The Asian Unity Project: Human Rights, Third World Solidarity, and the United Nations, 1945-1955


Cindy Ewing

PhD defended at: 

Yale University


In the decade after 1945, the newly independent nations of South Asia and Southeast Asia transformed international politics through an expansive project of Asian unity. This dissertation traces the intellectual and political trajectories of the “new Asia” from 1945 to 1955 to show how postcolonial elites spread rights ideas in the course of building their nation-states, defending their sovereignty, and advancing the cause of anticolonial nationalism. Postcolonial elites acted in solidarity at the United Nations in particular, where they compelled the world body to recognize their sovereignty and accord a place for them within it. As U.N. member-states, these postcolonial nations carried the banner of national self-determination, not only in specific cases of anticolonial struggle against the reassertion of European empire, but also in the emerging legal framework of international human rights being developed by the U.N. Human Rights Commission. By importing local rights ideas that were formulated in sites of political discourse such as constituent assemblies and national legislatures, postcolonial elites from Asia led a transnational diplomatic coalition that inscribed national self-determination into the International Bill of Human Rights, thus inching the United Nations toward a commitment to the end of empire worldwide.

This dissertation develops an historical account of Asian unity along its arcs of postcolonial internationalism and Third World solidarity. It deploys a global perspective with the aim of refining our historical understanding of the interconnections between rights and decolonization in the postwar era. This dissertation also strives to reconceptualize the Third World by restoring the historical roles of the “new Asia” and Arab-Asian international cooperation to the development of a common political platform shared by nations from across the global South. To do so, this dissertation draws on a wide range of archival and documentary sources from Burma (Myanmar), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), China, France, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This dissertation engages with and aims to build upon the scholarly literatures of human rights history, decolonization, postcolonialism, the global Cold War, and the contemporary international histories of South Asia and Southeast Asia.

In Chapter 1, this dissertation traces the preparation of the independence constitutions of Burma, Ceylon, and India, which were drafted in the same years (1946-1948) that the U.N. Human Rights Commission was formulating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The rights discourses of these new nations showed a complex and interconnected framing of individual and group rights centered on justiciability and national integrity. Asian diplomats traveling between local constitution-making bodies and the United Nations brought these rights concepts to bear upon the nascent international human rights system. In Chapter 2, these new Asian nation-states further deepened their involvement with the U.N. by building a regional network of like-minded national movements upholding an ideal of Asian unity. Their cooperation allowed them to initiate a joint campaign at the U.N. to defend Indonesia’s sovereignty against the resurgence of European colonialism, thus facilitating international negotiations that led to the recognition of Indonesia’s independence in 1949.
In Chapter 3, this Asian regional network broadened its coalition through a new collaboration with the member-states of the League of Arab States in response to international deliberations on the statuses of Indonesia, Libya, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somaliland, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. The Asian and Arab nations continued to push international political discourse at the U.N. toward support for decolonization and the recognition of the right to national self-determination, fundamentally altering the development of international human rights instruments being drafted at the same time. In Chapter 4, the wars in Korea and Indochina turned the focus of postcolonial elites back to Asia and a new core leadership emerged called the Colombo Powers, comprised of five Asian prime ministers who attempted to mediate the great power talks at Geneva in the spring and summer of 1954. The Colombo Powers also planned and hosted the 1955 Asian-African Conference in Bandung, demonstrating how the Asian unity project evolved to become more globally inclusive of a nascent Third World political collective. The conclusion assesses this transformation in postcolonial politics and the changes that the Bandung conference brought about in the goals and aspirations of the Third World at the expense of the Asian unity project.