Theses Master's

(Ref)Using Human Rights: Indigenous Activism and the Politics of Refusal in Settler Colonial Contexts

Wyman-McCarthy , Timothy

This thesis is a critical history of ideas—or a history of repressed and repressive ideas (and histories)—that analyses how liberal internationalism, in the form of human rights, presses upon, covers over, brushes against, interacts with, or is used instrumentally by Indigenous activism and political life. By situating these interactions between human rights and Indigenous political life in the context of settler colonialism, it aims to bring out the complexity of a politics of (ref)usal that permeates this relationship, in this context. First, the thesis reads critiques of human rights against emerging literature in settler colonial studies, showing how the irreducible element of an eliminatory drive for land, which characterizes settler colonialism, is not accounted for in the existing critical literature on human rights. Second, it presents a critical history of the normative evolution of the right to self-determination in both law and discourse as these relate to Indigenous peoples, showing how the norm is constructed both to make illegible other forms of Indigenous political life and to reify anthropological tropes about Indigenous culture. Third, it tests proposals for ‘saving’ human rights from its colonial-hegemonic past—by repoliticizing it—against writing on settler decolonization, to ask about the role of human rights in/as decolonial politics. The thesis, finally, considers how the normative and historical terrain it has mapped might help us think through the politics of human rights and Indigenous activism (namely, the Idle No More movement) in Canada in light of Justin Trudeau’s election as Prime Minister in October, 2015. Ultimately, the aim of this work is to interrogate the normative political optics of the settler state—what it can and cannot make legible—as it makes use of liberal internationalist discourse to make illegible (to eliminate from view) other, Indigenous, modes of political life which stubbornly (politically) refuse this imposition.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for _Ref_Using_Human_Rights-_Indigenous_Activism_and_the_Politics_of_Refusal_in_Settler_Colonial_Contexts.pdf _Ref_Using_Human_Rights-_Indigenous_Activism_and_the_Politics_of_Refusal_in_Settler_Colonial_Contexts.pdf application/pdf 1.35 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Institute for the Study of Human Rights
Thesis Advisors
Simpson, Audra
M.A., Columbia University
Published Here
April 26, 2016