The postcolonial world is caught in a dilemma, which is not easily resolved. The formal attainment of independence by colonies and protectorates in Asia and Africa following the Second World War has not ushered in the end of Western imperialism. The epistemic and material conditions that underpinned European colonialism persist to shape our world, so that postcolonial nation states continue to be confronted with the legacies of empire. From development politics to peace and security issues, from human rights to foreign trade policies, from climate change to intellectual property rights, colonial relations still inform how problems are perceived and what solutions are offered. This is also the case in the context of our discussion regarding justice.

Since the 1990s, there has been increasing focus on transnational justice as a means toward undoing past violence and domination, and toward ensuring rights, freedom and equality globally, particularly for vulnerable groups and communities at risk of violence and persecution. The demand that transnational elites act beyond narrow territorial-based understanding of self-interest in order to ‘protect’ rights of vulnerable individuals and groups seems convincing, at first glance. However, given the long and violent history of colonial intervention in the non-Western world, current attempts to act in the ‘interests’ of the distant others often invoke suspicion and distrust. Euro-American supremacism and paternalism are reinstated once again with them acting as dispensers of rights and justice.

Justice is commonly understood as the creation of egalitarian societies that guarantee freedom, liberty, and equality, while safeguarding the dignity of every human being. Based on concepts such as human rights, justice involves achieving material and discursive equality of opportunity. In the last few decades there has been an intensive debate regarding what is just, and what are the best means to achieve justice. The idea of an objective standard of justice has been challenged and critiqued by many scholars including feminists, critical race theorists, as well as queer and postcolonial theorists. This entails a critical engagement with the normative dilemmas of Western norms such as human rights; namely to what extent are they enabling for disenfranchised communities, and if and how they reinforce hegemonic orders and power relations between those who are constituted as dispensers of justice and those who are simply the receivers of justice. Most theories of global justice have been criticized for being Eurocentric and Androcentric, since they are firmly grounded in a Western (hetero)normative framework. This raises the following questions: Are there objective standards of justice that apply universally regardless of culture, race, gender, religion, nationality, or other factors? And if not, what implication does this have on the global distribution of justice and its mechanisms? Who authorizes norms of justice, and what happens with those who do not see themselves as objects of our benevolence?

Postcolonial-feminist interventions unpack how neo-colonialism is being justified in the name of righting wrongs (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Righting Wrongs“, in: The South Atlantic Quarterly, no. 103/2-3, 2004, pp. 523-581). The effort is to pose a series of questions regarding the historical and cultural situatedness of justice, and its applicability in mainly postcolonial contexts. In addition to interrogating the colonial continuities of current discourses of transnational justice, the challenge is of overcoming the Eurocentric bias via a reading of justice and human rights as ‘travelling concepts’. Furthermore postcolonial feminists outline how there is more to gender justice than equality between the sexes. The notion of ‘normative violence’ (Judith Butler: Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 10th edition, London: Routledge 1999, p. xx) helps understand the simultaneous enabling and disempowering function of norms like justice, both judicially and socio-culturally. In my view, justice can be read as a utopian concept, perpetually deferred, never achieving closure, and, thereby, always open to that which it overlooks or silences. This calls for permanent vigilance from dispensers of justice in their efforts to right wrongs.

Decolonizing justice

In his book The Other Heading: Reflections on Todays Europe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1992), Jacques Derrida observes that Europe has always tended to consider itself as the ‘cultural capital’ (from caput, head) of the world, namely, as providing a lead for ‘world civilization or human culture in general’ (p. 24). The role of ‘norm-producers’ (whether legal or socio-cultural) that Euro-America has historically arrogated itself implies that what is considered to be good for Euro-America is good for the rest of the world. This conviction is accompanied with a pronounced sense of mission that Euro-Americans have the responsibility to dispense justice worldwide. Euro-America, as a guarantor of the exercise of justice, marks a continuity of the ‘white man’s burden’, namely, the responsibility and obligation of the Europeans to ‘save’ and ‘enlighten’ the rest of the world. According to this logic, European intervention was, and is, legitimized as a liberating process, and any form of resistance is read as a sign of barbarity against the forces of justice, a rejection of European enlightenment, and as an expression of ingratitude vis-à-vis the good-heartedness of transmitters of peace and justice, which further justifies brutal suppression of any resistance. Racial discrimination, cultural subordination, and economic exploitation of non-Europeans was, and is, legitimized in the name of doing good for the world, in the name of promoting progress, development, and democracy as well as protecting equality, freedom, and liberty. According to this reasoning, natives who are moral and rational are automatically favourably inclined toward Western intervention.

Euro-American claims to leadership in the areas of justice and human rights are based on the assertion of moral and military superiority. This claim to leadership is at the heart of most Western countries’ foreign policy legitimacy, which determines the standard for what is right and righteous. The dispensers of justice arrogate themselves the ‘normative power’ to decide what is ‘just’ and ‘good’, with those at the receiving end of justice and rights being simply reduced to ‘norm consumers’. A notion of ethical responsibility emerges at the juncture between acting and being acted upon, whereby Euro-America monopolizes agency in the name of protecting and exerting responsibility. In turn, the gratitude that is expected (and sometimes received) from those whose wrongs have been righted by moral do-gooders from above, is a cruel reminder of how the formal transfer of power from colonial rule to native elites has not resulted in the decolonization of the global South or North.

The construction of ‘the West’ as a normative power has left a trail of violent and exploitative systems in the name of modernity, progress, rationality, emancipation, rights, justice, and peace. Any non-Western individual, group, or state wanting to qualify as ‘civilized’ and modern can only comply and imitate the European norms, or risk the violence of being forcibly ‘civilized’ and modernized against their consent (which they are in any case not authorized to exercise). The European norms are supposedly worth emulating on the grounds of their superiority. However, even as the native can only attempt to be like the European, s/he is inevitably set to fail. Thus the attempts to imitate European norms can only produce ‘bad’, ‘weak’, or ‘failed’ copies, which once again confirms the authority of the European ‘original’.

The legitimacy and efficiency of ‘local’ mechanisms and practices are eroded through the ‘top-down’ models of justice, which ignore the singularity of the context in which it is to be operationalized. Although the tool kits of ‘dispensers of justice’ might be comprehensive and adaptable to different contexts, the attitude of ‘one size fits all’ implies that justice is understood as an imperative, without consideration of the social context in which it is applied. This is particularly pertinent when the cornerstone concepts of transnational justice like ‘freedom’, ‘rights’, or ‘equality’ carry different historical meanings in different socio-political contexts. Ignoring this diversity of interpretation and negotiation leads the pursuit and application of justice to be perceived as an alibi for neo-colonialism. On the other hand, as has been pointed out, a critique of universal notions of justice entails the danger of cultural relativist legitimization of human rights abuses and injustices being defended and upheld as ‘local practices’. This raises the dilemma: How can one address issues of justice while avoiding the trap of universalism on the one hand and cultural relativism on the other?