A FEW days ago I put out a poll on Twitter asking my African followers: “Do you think ‘human rights’ are a Western concept?”
It is an absurd question to ask, of course. Africans are humans; ergo, human rights are a human concept. I got a few people calling me”lost” for asking such a “pointless question”.
Nearly two-thirds (64%) gave it a resounding no. But the poll results came back with more votes in the affirmative than I expected. 20% of the respondents said yes, human rights are a Western concept. And a further 16% said they’kind of’ are.
That’s more than a third of respondents.
A Twitter poll, of course, is nowhere near the most scientific of data collection instruments; I had 137 votes in total, and I have no way of knowing whom among my followers actually voted.
Still, I will take some liberties and continue down this unscientific path. To answer this question seriously, you must interrogate your understanding of “human”, “African” and “Western”. What does the phrase “human rights” mean? Are they really human rights, or rights of human Westerners?
If you are among the 36% that said human rights are, or kind of are, a Western concept then you are arguing one of two things.
Either that “human rights” as you understand them, are conceived in a “Western” framework that you don’t feel applies to an “African” reality – I’ve heard human rights activists being disparaged that they are promoting a ‘foreign ideology’. Or that you don’t think Africans are actually fully human.
Many scholars have debated these ideas of cultural relativity and the universality of human rights, and I will not go into them in detail here.
My only observation is that’culture’is very often the expression of the worldview of the most powerful group in society. Cultural norms are created and maintained to serve the powerful.
CULTURE AS POWER
In this case, one could argue that because the West is rich and geopolitically powerful, what is described as universal human values are often simply a reflection of Western values and cultural norms.
But my own view takes this logical argument one step further. What is described as “African” values is most often a reflection of the worldview of the most politically powerful group in African society –the male elite.
Cultural norms in a patriarchal society, like most of our African ones are, become a way to maintain the inequality of women. Claiming that there is a ‘right’of Africans to marry off their daughters while they are still playing with dolls, of battering wives, and cutting a woman’s genitals, are a useful way to continue to have men in positions of power and privilege.
Similarly, ‘cultures’ of killing people living with albinism, or gays, or ethnic outsiders serve to continue to keep power structures in the favour of melanised, heterosexual ‘people like us’.
It is only the weak and disenfranchised who find refuge in claiming a universal humanity. The powerful have no particular need to.