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The trouble with human rights in Africa

The 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is as good a time as any to discuss Africa’s standing with respect to those rights.

Koffi Annan once noted that human rights are often treated as some “rich man’s luxury for which Africa is not ready”. Our problems started right at the beginning. The truth is that the concept of human rights as articulated in the UDHR stems from a Western liberal interpretation of what constitutes freedom and how these freedoms should be protected. It has also been argued by many scholars that the framing of those rights was particularly Western. Worse still, at the time of the adoption of the UDHR, only four African countries (including South Africa) were free from colonial rule. So here was this document stating that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” at a time when Africa belonged to Europe.

Understandably, there are therefore people who reject the very notion of human rights. However, the result of that position can be seen across the continent today. Look at Robert Mugabe for example. All his denunciations of the “imperialist West” have culminated in a vicious attack on his own people. I am inclined to agree with Rose D’Sa who, over twenty years ago wrote that:

“… although the struggle for human dignity remains universal, it may be argued that the African people have to respond to these challenges in their own way. At the same time, it is pertinent to point out that the enunciation of an ‘African’ conception of human rights has the inherent danger of being capable of abuse, in order to legitimise policy conducive to the interests of ruling elites.”

I don’t like the fact that when the abstract notion of human rights was being pinned down on paper, my continent was at best an afterthought. But regardless of who said it, I am convinced that all people should have the “right to life, liberty and security of person”. I think it is long past time for Africa to begin an honest conversation on the basic minimum standards that we demand to have in our nations.

As long as “human rights” remains an abstract concept that ordinary Joe on the street does not talk about with his friends, the idea won’t take root adequately. When Mugabe says things like “we won’t let a court tell us what to do”, or “what human rights did they have when they imprisoned us”, there is a constituency with whom that resonates, which is a tragedy.

What is even more sad is that while relatively few people know about the UDHR, fewer have read it, and fewer still know of the existence of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. This 1981 document represents an attempt by the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to articulate an African conception of rights. The fact that this impressive work is virtually unknown outside certain circles just goes to show that most of us don’t take the subject very seriously. It also allows the myth of human rights as a solely Western idea to be perpetuated.

Perhaps the worst idea that exists on the continent is that certain things are so weighty that only the well educated, those in authority or the wealthy could possibly grasp them. As a result of the worst elements of culture mixed with the worst of colonialism, the majority of people do not feel as though they get to contribute to shaping their environment. Instead, they accept things the way they are and do the best they can under the prevailing conditions.

Until that changes, until every Tom, Dick and Harry can take things like the UDHR and the African Charter and make them their own, we won’t move forward. Some other megalomaniac will decide that he or she has the right to set norms and values, and everyone else will just accept it.

I don’t know what civil society the governments of South Africa and other African states have planned for the 60th anniversary of the UDHR. But if those plans don’t include getting a copy of the document to as many literate people as possible, provoking public debate and highlighting the existence of the African Charter, not enough will have been done.