In October 1945, the United Nations began its official existence when the five permanent members of the new Security Council and a majority of other signatories ratified the Charter. That same month, Aimé Césaire, from colonial Martinique, and Léopold Sédar Senghor, from colonial Senegal, were elected as deputies to a new Constitutive Assembly in Paris. This Assembly would draft France’s constitution for a Fourth Republic, following the country’s wartime occupation by Germany and the Vichy state’s collaboration with the Nazi regime.
In January 1946, the first session of the UN General Assembly (GA) convened in London. Its inaugural agenda included a set of global issues: the discovery of atomic energy; the extradition and punishment of war criminals; the problem of refugees and displaced peoples; genocide; the establishment of an International Court of Justice; economic reconstruction projects for member countries devastated by the war; armament regulation; the drafting of an international declaration on fundamental human rights and freedoms; and the creation of a future World Health Organization. In brief, it undertook to outline the shape of the post‑war world.
The first GA also responded to immediate challenges, including a world food shortage; the need for an international children’s emergency fund; the political rights of women; the treatment of Indians in South Africa; the future status of South‑West Africa; and the situation in Palestine. Beneath many of these problems lay the matter of decolonisation. The GA created a Trusteeship Council to oversee the administration of colonised – or ‘non‑self‑governing’ – peoples, whose ‘wellbeing’ and ‘self-government’ the UN charter had pledged to promote. Césaire and Senghor were taking a different approach. These anti-colonial visionaries did not regard nation-states as the best framework through which to pursue justice and equality for Caribbean and African peoples at that time.
In March 1946, Césaire sponsored a historic law that would officially transform France’s so‑called ‘old’ Caribbean and Indian Ocean colonies (Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyane, and Réunion) into full departments of the French nation-state. That same month, Senghor led a vigorous debate in the Paris Assembly on a constitution that would transform the unitary French republic into a post‑imperial and post‑national federation. This new polity would include former colonies and the former metropole as freely associated members, each of which would be self-governing and fully equal federal partners with shared access to the social and economic resources of the whole.
Over the next 10 years, millions of colonised peoples in Asia, Africa and the Middle East won political independence. Overwhelmingly, anti-colonial movements (moderate or revolutionary, liberal or socialist) throughout the world sought to emancipate themselves from colonial rule by creating independent nation-states. European powers shared a preference for seeing their former colonies reinvented as nation-states. When France and Britain recognised that they could no longer retain their colonial empires, they sought to retain imperial influence with former colonies by negotiating bilateral agreements with new, relatively weak nation-states led by political moderates. The United States pursued a similar strategy toward new Third World nations, cultivating non-communist allies, natural resources, and markets among nominally sovereign national states.
The US and Europe thus supported the UN’s view of the world. In this view, the world would be a stable interstate system, organised around the principles of territorial integrity, national independence, and state sovereignty, protected through a directorate of great powers (the Security Council) and administered by a series of international agencies staffed by experts. Human rights violations would merit overriding national sovereignty. But the aim, in such cases, was to protect the inter-state system. Césaire and Senghor wanted something very different. Their vision challenged the very principles of territoriality, nationality and state sovereignty.
During this same period, Césaire and Senghor waged a constitutional struggle to transform the French empire into a transcontinental, democratic and socialist federation. When, in 1956, Césaire concluded that departmentalisation was a mistake, he resigned from the French Communist Party, founded an autonomous party in Martinique, and joined forces with Senghor’s independent socialist party in the National Assembly. Their aim was not only to abolish colonialism but, at the same time, to overcome the traditional notion of sovereign and unified national states. They hoped to invent a new political form for a different world order.
Adapted from https://aeon.co/essays/how-cesaire-and-senghor-saw-the-decolonised-world