuals addressing the legacies of empire?

Halima noted that only three years ago, discussions on decolonization were largely absent from government and civil society. While lingering discomfort from this culture of silence still exists, many people are eager to have conversations about decolonization.

The push for change is coming from below, both in academia and policy-making. Students and junior members of staff, particularly those from minoritized communities, are demanding honesty and accountability, and they must be listened to. Both Halima and Jasmine felt that failing to address the legacies of empire would be dishonest and do a disservice to young people.

The resistance to decolonial discussions is especially difficult to navigate. In response, Jasmine gave the audience two pieces of advice. First, find your community — while institutions may be difficult to change, it is crucial to have a space to cultivate relationships with people who are also seeking to do the difficult task of decolonial work. Second, take all the opportunities you can as you never know where they will arise. Halima added that avoiding burnout and focusing on the next generation are both really important.

3) Who is an expert?

To challenge colonial thinking, we must reconsider who we see as experts. The traditional hallmarks of expertise, including university degrees from prestigious institutions or publications in top journals are less accessible to those from colonized communities.

Credible knowledge can be found outside of the academy. Those who know the most about an issue are often the people living through it, not those with formal qualifications.

By platforming those voices, we can reverse the exclusion that many people experience in publishing and academia. Whether that be through online blog writing, storytelling or live testimony, people’s lived experiences must be recognized as legitimate.

4) Is decolonization ‘revenge’?

One audience member mentioned that some believe decolonization is a form of revenge. In response, Jasmine reminded us that colonization is a very sanitized word for what the process was and is. Colonization means genocide, torture, brutality, erasure of identities, denegation of histories, and dehumanization. Colonization was brutal, and this is what must be remembered in discussions of decolonization. In the context of this violence, decolonization is not a form of revenge but rather entails colonized peoples asking for the bare minimum in the spirit of patience and generosity.

Halima agreed, arguing that when we understand the reality, we can see that decolonization is a process characterized by the generosity of colonized peoples in seeking justice rather than reprisals or revenge. She added that this is why educating people about the true history of empire is vital.

As Jasmine said, ‘the bare minimum is being asked for in spirit of patience and generosity’.

5) How can we heal from colonialism?

When we talk about the reality of colonization, we must also talk about the process of healing following racialized violence. As Halima highlighted, when racist violence occurs, the effects are often ignored. Victims of racism, whether that is physical or verbal, often do not receive the psychological help they need. This must be rectified at the state, corporate and individual level. As she reminded us: ‘Nelson Mandela said to forgive, not to forget’, though Jasmine added that it was equally important to respect those who do not forgive.

Jasmine reminded us that the communities who inflicted imperialism also carry trauma. Healing needs to include everyone and every group involved, as there is a heavy burden that comes from knowing how your wealth and history was grown and developed.

Conclusion

After a moving and informative conversation, the panel shared some final thoughts. Both speakers concurred that we cannot be scared of the word decolonization. Halima argued that organizations should reach out to sources of anti-racist expertise like The Runnymede Trust to discuss implementing decolonial practices in their own work. Everyone is on a different place on this journey, and that is okay. Jasmine left us with a four-pronged to do list:

  • Listen
  • Have the humility to pursue change when it affects us personally
  • Stay focused on justice
  • Have the hope needed to do decolonial work

‘Decolonization has to be about the ability to imagine an alternative. Imagining a more emancipatory and just world; that is what decolonization is about’.

This blog was written by Katie McCann, International Affairs intern (Communications and publishing, Chatham House).

Halima Begum is Chief Executive and Director of The Runnymede Trust.

Jasmine K. Gani is Senior Lecturer in the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, and Co-Director of the Centre for Syrian Studies.

International Affairs’ centenary special issue, guest-edited by Jasmine K. Gani and Jenna Marshall, ‘Race and imperialism in International Relations: theory and practice’ was published in January 2022.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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