Black History Month Focus Month Human Rights

(In)destructibility of Neo-Colonial Knowledge Production – Decolonisation in the Representation of Research Subjects

Choose your words tiles
Source: Brett Jordan 2019

OPINION Isabelle Zundel 27 February 2022

In another blog contribution in July 2021, I stressed the importance of “Decolonizing Law and its Practitioner’s Minds”. Today, I would like to continue and add on this discussion. It is striking to see the dominance of neo-colonial thought building as well as the insufficient or even lacking pushbacks to the same. Through my recent teaching experiences, I have come up with three realisations that I have turned into rules for my personal research on human rights:

Do not represent the subjects of your analysis in a unilateral and essentialist manner but rather embrace the complexity and manifoldness of the same. Do not merely address these individuals as the victims of human rights violations and the subjects of your research but consider their agency.

For example, the African continent and its citizens are among the most effected by the consequences of climate crisis. This is evident in and effects many areas of life as exemplarily during prolonged periods of drought causing food shortage or drastic flooding jeopardizing the whole existence. But this is only a single story. The people most effected by climate change have families, jobs, a complex world of feelings and manifold strategies to combat with the negative climate change impacts. They are more than dependant victims. Vanessa Nakate, a famous climate activist from Uganda, who has just recently published a new book on “My fight to bring a new African voice to the climate crisis” is anything but helpless and passive and thus one excellent example.[1]

Free yourself from Eurocentric standards pretending to have found a perfect blueprint. Terminate obsessive comparisons presenting western models as ultimate objective and ignoring the value of non-western knowledge production. By following this paternalistic tradition of white experts you directly refer to patters of colonial epistemology.

For example, different legal systems in Africa are constantly in a wrestling match of competing against and adjusting to ideals presented in the Western system. So is the African human rights system. Yes, it is indeed a whole system, including some of the most progressive and comprehensive regulations in many areas, as children’s rights. Additionally, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights is the only legal document to include all generations of rights. In order to see the African human rights system for what it is, I am in favour of legal comparative work and don’t propose the complete avoidance of comparisons. However, the reference objects must be matching. Instead of comparing the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights with a national Upper District Court in Germany, a matching reference should be utilized and the mind freed from preconceived opinions.

Be careful with images that show people! Images in the academic world (as well as in media) should be chosen wisely.

A number of researchers use pictorial representation to illustrate the various environmental crises or human rights violations in Africa. First of all, the question arises of what the academic purpose of the picture is? How does showing this picture contribute significantly to my scientific work? What kind of image does the picture give the audience about the person(s) I capture? Pictures  can only capture one situation, thus easily tend to contribute to a one-sided representation of the subjects of analysis. In the context of human rights violations, this representation often reinforces the beforementioned victimization and simplification of the research subjects. This victimization and one-sided representation diminish the manifoldness of African existence and thus reproduces colonial and racist conceptions. Regardless of the aforementioned legitimate questions whether images really contribute significantly to my scientific work and what images I reinforce by using them, a few ground rules must be respected, and critical questions asked. First, do I have consent of the people being in this picture to show their images to a specific audience? Second, have I referenced the picture correctly? Third, am I describing the person(s) on the image correctly? Lastly, is the person I am talking about really the person on the picture?

These rules might seem preachy and obvious. However, they are practical realisations of theoretical dialogues around epistemological studies of Africa as well as critiques of area studies in the Global North. In order to achieve the actual decolonization of law as one academic area as well the practioner’s minds, the attempts have to go beyond pure tossing back and forth of theories. The process of decolonization must be reflected in the presentation of research subjects. Where else does change manifest itself?

[1] (accessed on 27 January 2022).


  • Isabelle Zundel

    Isabelle Zundel is a doctoral researcher at the Chair for African Legal Studies at the University of Bayreuth and Manager of the Tanzanian-German Centre for Eastern African Legal Studies (TGCL).

By Isabelle Zundel

Isabelle Zundel is a doctoral researcher at the Chair for African Legal Studies at the University of Bayreuth and Manager of the Tanzanian-German Centre for Eastern African Legal Studies (TGCL).

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