Today’s Challenges To Human Rights In Africa

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Wednesday, 19 July 2017 502 Views 0 Comments
Today’s Challenges To Human Rights In Africa

The renown American Human Rights author Michael Ignatieff, noted that much of the debate surrounding the concept of human rights took root in, what he calls, the “juridical revolution” which he argues is comprised of key treaties and charters. This all began with the UN Charter of 1945 which outlawed aggressive wars between nation states. The Genocide Convention of 1948 followed and allocated protections for religious freedoms and genocide. The revolution continued with the strengthening of noncombatant immunity through the revision of the Geneva Convention of 1949. Two years later the International Convention on Asylum (1951) protected the rights of refugees. Ignatieff argues that the back bone to this “juridical revolution” came with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948) where for the first time the rights and dignity of the individual received international legal recognition (Ignatieff, 2000).

It is worthy to note that when all these international agreements on Human Rights were taking place, most African states were still subjected to colonialism. Many of these countries in Africa gained their independence in the 1960s. African freedom fighters based their arguments for independence on the basis of Human Rights and even after their independence, they embraced these Human Rights laws and signed international treaties to protect them within their countries.

African leaders argued for what is commonly called African socialism which resembles precolonial Africa. African socialism is quite different from the style of government developed under colonialism and many African leaders believe it is the answer to the stratification that colonial rule caused and exacerbated. Stratification is easily seen in tribalism, border disputes and deep economic divisions. The concept of socialism as the answer was later criticized by El-Obaid and Appiagyei-Atua (1996) in their work Human Rights in Africa -A New Perspective on Linking the Past to the Present. The authors argued that socialism “…presented the myth of an idealized, conflict-free traditional society (Merrie Africa) and blamed the colonizers for disrupting this paradise.” Looking at the history of the continent we can conclude that this emphasis on Human Rights and African authenticity was as Wiredu would put it “merely political slogans.” In addition, the socialists’ contention of a conflict free precolonial society can be seen as a wishful thinking as precolonial Africa was characterized by the slave trade, the abuse of handicapped persons, the albinos, the killing of twins in many cultures, the abuse of woman, and capital punishment was used in many societies to deal with criminals.
As newcomers into the international scene, African states have made endeavors to promote Human Rights in Africa and the first endeavor was the adoption of the June 27th, 1981 African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. This charter represents the African view on human rights. Though many African states are not yet signatories the charter represents a great heritage to the struggle for African Human Rights.

Western liberal thinkers are of the opinion that most of the obstacles facing the Human Rights Movement are from Africa and Asia, however the fact that gross human rights violations have been recorded in Africa, doesn’t warrant the conclusion that Africa is an obstacle to Human Rights. We need to also acknowledge the efforts being made to rectify Human Rights situation in the continent and we also have to take note of the history of the continent.

Many Africans lost their lives in the struggle for independence, and today many civil society leaders and Human Rights activists are trying to make Human Rights a reality for the Africans. The military in Africa was designed by the colonial masters to serve and protect their interests and even after independence the military serves and protect the interests of whoever is in power with little regards for the civilian population making violation easy. Militarism has remained the highest cause of human rights violation in Africa. Militarism which in this case represent a negative factor needs to be addressed and avoided by all means since we have seen the crimes against humanity perpetrated in Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, all pushed forward by the dominant ideologies of militarism. El-Obaid and Appiagyei-Atua (1996), listed three different forms of militarism, and the first is state terrorism which is mostly directed to the opposition of the ruling elite which in most cases leads to what is commonly called African holocaust, the second is militarism which take its roots in ethnic conflicts with high dead tolls like in Sudan, Somalia, Kenya etc., and lastly militarism which take pastoralists and religious fundamentalism as its starting point has left many Human Rights violation in the continent.
When talking about Human Rights in African, many scholars focus on Civil and Political Rights forgetting that Economic, Social and Cultural (ESC) rights are very important for the African people. Looking at the living standards in most countries am forced to conclude that if ESC rights are enforced, they lay the foundation for the implementation of Civil and Political Rights. It is in this same light of the prioritization of Civil and Political Rights that most scholars on Africa Human Rights believe that Africans don’t usually separate these two rights but regard them as a single entity. The growing population in the continent has lead to pressure on resource, low living standards in many African countries, the ever increasing gape between the rich and the poor, lack of economic resources to sustain the people has created room for Human Rights violations or political strife in the continent.

