Saturday, February 12, 2011

Lessons from Haiti and Egypt

Our discussion on Tuesday reminded me of an article I had read a few years ago called “Why More Africans Don’t Use Human Rights Language,” by Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, a lawyer an human rights activist from Nigeria. Surprisingly, as the title of the article may suggest, it’s not an argument for cultural or moral relativism.

“Human rights norms articulate values that are truly universal and essential. There is a distinction, however, between human rights norms and human rights institutions, which, as organizations of human beings, are necessarily imperfect,” Odinkalu writes.

According to the article, the problem with the current human rights paradigm is essentially two-fold. Citizens need more than the UDHR to assert their rights, especially when facing corrupt regimes. Secondly, international human rights organizations are too distanced from experiences on-the-ground to effectively mobilize a local membership base. Even organizations working directly in communities are detached in the sense that they typically depend on grant funding or support from countries abroad, leading these organizations to be more accountable to people thousands of miles away than to the individuals whose rights they strive to defend.

Odinkalu argues that “instead of being the currency of a social justice or conscience-driven movement, “human rights” has increasingly become the specialized language of a select professional cadre...” However, recent events in Egypt and Haiti suggest that this claim may be as strong as it was when Odinkalu wrote the article back in 1999.

Mass protests in Egypt over the past couple weeks led Mubarak to resign recently. In Haiti this January, the government raised charges of human rights violations against Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. During “Baby Doc’s” presidency from 1971-1986 and his father’s rule preceding, the Duvaliers called for an estimated twenty to thirty thousand murders of Haitians. After almost 25 years in exile, Duvalier returned to Haiti in January for the first time, promptly charged with embezzlement and numerous torture allegations from former prisoners. Ordinary citizens worldwide are calling on human rights discourse, unlike what Odinkalu asserts in 1999. Uprisings in Egypt and prosecution in Haiti did not emerge from an outside force, but from within the country.

What do you think the Egyptian protests mean in the context of the human rights movement? Do the events in Egypt, Tunisia, and Haiti reflect a growing universal resonance of human rights discourse and action? Is Odinkalu’s argument that human rights is a “specialized language of a select professional cadre” still relevant?


  1. Great post, Shannon! After reading about the movements in Egypt , Tunisia, and Haiti, the pattern of intra-national uprisings seems to be one of the most effective way to bring about a change in any human rights violations. The people of a country have to understand they are being mistreated and want a change themselves. The UN committee cannot simply go into a country and try to change the scene based on the UNHR. The UNHR is a powerful leap in the history of human rights but it is not yet universally implemented throughout the world even if the theory behind it is written on paper. This is to say, that the oppressive practices of the political party or leader in any country can truly be eliminated by his own people. A dictator only rules through oppressing his people; the essential concept of oppression that makes a oppressor an actual dictator is eliminated, the moment the people fight back and refuse to be oppressed. To address your second question, the fact that all these different countries are fighting for their human rights might show that there is a sort of universalizing in terms of the understanding of “human rights discourse and action.” All those countries are standing up for their individual beliefs based on their own culture but their unique situations are essentially, universally relatable to one another’s experience of human rights violations.

  2. This was a really interesting post. I've been following and studying the events happening in Haiti in my french classes since Freshman year, and have been closely following the recent events transpiring there, such as Duvalier's return to the country. I think that Haiti necessarily must take action against Duvalier for the destruction and pain he cause towards the country, but it was interesting to learn that many of the current citizens are ambivalent towards the former dictator's return and charges. Apparently many of them feel as if, since it was so long ago, they no longer have a responsibility to make him face the consequences of his actions. This unnerved me, as I think repercussions should be had due to the many lives that he and his regime, the Ton Ton Macoutes, claimed. It was interesting to learn that these people were so quick to brush off the human rights violations that had occurred a few generations before them. I feel that people should be more concerned with these violations and bringing them to justice. Sorry I went on a tangent there, it just got me thinking. Great post!


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