We mark the end of the 16 Days of Activism with the commemoration of Human Rights Day today. This year’s commemorations of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are running under the theme “Our Rights. Our Freedoms. Always” which makes me reflect on whose rights we’re recognising. Who counts as “our” – or more specifically whose claims to personhood are African state parties willing to recognise as authentic?
The idea of human rights occupies a bit of a grey space in African institutions, partly as a product of the fact that when the components of the International Bill of Human Rights was being drafted, they didn’t have black [African] bodies in mind. On one hand, our post-independence states have signed and created various international legal obligations ostensibly to protect the human rights of African citizens.
Indeed, Africa’s development blueprint, Agenda 2063, commits to respecting human rights under Aspiration 3, with an ‘entrenched and flourishing culture of human rights’ being recognised as an important part of achieving a peaceful and secure Africa under Aspiration 4. On paper, at least, African citizens are en route to enjoying the full spectrum of human rights, thanks to the establishment of clear enforcement mechanisms to deter human rights violations.
On the other hand, the phrase “human rights” is sometimes flung about by our leaders with distaste and suspicion – with the push for human rights being regarded as yet another tool for western neo-imperialism, surveillance and bullying. In this framing of the concept of human rights, they are something to be regarded with some suspicion and derision; particularly when marginalised members of our societies, whom we have grown accustomed to oppressing, use human rights language. Then, especially, we seem to retreat behind a monolithic construction of African identity that seems to thrive on homogeneity, the entrenchment of prejudicial behaviours and the active denial of the human rights of all African citizens through a narrative that posits that only some are worthy/ true Africans who should be afforded the protections of the state.
Who gets to be classified as human?
The question of who gets to be human isn’t one to skirt over, because if we fail to recognise the fundamental dignity of some members of our society, we will not be concerned if they do not manage to access public goods. We will not care that they do not have access to what we consider the basics for a decent life – shelter, water, food, healthcare – and we will not care that their freedoms of association, conscience, speech are being infringed upon, or that they – or their representatives – are being persecuted for their various forms of advocacy and activism. Human rights are only applicable to persons we recognise as human which is something that we have seen historically as well. It is for this reason that the United Nations General Assembly could, in 1948, adopt the universal declaration of human rights without a sense of irony as black and brown bodies continued to groan under the shackles of western Imperialism.
As Africa pushes its development agenda, we need to honestly confront the fact that our societies are painfully patriarchal, and that sexism, homophobia, transphobia and classism are becoming normalised components of our oppressive systems. We also need to recognise that at the end of the day, respect for human rights must not be a performance for an external audience for the sake of appearing to be “more civilised” or to be “better blacks” but that rather, it has to be an exercise in recognizing the dignity of all Africans.
The basics cannot continue to be contentious; for instance, the recognition that women’s rights are human rights because women are people. We must recognise that queer lives matter and that our various states have an obligation to protect all citizens. The “our” in “our rights” cannot continue to refer solely to well-off, straight, cis men leveraging power afforded them by patriarchy to write off the recognition of basic human rights of persons with diverse identities and diverse needs as an attempt to construct “new” and superfluous rights.
All Africans deserve to have their human rights protected.
This article is part of a series for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence, which Her Zimbabwe is coordinating in partnership with Urgent Action Fund Africa. It was originally published here. Main image is shared from www.itsaboutpeople.co.za.