Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) was adopted when most states in
Africa were still colonised. To what extent does this affect its legitimacy
The concept of human rights which first
appeared on international agenda in 1945 with the declaration of the United
Nations charter “sought to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the
dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and
of nations large and small”. This comments looks at the acceptability of the
universal declaration of human rights which was adopted at a time when most
African countries were still colonised.
From the Magna Carta, the Atlantic Treaty
and many other laws which lead to the development of UDHR, Africa’s
contribution was either ignored or not taken into consideration, making the
whole concept alien to African countries up to date.
Bearing in mind that the UN charter
sought to reaffirm faith in equality between nations, it was difficult for
countries which were still colonised to have faith in it. Though it sought to
end cruelty and injustices, the decolonisation struggle gave room for other
nations to feel the same cruelty and injustices which the declaration aimed to
eradicate, therefore making it difficult for African states to align themselves
to it especially as the origin of the UDHR was more from the Nazi atrocities
rather than the sufferings brought by colonialism in Africa. This whole concept
is exacerbated by the fact that the UDHR was not enforceable.
According to Michael Freeman, majority of
the states that ratified the initial UDHR in 1948 were from Europe, North and
Latin America with a few states from Africa and Asia (40). It was therefore hypocritical especially
considering that after the declaration, it took as much as two decades for most
of these countries (African states) to be free from these colonial supremacies.
Human rights was therefore introduced in many African countries as a
precondition for independence and therefore cannot be seem to emanate from
values subscribed to by Africans and this gives room for reservation by African
states and brings up the questions of legitimacy. At the time of drafting and adopting of the UDHR,
only Egypt, South Africa, Liberia, and Ethiopia were part of the UN and many of
the countries in Africa were still colonised and not represented at the United
Nations. This puts question to the universality of the human rights. Donnellly
argues that the universality of human rights cannot be correct since most
non-western countries were not consulted and he goes further to recognise that
these communities would have had rights which could have been included into the
discussions (49-51). This can be supported by the argument that the origin of
the present human rights is mostly western with inputs from the likes of Locke,
Magna Carta, and French Declaration etc and based on values which Africans do
not align to thus making the acceptability of the UDHR almost impossible.
Freeman opines that “a strong argument in the cultural-difference account of
human rights is that each society has its unique history and culture, and must
therefore have a distinctive conception of human rights” (123). The present
UDHR totally neglected the contributions that could have been made.
to the authors of the biography of Rene Cassin, the main reasons for the
unenforceable terms in which the declaration was approved under.
most powerful opponents of the UDHR were the imperial powers of the time, Great
Britain, France, The Netherlands, Portugal and Belgium. These states had
absolutely no interest in helping colonised people to turn the UDHR into a
weapon to be used against their own supremacy. France opposed measures advanced
by Cassin himself: the point at issue was the right of individual petition,
which the Quai D’Orsay anticipated would produce an avalanche of claims from
colonised people. Cassin made every effort to make right of petition acceptable
to French diplomats, but to no avail. Manifestly, the UDHR was framed in such a
way as to enable the colonial powers to sign it, but once signed, the fight for
realising the aspirations stated in it had just begun.
Julia Clancy in her article on Imperialism in North Africa, regrets
that while these western countries were drafting and discussing the UDHR, the
most vocals of them were still committing atrocities in Africa such as the cruel
policies Belgium engaged in Congo, and the atrocious measures of France in
North Africa. These policies and actions were contrary to all the human right
principles. For a continent that has suffered from colonial vestiges, they
would have hoped for a declaration that was enforceable and which could be used
to protect and guarantee future protection for all persecuted people, tribe,
religious or ethnic groups, but this isn’t possible with the declaration. The declaration
lacked guidelines of how to protect people of the world from atrocities and in
the preceding decades after its adoption, many of the colonies in Africa faced
these atrocious acts which will makes it easy for them to disregards the UDHR. Considering also that the UDHR does not have
the force of law, those countries that witnessed these atrocious acts could
barely seek redress, making it difficult for them to believe in it.
Reading the accounts of the discussions
during the deliberations at the Third Committee just before adoption as
described by Morsink, the Saudi delegate accused the drafters of considering
standards recognised by western civilisation and ignoring more ancient
civilisations which were past the experimental stage, and the institutions of
which, for example marriage, had proved their wisdom through centuries. It was
not for the committee to proclaim the superiority of one civilisation over all
the others or to establish uniform standards for all the countries in the
African nations would have the same
sentiments considering just a handful of them were present during the drafting,
discussions and adoption of the declaration.
The main issue of contention with regards
to the legitimacy of the UDHR to African states is the hypocrisy with which it
was developed and with which over the years, real protection hasn’t been
Dorrance, Graeme. The United Nations Charter. Ottawa: United
Nations Society in Canada, 1945. Print.
Freeman, Michael. Human Rights: An Interdisciplinary
Approach. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2014. Print.
Morsink, Johannes. The Universal Declaration of Human
Rights: Origins, Drafting and Intent. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania,
United Nations Charter. New York:
Fiftieth Anniversary Secretariat, 1995. Print.
Women in World History : MODULE 9. Web. 20 Jan. 2018.