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Thesis defences

PhD Oral Exam - Samantha Moyes, History

Dis-Trusting Human Rights: The UN Trusteeship in Late Colonial Tanganyika (Tanzania)

Tuesday, August 30, 2022 (all day)

This event is free


School of Graduate Studies


Daniela Ferrer



When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.

Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.


After World War Two a new internationalism was fuelled by human rights discourses and increasing anticolonial agitation in Africa and beyond. As part of this, the newly established United Nations implemented the Trusteeship Council, tasked with preparing trusteeship territories for self-determination and implementing fundamental human rights and freedoms. Moreover, inhabitants of trusteeship territories had the unique and exclusive right to petition the United Nations directly. In 1948, Tanganyika (Tanzania) received the designation of trusteeship status with the British acting as the administering authority. Tanganyikans of disparate ethnic, racial, class and professional backgrounds seized this opportunity to write to the Trusteeship Council.

The trusteeship petitions provide an access point for shifting the focus of scholarship on international institutions to everyday actors. These diverse actors show a political consciousness of the significance of race, development, and internationalism as vehicles for making claims to rights and control over their personal and political lives. With the promise of decolonization that trusteeship status conferred, inhabitants actively engaged in imagining and negotiating their position within a decolonizing Tanganyika.

My dissertation explores the different scales and experiences of liminality embedded within the trusteeship system as envisioned by petitioners who wrote to the UNTC. I examine grassroots responses on an individual and community level. These responses were steeped in critiques of trusteeship authority and universalism. Many expressed an acute awareness of how the language of human rights and trusteeship with its claims to universalism were intimately tied to racial hierarchies of governance.

This provides a different kind of snapshot of this moment where avenues for justice lay in a nebulous landscape between empire and nation-state. It is a snapshot of a form that is liminal and in-between, where the meaning of racial categories was debated. I look more carefully at specific forms political demands took that were contained within neither empire nor the nation-state. This form allowed for powerful critiques of empire, universalism, and internationalism, yet also allowed for inhabitants - African communities facing land dispossession, Asian communities anxious about their position as minorities, interracial couples, and domestic workers unions - to engage and use a diverse array of prevailing political languages to describe the struggles they faced in their everyday lives and demand social rights such as the ability to own land, secure employment, fall in love, and more.

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