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?