Monday, December 17, 2007

The present and future of human rights in Africa

Helen Kilbey of recently sat down with Secretary-General of Amnesty International Irene Khan. The discussion, posted here, touched upon the issues of human rights in Zimbabwe, the international growth of human rights and the international community’s renewed interest in Africa, and what it means to political institutions on the continent.

Here are a few excerpts.

Do you think Africa as a whole is improving in terms of respecting human rights?

There is a greater consciousness on the side of civil society about human rights, and people are mobilising themselves, people are organising themselves. We see fantastic women, women's groups, even in countries like Zimbabwe, where they are under so much pressure – we see them take courageous stands, speak out, stand up and push the agenda for change. This is a remarkable story of human rights. I think human rights actually has a positive future in Africa because the people of Africa are making the story of human rights their story.

So you think it comes from the bottom up?

I think human rights is about grassroots-up today. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written by governments, signed by governments, but today it's being signed by people, because it's people's endeavour that will bring about change. We've seen what governments have done, we know that if we don't keep the pressure on government, if we don't hold government's political leaders to account, things will not move. So people must grab that agenda, must claim the rights as their own.

It's sometimes argued that Western norms of constitutional rule often stand at odds to traditional African values – the traditional value of respect for one's elders is used to justify curbing people's right to freedom of expression, for example; or what the Western world sees as corruption could be seen as being, rather, an expression of the African value of giving or sharing. What is your position on these arguments?

I think that human rights are not the domain of any one civilisation. They are drawn from common values of justice, of equality, of respect for each other. The notion of human rights – including in the 1948 Universal Declaration – includes also the notion of duties; duties that lie with governments but also with other organs of society such as companies or leaders of society or even individuals. So yes, there is a duty on us to ensure that we protect the rights of others – in that sense I think that human rights also contain African values.

But this issue of cultural values is abused in many different societies in many different parts of the world to allow exploitation. No cultural value should be abused to perpetuate exploitation. Corruption, poor governance, misuse/abuse of power, is not a cultural value. It is no more a cultural value of Africa than it is of Europe or the Americas or Asia. I believe that those who use those arguments to perpetuate abuse and exploitation are using them wrongly.

I do think that African culture has a lot to contribute to the debate about human rights – how the strong must take care of the weak; how you must work together to make a difference; these are very much African values that need, in fact, to be injected more into international debates on human rights.

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