Vol. 1, No. 1 (March, 1991), pp. 1-4
HUMAN RIGHTS IN AFRICA: CROSS-CULTURAL PERSPECTIVES by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Nacim and Francis M. Deng (Editors). Washington: The Brookings Institution, 1990. 339 pp. Cloth $24.35. Paper $12.95.
Reviewed by Matthew Lippman, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Illinois at Chicago.
Following World War II, the Allied Powers were determined to prevent a repetition of the atrocities and barbarities perpetrated by the Third Reich. The United Nations Charter enthroned the protection of human rights as a fundamental purpose of the organization. One of the fledgling United Nations' first acts was the drafting of the non-binding Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was proclaimed as a "common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations." The Universal Declaration was followed by the adoption of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and by the passage in 1966 of two implementing covenants. The United Nations now has accepted over fifty multilateral human rights instruments. International and regional human rights systems and procedures also have been developed and a myriad of national non-governmental human rights organizations have been formed. The protection of human rights has been indisputably established as being of international legal concern and no longer as a matter which States' may credibly claim to be exclusively within their domestic jurisdiction.
Human rights research has lagged behind these advancements and remains at an inchoate stage of development. Initially, the field was the exclusive preserve of international lawyers who devoted themselves to describing substantive human rights protections and procedures. During the second phase, the focus was on proposals for new rights, such as the collective right to peace. Human rights research recently entered a third phase and has become the concern of scholars in fields ranging from literature to psychology. Social scientists have begun to devote their efforts to conceptual issues and to empirical studies of human rights implementation. The early work defining the nature of human rights and the role of human rights in foreign policy also has been refined and extended. Nevertheless, the field remains characterized by uneven and fragmented scholarship and generally suffers from an overly topical and journalistic emphasis. There is a paucity of solid scholarship, and the igniting of academic interest in human rights has resulted in a scholarly whimper rather than in the
anticipated bang. HUMAN RIGHTS IN AFRICA: CROSS-CULTURAL PERSPECTIVES edited by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Nacim and Francis M. Deng is representative of the third phase in human rights research. It challenges the contention that international human rights documents and claims reflect western ethnocentrism. A persistent thread in the fabric of discussions covering human rights has been the objection that the notion and definition of human rights is the product of a western, capitalistic and democratic, secular ideology (critics typically select one or more of these adjectives from this shopping list of objections). It is pointed out that the
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the core human rights documents were drafted at a time when the United Nations was comprised of roughly fifty, mostly industrialized nation-states. Today, the organization has tripled in size. This increase in membership largely is due to the admission of former colonial territories in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. It is alleged that the foundation human rights documents reflect the bias of the original member-states and that such rights have limited relevance to the developing world. This argument is an amalgam of a variety of cultural and ideological claims: (1) existing international human rights documents emphasize individual at the expense of communitarian rights; (2) secular human rights may not take precedence over divinely inspired patterns of social organization; (3) states should not be expected to guarantee civil and political rights until they achieve economic development; and (4) only certain core human rights pertaining to the right to life can claim cross-cultural legitimacy. These four multifarious claims often are animated by an anti-colonial animus -- a view that human rights merely are another imperialist effort to impose alien values on what are arrogantly viewed as the benighted denizens of the developing world.
The fourteen diverse essays in the An-Nacim and Deng volume reject this multicultural perspective on rights (which is pejoratively characterized as cultural relativism) and adopt a monist view. The authors variously point out that, in general, only the remnants of coherent traditional cultures remain and that the world is increasingly becoming one vast uniform urbanized marketplace. The African reality is not dissimilar from that faced by peoples in North America and Europe.
