Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2, No. 1 (Winter 2000): Human Rights for All? The Problem of the Human Rights Box: Articles: Why More Africans Don't Use Human Rights Language

Dec 5, 1999

The anti-apartheid and anti-colonial independence movements in Africa, along with the American civil rights movement, are examples of successful human rights initiatives that gained a popular following. They tell us that the realization of human rights is an inclusive enterprise. Throughout history, the protection of human rights has been won by struggle, and struggle requires mobilization. The process of mobilization validates the movement, connecting it with the needs of the people and earning their commitment. To be successful, such struggles must be biased without being unfair and political without being wedded to a particular party. However, it is the practice of today’s human rights organizations to claim to be “impartial,” “unbiased,” “neutral,” and “non-political.” Fashionable though they may be, and donor-friendly though they certainly are, such expressions do not describe the complex realities of the struggle for human rights in Africa.

Africa is living through a human rights crisis and a crisis for human rights. It is impossible to locate any African country in which the hope held out by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), or any of the standards that have mushroomed under it, is not habitually assaulted by a combination of abuse of public power, private privilege, and resulting popular destitution.

While Africa’s human rights problems are immense, even ubiquitous, most of our people do not describe their problems in human rights terms. Many communities and groups involved in social justice movements and initiatives in Africa are reluctant to make the Universal Declaration, or language inspired by it, their mascot or medium. To seek to explain this by reference to the high illiteracy level in Africa—itself a denial of several human rights—is to avoid the problem. Nor is it enough to wish this alienation away by inveighing against the unfortunate historical fact, true though it is, that Africa was hardly represented when the Universal Declaration was negotiated or adopted. After all, the struggle for independence in Africa predated the UDHR and remains, with the anti-apartheid campaign, the most popular and successful human rights movement known to African peoples. Although in some African languages there is no direct equivalent to the phrase “human rights,” neither the notion of justice that underlies human rights nor the experience of struggle to realize these rights is unknown to Africa.

What then explains the current crisis of human rights and the retreat from the human rights paradigm as an engine of struggle? The search for an understanding of this crisis begins with an examination of the evolution and practices of the organizations and institutions that espouse the protection of human rights around Africa.

In Africa, the realization of human rights is a very serious business indeed. In many cases it is a life and death matter. From the child soldier, the rural dweller deprived of basic health care, the mother unaware that the next pregnancy is not an inexorable fate, the city dweller living in fear of the burglar, the worker owed several months arrears of wages, and the activist organizing against bad government, to the group of rural women seeking access to land so that they may send their children to school with its proceeds, people are acutely aware of the injustices inflicted upon them. Knowledge of the contents of the Universal Declaration will hardly advance their condition. What they need is a movement that channels these frustrations into articulate demands that evoke responses from the political process. This the human rights movement is unwilling or unable to provide. In consequence, the real life struggles for social justice are waged despite human rights groups—not by or because of them—by people who feel that their realities and aspirations are not adequately captured by human rights organizations or their language.

The current human rights movement in Africa—with the possible exception of the women’s rights movement and faith-based social justice initiatives—appears almost by design to exclude the participation of the people whose welfare it purports to advance. Most human rights organizations are modeled after Northern watchdog organizations, located in an urban area, run by a core management without a membership base (unlike Amnesty International), and dependent solely on overseas funding. The most successful of these organizations only manage to achieve the equivalent status of a public policy think-tank, a research institute, or a specialized publishing house. With media-driven visibility and a lifestyle to match, the leaders of these initiatives enjoy privilege and comfort, and progressively grow distant from a life of struggle.

In the absence of a membership base, there is no constituency-driven obligation or framework for popularizing the language or objectives of the group beyond the community of inward-looking professionals or careerists who run it. Instead of being the currency of a social justice or conscience-driven movement, “human rights” has increasingly become the specialized language of a select professional cadre with its own rites of passage and methods of certification. Far from being a badge of honor, human rights activism is, in some of the places I have observed it, increasingly a certificate of privilege.

Part of the responsibility for this sad state of affairs lies with the overseas sponsors of our human rights organizations. Unlike the groups they support, donor agencies and philanthropies that fund human rights work are accountable to their trust deeds and the laws of the countries (in the North) where they are incorporated. While exhorting national human rights groups in Africa to think globally and act locally, these agencies think locally and act globally. With overseas donors as sources of reference and accountability, the only obligations local human rights groups have are reporting requirements arising under grant contracts where these exist. The raison d’être of the African human rights movement is primarily to fulfill such contracts rather than to service a social obligation or constituency. Local human rights groups exist to please the international agencies that fund or support them. Local problems are only defined as potential pots of project cash, not as human experiences to be resolved in just terms, thereby delegitimizing human rights language and robbing its ideas of popular appeal.

All this is not to say that we should do away with the norms of human rights or with groups that purport to promote or defend them. Human rights norms articulate values that are truly universal and essential. There is a distinction, however, between human rights norms and human rights institutions, which, as organizations of human beings, are necessarily imperfect. In an ideal world, we can envisage human rights norms without taking account of the deficiencies of the groups that promote them. But no such world exists.

Human rights organizations are probably here to stay with their imperfections. But they can do well to adopt the strategies and values of the successful social justice movements of the past, such as popular mobilization and inclusivity. People will struggle for their rights whether or not the language of human rights is accessible to them. But they will not build their struggle around the notion of human rights unless that language and those who wish to popularize it speak directly to their aspirations and survival.

You may also like

A Dangerous Master book cover. CREDIT: Sentient Publications.

APR 18, 2024 Article

A Dangerous Master: Welcome to the World of Emerging Technologies

In this preface to the paperback edition of his book "A Dangerous Master," Wendell Wallach discusses breakthroughs and ethical issues in AI and emerging technologies.

APR 11, 2024 Podcast

The Ubiquity of An Aging Global Elite, with Jon Emont

"Wall Street Journal" reporter Jon Emont joins "The Doorstep" to discuss the systems and structures that keep aging leaders in power in autocracies and democracies.

APR 9, 2024 Video

Algorithms of War: The Use of AI in Armed Conflict

From Gaza to Ukraine, the military applications of AI are fundamentally reshaping the ethics of war. How should policymakers navigate AI’s inherent trade-offs?

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation