This article analyzes the way that political actors, advocate lawyers, and European administrators leveraged the designations political prisoner, political refugee, and prohibited immigrant to claim rights for inhabitants of the UN trust territories of French Cameroon and British Cameroons in the 1950s. Incarcerated activists identified themselves as political prisoners as they claimed that their human rights were upheld by international legal norms outlined in UN documents such as the Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Trusteeship Agreements, which bound administering authorities to uphold these principles. Having imposed politics onto the prison, Cameroonian nationalists who escaped repression in French Cameroon by fleeing to British territory politicized their exile as they claimed refugee status in British Cameroons, a territory they viewed as belonging to the nation they envisioned. In so doing, Cameroonian nationalists revealed embryonic refugee law to be more aspirational than universally applicable—but nonetheless laid claim to its protections in ways that did, in some cases, sway the courts. The focus on the legal cases of political prisoners and refugees shows how Cameroonian nationalists viewed the rights that international law established or promised as legitimizing their anti-colonial revolutionary state-building project. With the advocate lawyers who represented them, legally minded Cameroonian nationalists acted, defended, and claimed as though the trusteeship system had universalized a decolonized international law. Contributing to emerging scholarship on the relation of international law to global inequality in the decolonizing age, this article gives an account of a decolonizing worldmaking at the grassroots, where, through discrete legal cases, actors practiced articulating anti-colonial revolution with international law, contesting it and shaping it to their aspirations.

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