„Two years into my PhD studies in London I realised I was thinking of Human Rights from a Eurocentric perspective“ – 5in10 with José-Manuel Barreto

José-Manuel Barreto is a Human Rights Lawyer who had been acting before the Constitutional Court in Colombia where he also lobbied the National Constituent Assembly and advised the House of Representatives’ Human Rights Commission. He has been a Visiting Lecturer at the Universidad de los Andes and a Research Fellow at the University of London where he obtained his MA in Human Rights and a PhD in Law. He is currently Fellow of the research program Rechtskulturen at Forum Transregionale Studien, working on the critique of the Eurocentric understanding of human rights.

José-Manuel Barreto Photo: © Maurice Weiss, Ostkreuz

José-Manuel Barreto
Photo: © Maurice Weiss, Ostkreuz

What was surprising to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?

I was born in a small Colombian town and the house of my parents was not far away from the police station. Once I saw a young man being taken by two policemen who were hitting him. I did not understand why they were beating the young peasant, and watching the scene pained me. I think moments like this one left a profound impression on me, and I imagine they played a part in my willingness to work on human rights both as an activist and as an academic.

How would you explain your current research to a stranger in an elevator?

I am working on developing a critique of the Eurocentric understanding of human rights, on retrieving a Third World tradition of rights, and on fostering a dialogue between these two traditions. It contextualises human rights in the history of colonialism and aims at developing a conception of human rights that makes them more able to face the challenges posed by the contemporary process of globalisation.

Which stations of your academic journey were extremely formative to you?

All the stages of my education have been important in my formation. At secondary school I learned about the existence of a bunch of people called philosophers, about the poverty of most of the population of my country and about abuses committed by Communist regimes. Studying for my first degree I got familiar with European philosophy, and two years into my PhD studies in London I realised I was thinking of human rights from a Eurocentric perspective. Since then I have been attempting to change the way I think and looking for strategies for thinking from the point of view of the colonised.

How is it, to do research in Germany?

It is to be in the middle of a research infrastructure that counts with so many research centres, funding bodies, substantial government support and a lot of researchers. I appreciate the interest of the German academy in legal theories that do not come from the European tradition, like mine. I have been invited to present papers in a number of academic venues and I can dedicate all my time to research and write on the topics I like most. Most of the events in which I have participated have been in English, and it has been in Germany were I have been able to present a paper in Spanish for the first time since I came to Europe 15 years ago.

If you had one wish, what would you wish for the further development of your subject?

I would like to see more scholars and publications from the Third World participating in the global discussion on human rights. This possibility does not have to do only with openness to non-mainstream ideas, but also with the creation of opportunities and spaces for exchange of ideas between the North and the South. Beyond that, there is a need for the Global South to strengthen universities and research centres, so that the production of knowledge in general there, and the theorisation of human rights in particular, is promoted.

Publications of José-Manuel Barreto include: 

Epistemologies of the South and Human Rights: Santos and the Quest for Global and Cognitive Justice. Forthcoming 2014 in Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies

Human Rights and the Critique of Rationalism: Anthropophagi, Legal Surrealism and Suffering Humanity. Forthcoming 2014 in Revista de Estudos Constitucionais, Hermenêutica e Teoria do Direito


Stefanie Rentsch

Dr. Stefanie Rentsch ist wissenschaftliche Referentin am Forum Transregionale Studien Berlin und leitet dort den Bereich Publikationen und Öffentlichkeitsarbeit. Blogs: trafo.hypotheses.org, academies.hypotheses.org Stefanie Rentsch is head of publications and communication at the Forum Transregionale Studien Berlin. Blogs: trafo.hypotheses.org, academies.hypotheses.org

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