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Human rights: the global expansion

Southern populations and activists don’t need leadership from northern human rights organizations. Instead, northern groups should support the most deprived southern populations in their own efforts to hold their leadership accountable. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Emerging Powers and Human Rights.

Stanley Ibe
18 November 2013

British critic Stephen Hopgood writes that the “global human rights model” is a “top-down, western-led model of activism,” and argues instead for “a new and more political, transnational, agile and adaptable kind of movement.” In doing so however, he fails to acknowledge that this “global” model is not really global at all. Instead, it’s just northern.

Indeed, the entire notion of the ‘global south’ somehow needing northern help to challenge state tyranny relies on dated and questionable assumptions. First, it assumes the global south cannot extricate itself from the tyranny of the state on its own. More fundamentally, it suggests the global south somehow requires leadership from northern human rights groups to induce change.

The global south - and here I focus on Africa - is neither averse nor new to human rights struggles. After all, the battle to rid Africa of colonialism predated the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was led mostly by Africans, with and without northern support. And need I remind readers that the north was a direct perpetrator and beneficiary of colonialism? Africans also led the Republic of South Africa out of apartheid, albeit with some help from the international community. These successful struggles, amongst many others, cast doubt upon the entire notion of “northern leadership” being required to resolve southern problems.

Both Hopgood and others are right in arguing there is no singular global human rights movement. I disagree, however, with Hopgood’s argument that the “zenith of human rights came in the years 1977 to 2008, years of growing American unipolarity.” This claim simply rekindles the question, what are human rights? Do elites, masses, or western scholars define them? Do ‘rights’ mean the same thing to a company executive in Silicon Valley and to peasant farmers in Umuhu Okabia, Nigeria, or Mangochi district, Malawi?

Clearly, they do not.

For the Silicon Valley executive, unfair labor practices may be an issue, but he/she is not challenged each day by the struggle for sufficient food, clothing and shelter. Yet these are precisely the struggles people living in Umuhu Okabia or Mangochi must engage at all times. It stands to reason, therefore, that the “zenith of human rights” cannot be identical for each. Indeed, neither the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a great thing, nor the UN’s Vienna Declaration on Human Rights make sense to African peasants if they do not enjoy regular access to the basic means of survival.

To be sure, Africa did borrow from the International Convention on the Rights of the Child’s in designing its own Children’s Charter, which creates a unique African Committee on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. Africa, like any region of the world, does sometimes learn from outsiders.

Africa also makes many of its own unique contributions, including the important concept of “peoples’ rights.” Since African societies are built on the extended family system, Africans are easily inclined to accept the importance of both collective and individual rights. Unlike northern human rights actors, African activists recognize that some things, such as ancestral lands and burial grounds, belong exclusively to a collective. It is difficult, if not impossible, to translocate this idea to the north. People are different and unique in their diversities.

It is a mistake, therefore, to ask whether northern organizations can become truly global. Instead, I prefer to ask, “Should northern organizations even aspire to global status?” Is this aspiration realistic, and does anyone agree what global really means?

In recent years, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other major rights groups from the north have tried to expand their headquarters, advocacy and policy impact into the capitals of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. I have no quarrel with the notion of northern human rights organizations enlarging their spheres of authority and influence. They should, however, re-examine their motives. If northern rights groups want to expand southwards, they should do so in a way that supports existing human rights efforts and capacities, rather than trying to supplant them.

As the Snowden debacle eloquently demonstrates, challenges of reporting abuses and triggering state anger is not peculiar to the global south. Exercising free speech can also be dangerous in the north. Local activists in the south report on abuses when they can, despite the attendant risks.  When they report, northern organizations need to ensure they report in a way that reflects local peculiarities and does not endanger their sources. 

I wish I could agree with Hopgood’s claim that the “best hope for human rights may lie in the growing professional middle class in the BRICS and other states like Indonesia.” The reality is somewhat different. It is not the middle class that will help advance human rights in the global south, but those at the bottom of the social and political ladder. Indeed, the best way to advance human rights in Africa and elsewhere in the south is to empower deprived individuals and groups, and support them in their own efforts to hold their leadership accountable.

When these individuals are fully persuaded of the necessity for change and are accordingly mobilized, it’s only a matter of time before they confront and overcome the challenges within the environment they operate.  

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