Africa is a rich continent with a lot of resources but unfortunately, Africa is the most underdeveloped continent in the world having the greatest rates of poverty. The minerals that are in Africa are exploited by Western multinational companies, leaving the Africans with nothing. In certain situations, these companies have left  Africans  with diseases due to toxic waste as was the case in Ivory Coast where the European multinational oil trader Trafigura dumped toxic waste in the port of Abidjan near a farming area and also lead poisoning in the Owino Uhuru slum in Mombasa Kenya. In all these instances many people lost their lives and their livelihood and all the companies could do was to compensate the victims and their families financially. What is money compared to human life?

The history of the continent has pushed many to be skeptical on the discussion of Human Rights. Many freedom fighters like Lumumba of DRC, Sankara of Burkina Faso lost their lives because of their believes. These circumstances of the past have pushed many to conclude that Human Rights are a widow dressing by the West to manipulate the Africans. Today we have so many local non governmental Human Rights organizations working in African, but since these organizations receive their funding from the west, they turn to push certain Human Rights agendas that make no meaning to the African personality. Dr. Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem (2005), noted that “the human rights discourse needs to be rescued from Eurocentrism and manipulation by Western governments”. This is evident as many of our local NGO’s focus on international documents with little knowledge of local documents on Human Rights like the African Charter on Human Rights.

This lack of connection between the Human Rights movements and the culture of the people remains a stumbling block to Human Rights  in African. Making Human Rights norms universally acceptable remains a big challenge that’s why Michael Iqnatieff noted that “When talking of the universalism of human rights does not mean that everyone must accept these rights, but what matters here is that those making claims to human right protection are the victims themselves” (Iqnatieff, 2000). It is for this same reason that when considering the implementation of Human Rights, the culture of the people should be considered, and taking their history into consideration. A good example will be the imposition of gay rights to countries which consider gay or lesbian’s as abnormal relationships thus the opinions of these states must be respected, if not the people will tend to perceive Human Rights as impositions.

Africans have come a long way since their independence, and there is still a long way to go. America which many look up to as the mother of democracy and a strong supporter of the human rights movement, took 90 years to get rid of slavery, and 150 years to give women the rights to vote. African countries are still in their 50’s and there is a lot of work going on and African activists more than before are united under a common umbrella “respect for human rights”.

In conclusion as Michael Ignatieff, rightly pointed out Human Rights faces challenges today because of the highly exclusionary nature of its treaties. The cure is the process must become inclusive. What Africans need is a Human Rights process that is close to being more universal. For these rights to make meaning to the Africans, there is need for all the nation-states to be committed to the ideal of an inter-cultural dialogue in which all parties come to the table under common expectations of being treated as moral equals. Africans states are not against Human Rights, rather African states are against those rights that do not make meaning to the culture and tradition of the people which are being imposed on them disguised in the name of Human Rights. The phenomenon of applying double standards to in the fight to promote Human Rights in Africa weakens the whole process. Some leaders in Africa kill their own people like Paul Biya of Cameroon and Kabila of DRC and they go free with these crimes while others are taken to ICC. All these double standards in the Human Rights regime weakens many leaders in Africa resolve to fight against violators.

For the Human Rights Regime to become the centerpiece of global governance, as envisioned by some of its proponents, states would need to transfer much more loyalty, power, and authority to the Human Rights Regime so that it could control more of its surroundings rather than the reverse. But such a radical change is still distant. Many African states were not altogether happy with Western powers who hide under the umbrella of human rights to control their internal affairs. It is therefore imperative for the Human Rights Regime to fight for inclusion of all stakeholders in Human Rights agendas, fight against the application of double standards, and fight for the consideration of the history and culture of the people. If these prescriptions are not taken into account, then the implementation of Human Rights in Africa will always be superficial and unenforced.

Gerald Acho

Cameroon. I am a Masters Student of Peace Studies and International Relations at HIPSIR Nairobi Kenya. Given the precarious security condition in many African countries, I am driven by the desire to make Africa and the World a better place through analyzing policies and making recommendations. I enjoy being around like minded friends with whom we can make constructive arguments. I love watching movies, reading, and adventure.

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