The Wiredu and Deng essays document that the notion of rights is not alien to Africa. Traditional African cultures embodied limited human rights norms which are similar to many of those contained in the allegedly imperialist-inspired international documents. The imperialist claim merely is thought to obfuscate the central issue; in this new world order human rights are threatened and require protection from state repression. Anti-imperialist and fundamentalist rhetoric often merely masks an effort to legitimize such repression. Virginia A. Leary points out that the charge that contemporary human rights are a product of western interests overlooks the fact that most recent documents, such as those providing for self-determination for colonial peoples and the right to development, reflect the interests of the third world. The central question addressed in essays by An-Nacim and James Silk, is how to gain global legitimacy for the idea of human rights. The next step would be the transformation of those remaining cultural practices which inhibit the realization of universal human rights and to move towards the humanitarian global culture described by Richard D. Schwartz in his concluding contribution.
The various authors in this volume focus on a central contemporary global and domestic issue -- the tension between ethnocentrism and globalization. As the Salman Rushdie controversy suggests, there are profound cultural divisions in the
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world. The book, however, is disappointing. These are conference papers and few are sufficiently original,penetrating or rigorous to merit independent publication. The reader is required to plow through an overly long, repetitious, and disjointed set of essays in order to reap the harvest of a few perceptive insights. At a conference, the discussion period often provides the type of organizing themes and coherence which this collection so desperately requires. In addition, it was unfortunate that the editors did not include contributions or rejoinders by the scholars whose views are being subjected to examination and criticism. The volume also requires some concrete examples and analyses of the abstract, conceptual issues discussed in the essays. For instance, it is not clear which human rights claims are thought to conflict with existing and widespread African cultural patterns. To what extent does the colloquy concerning human rights in Africa involve a symbolic struggle between the representatives of the developed and developing world rather than a debate over the substantive protection of human rights?
In the end, the underlying themes propelling the book demand a more sophisticated and coherent treatment. The difficulty of achieving a single standard of human rights in a pluralistic society or world, and the tension between nationalism and globalism each are grist for the mill of an ambitious author. Based upon the volume's somewhat deceptive title, the reader also justifiably anticipates discussion of topics such as AIDS, the right to food and development, the rights of women and ethnic minorities, refugees, slavery, apartheid, democratic procedures, state and guerilla terrorism, comparative human rights protections in Africa and the establishment of an African human rights charter and court. However, it should be noted that the issues of state repression and democratic participation are given limited descriptive coverage in the chapters by Claude E. Welch Jr. and James C. N. Paul. Africanists likely will be disappointed by the fact that most of the essays adopt a broad conceptual perspective and only vaguely touch on contemporary Africa. Of course, it nay have been overly ambitious to aspire to encompass the African reality in a single volume.
Few of the essays grapple with the complexity of the cultural issue. Many controversial practices are part of an intricate web of social relationships and traditions and have compelling societal rationales. These practices often are voluntarily entered into by the participants and have significant symbolic import. The western alternative also invariably has limited appeal. A particular social practice, as a rule, cannot glibly be condemned as violative of human rights. International human rights guarantees usually are fairly broadly phrased, subject to qualifying conditions and open to interpretation. Both the Islamic world and the United States, for instance, stand together against most of the globe in credibly insisting that the death penalty does not constitute cruel punishment. The essayists also pay scant attention to the fact that the West, like the developing world, has claimed ideological exemption from
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adherence to human rights guarantees. The United States, based upon its First Amendment tradition, remains one of the few countries to resist the human rights provision limiting racist and bigoted speech. It also has refused to recognize the legitimacy of social and economic rights, such as the right to work, food and shelter.
Despite these admonitions, the book is sufficiently unique and compelling in its subject matter to merit scholarly attention. It is a significant multi-disciplinary analysis of a central human rights issue in one region of the world. There is little doubt that it will be a standard citation for academics in the area of human rights. Although lacking a bibliography, the volume provides relatively full citation to the relevant literature. The essay by Washington attorney James Silk is particularly valuable in this regard. The contributions by human rights stalwarts Jack Donnelly and Rhoda E. Howard are the most original, stimulating and valuable essays. Donnelly reinterprets Lockean liberalism to accommodate collective claims while Howard launches an effective frontal assault on the African defense of cultural relativism. The Tibi and Mayer pieces on Islamic law and tradition are undistinguished but solid contributions to the burgeoning literature or human rights in Muslim societies.