“Le braccia e le mani emaciate di una donna a Tahoua, nel Niger” 1973
Tahoua, Niger
Foto tratta dalla mostra “Human Rights”
© Courtesy UN Fund for Drug Abuse Control
UN Photo/CIDA/White“

Almost a century ago, on June 1, 1919, the new fundamental law for Tripolitania was issued in Italy. It was mainly the result of the efforts of Gaspare Colosimo, Minister for the colonies of the Kingdom of Italy since 1916. Colosimo radically distanced himself from the orientation of his predecessors and tried to intertwine fruitful negotiations with the leaders of the Tripoli republic that developed during the final years of the Great War – within the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the interruption of Italian warfare in Libya – in order to encourage in the colony the introduction of a constitutional charter that, as illustrated by Simona Behre in “Notable Libyans and Italian Officers: The Colonial Administration in Tripolitania (1912-1919)”, Rubbettino, 2015, “was inspired by liberal principles”, recognizing to the Libyans “the status of citizens and no longer of subjects”. On the features of that Charter, the abovementioned volume offers a comprehensive and detailed reconstruction. But here it will
be sufficient to point out that, although it was obviously a document that belonged to a context
different from the present one, it highlighted the emergence of a deep difference in mentality with respect to the habits that had previously regulated the asymmetrical relationship between the colonial powers and the African territories that had gradually fallen under Western rule since the Berlin Conference of 1884, and, therefore, since the start of the scramble for Africa.

Indeed, thanks to the charter, the tyrannical imprint that had characterized the colonial administration, by refusing to recognize the right of citizenship to the native people of the colonies, on the basis of cultural prejudices, was replaced by an anti-racist approach, denying in practice – continued Behre – “a colonial tradition that had used institutions to oppress people under its dominion”.

The development of a new idea of citizenship, capable of going beyond the limitations imposed
until then by an interpretation of the latter in terms of privilege exclusively granted to the citizens of the city, was favored by the post-war humanitarian context, strongly influenced by the spread of ideas on the right of peoples to self-determination put forward in 1918 by the US President Woodrow Wilson; but also, of course, by the awakening of Arab nationalism in those same years, and by the hopes for freedom that it had fostered. Of this new idea of right – a right no longer based on the assumption of the distinction between races – the Charter, developed by Colosimo with the cooperation of the greatest Italian Arabist of the time, Carlo Alfonso Nallino, represented (along with trends in the same direction that were emerging at the same time in the French colonies of Algeria and Tunisia) a paradigmatic example; the sign of an open-mindedness that had led, in this case, a part of the rulers and the Italian population to try to build their relationship with people of different traditions and cultures on the basis of respect for rights.

Of course, today’s scenario is no longer that of the colonial era, and today the question of rights raises quite different issues. Moreover, the 1919 Charter was never implemented and the Italian colonial domination in Libya during Fascism was marked by the brutal repression of the native people and the total rejection of the recognition of their rights. This does not mean that the centenary of that Charter is not something that deserves to be remembered today, as the evidence of a positive attempt to defeat racial prejudice and to establish the right to citizenship on an inclusive and universal basis; as the aspiration to a potential world, although certainly difficult to build.

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