Enforcing Human Rights Instruments To Change Africans’ Lives

With or without instruments, respect of human rights can and should normally improve the wellbeing of Africans in their respective African countries and in the Diaspora.’ Simple common sense dictates not doing to others what we wouldn’t want them to do to us. But unfortunately, as history of humankind has widely shown, humans have behaved repeatedly towards their peers more cruelly than animals would do to theirs.

The United Nations, specialised agencies, countries individually, between themselves and or as groups, professions, have many years, devised instruments and frameworks to ensure humans have equal rights and responsibilities towards each other and their immediate and faraway surroundings, for the good of everyone and everything. But instruments of human rights should not be an end in themselves. Where there are efficient mechanisms of enforcement, they make a real difference.  Consequently, the key issue in respecting human rights is on how to get those breaching or ignoring them made to account, or raise awareness about them to make their breach difficult. At some extent, absence or abuse of human rights does not require instruments to be noticeable.

There are atrocious cases of human rights breach across Africa and in other parts of the world where history has taken Africans, which are appalling when one is made aware of them. The way these cases are reported in mainstream media constitute another concern. Most of the time, facts are intentionally distorted to perpetuate a portrayal of a negative picture about Africans and their continent, and thus creates the basis for different sorts of discrimination. The same goes for Western NGOs working in the field of human rights which are apparently interested more in their paycheques and interests of their funders than real issues on the ground. Modification of the landscape of human rights regarding Africans back home and in the Diaspora is an imperative and there shouldn’t be major huddles in achieving it.

Prevailing situation of human rights as it affects Africans back home and in the Diaspora demands a radical change. How do we make that change happen? That’s the big question. From a practical perspective, there are across time and space, examples of approaches which have achieved great results. But the challenges are enormous as they are compounded by existing conditions that Africans experience continually and generally. Making the change can bring the difference we all want. Nobody else is more interested in that happening than Africans. Consequently, it is up to Africans to get their sleeves up and focus with necessary determination on that noble vision

1. Human rights instruments

UN Charter on fundamental human rights, treaties, declarations, resolutions, directives on national level, between groups of nations, etc exist to protect individuals against perpetrators of offences in that area. Culprits can be individuals, organisations/ businesses or governments.

Depending on the level of development of countries, political openness, cultural influences and settings, human rights are valued differently. For example, this explains partially and variably cases of absence of human rights for Africans in the Diaspora and those back home. In the same line of thoughts, enforcement of instruments is function of the local context.

All developed countries are signatories of major instruments of human rights which at least guarantee decent treatments of any human being. Anywhere we observe mistreatment, or discrimination of different types, it is not because there are no treaties, declarations or resolutions, national or international which should protect individuals. Therefore, noticeable breaches find their justification/explanation elsewhere.

Most Africa countries are as well parties to most international treaties, resolutions, and directives on human rights. Few exceptions which are not exhaustive include for example Morocco which is not signatory of African Union charter, also Rwanda not party to International Criminal Court declaration. Generally, levels of enforcement of human rights instruments are so lamentable that in some African countries the motives behind signing these normally binding agreements become questionable.

2. Modification of the landscape

Typical cases of abuses of human rights include

  • Politicians, activists and journalists intimidated, harassed, or imprisoned across Africa by their governments
  • Dumping of nuclear wastes on African coasts (Somalia, Ivory Coast, etc)
  • Mistreatment of migrants trying to come to/ or settle in Europe or being deported
  • Destruction of natural habitat of indigenous people in the quest of minerals and other riches without alternatives to the destroyed environment or proper compensation of displaced populations (for example Ogonis in Nigeria)
  • Discrimination in education, employment, housing, access to credit, judiciary, health, security and safety, both in Africa and the Diaspora
  • Etc

In the Diaspora, landscape for human rights is dominated if not exclusively determined by Western founded and supported NGOs. In most cases, they are agents of governments in implementing national policies in that sector. African NGOs which focus specifically on human rights are rare and generally lack funding, and are consequently often ineffective in their intentions.

The academic sector is another area where human rights of Africans either in the Diaspora or in Africa are assessed. The same bias related to sources of funding makes researchers to be less objective as they don’t stick to the facts but become selective in their analyses and recommendations in order not to close unwillingly their sources of funding.

General xenophobia and ignorance from particular categories of Western populations explain partially discrimination and marginalisation of Africans in the Diaspora. Though human rights instruments exist and are enforceable if handled expertly, ignorance on the part of victims seems to be the major huddle to overcome. For example, such context is at the origin of not being able to exercise particularly political and economic rights. Though more is needed under this aspect, namely things like structures for uniting Afro Europeans on country levels, there seems to be a big challenge to overcome to access those specific rights.

In Africa, political leaders appear not to believe in what they commit their governments into when signing human rights instruments. There is equally plenty of evidence showing that external influences are at play and are drivers of non enforcement. The context makes thinking of some African leaders as mercenaries not interested in the wellbeing of their people.

On the generally grim picture of human rights on the Africa continent, Mo Ibrahim Index seems to become a new standard in measuring relatively and objectively the following rights: property rights, safety of the person, human rights, political rights, workers’ rights, freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly, press freedom and civil liberties. The measurement is providing annual data on what is happening on the ground, and who is for example scoring better than others on a range of socio, economic parameters.

Two cases of serious breach of political rights worth mentioning relate to Ms Birtukan Mideska, the Ethiopian woman lawyer politician, who was released from prison on October 6th, 2010, after two years of imprisonment, and Victoire Ingabire, the Rwandan woman political leader, who is in prison since October 14th, 2010. Both have been imprisoned for having challenged incumbent authorities in Ethiopia and Rwanda. These two women, not only should we consider them as the new African heroes, but should we also campaign together for full exercise of their political rights and  unconditional release for the one still in prison.

3. Making the change

At the example of the fathers of African independence, we Africans need to realise that it is our determined responsibility to make the necessary change to get ourselves respected wherever we are: by our hosts in the Diaspora and by our political leaders back home. Human rights are at great extent about seeing others as equals, and not as different thus worth being looked upon down and therefore treated in a discriminatory manner.

  • Determination for change must be the key. It is that determination which will demand from us selfless sacrifices to make things happen.
  • Mastering the narrative about our human rights cases in the Diaspora and back home by supporting those among us who can tell the story more objectively

‘Until the lions will have their own historians, the story of the hunt will only glorify the hunter.’ African proverb

Africans need to be equipped and able to source the facts about human rights as their abuse affect them, then report about the findings in their own wording and sensibility without having to be sensitive to the employer, who is paying the bill, but in relation to the real facts on the ground.

Mo Ibrahim Foundation work is commendable in the sense it is founded on African grounds with the initiative of a great African.

  • Organising ourselves (for example under Afro Europeans banner) once we agree on the necessity of making that change we want to see happening; fundraising for our actions/ interventions; being creative and innovative in terms of approaches; working on unity of action; using diverse tools (social networking on internet, talk shows and debating on radio and television, etc)
  • Challenging the hypocrisy of Western governments when they continue working with abusers of human rights while there are human rights treaties between parties
  • Working with agents of change (civil society, political parties) to promote good governance through democratically elected institutions, counter-balance any abuse of power from politicians and the executive apparatus, promote education and objective information for African citizens.
  • Giving priority to working with young leaders as agents for change; for example the group of young African leaders which met with Barack Obama in July 2010 should be a model to replicate for enforcing respect of human rights.
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