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Understanding Universal Human Rights Discourse at the local level

Proponents of universalism (which in this case means the principle that all human rights must be accorded to all people, no matter who or where they live) hold that certain human rights, like the right to equal protection, physical security, fair trials, free speech, freedom of religion and free association are and must be the same everywhere, though they do recognise that many such rights allow for historically and culturally influenced forms of implementation or realisation. The cultural relativist view is that human rights law and discourse in each society must be influenced by an interaction of all these factors.

In order to assess whether universal human rights law need to be understood within local contexts in order to be effective, it is necessary to understand first that what is meant by ‘local context’ includes the cultural, historical, political, social and economic aspects of a society.
It is all too easy to say that local issues and the respect of local customs as an argument against universal human rights norms ‘is mostly raised by states and liberal scholars, and rarely by the oppressed,- who are only too anxious to benefit from perceived universal norms.’ However, this is a mildly blinkered and paternalistic view, which assumes that local contexts and culture are necessarily oppressive. It also fails to accept that ‘human rights, embedded in cultural assumptions about the nature of the person, the community, and the state, do not translate easily from one setting to another’ .
An argument made by Volpp, a human rights writer is that the tension that is believed to exist between universalism and cultural relativism assumes that cultures are frozen in time, and are static entities, that they are of necessity traditional and made up of unchanging and longstanding practices, and ignores the patently obvious fact that all cultures undergo constant transformation and reshaping. ‘It is ironic that the human rights system tends to promote its new cultural vision through a critique of culture.’
It has been said that ‘culture and claims to cultural identity are always contested within communities’. And that, sometimes, where the culture argument is raised in opposition to human rights norms, it is no more than ‘an indiscriminate lumping together of self-serving claims by elites of communities’. The claim here is that there sometimes a tendency by some states or local communities, in their resistance to human rights norms, to resort to a political misuse of culture. However, raising the issue of culture does not always equate to opposition to universal human rights norms and laws, but may well be an unavoidable and very necessary attempt to flag up issues within the local context that need examination in order to find an accommodation between the two.
And it is all too easy to presume that human rights are not an expression of culture; when the reality is the opposite. Civil and political rights at the very least are the necessary product of a Judeo-Christian tradition that dates back to the Ten Commandments of the Christian bible.
It is the tension that comes when the transnational and universal ideas of human rights come into contact with local customs and norms that bears analysis. Since concepts of what is right and what is wrong, of good and evil are found in all societies, ‘what is held to be a human right in one society may be regarded as anti-social by another people, or by the same people in a different period of their history’ The same Western society that burned Galileo for saying the earth was round later found such beliefs in colonised locales as primitive. In Zimbabwe, both President Mugabe and Tsvangirai agree that homosexuality is evil, despite latter’s pretensions to his sometimes not very well defined aspirations to liberal democracy (which seems to mean everything that the NGO community says).
The idea that such societies must be synchronised to think and act alike is absurd. An example will suffice to illustrate this absurdity. The NGO community in Zimbabwe rallies for, among other things, freedom of movement, in a culture where the concept of trespass does not exist: in their haste to impose their values, these Western liberal human rights opponents fail to realise that we already have a more robust right to free movement – you can show up at anyone’s house and cut acrss anyone’s fields and even help yourself to some watermelons just so long as you stop by to say ‘Makadini (how are you)!
The notion that human rights are universal and intrinsically good does not make any allowances for the possibility that in some local situations, some rights may not be appropriate. The attempt to foist a one-size-fits-all human rights prescription on the African continent by the NGO community assumes without foundation that all ‘rights’ trump all culture. This is not only wrong, but very paternalistic and insulting. A failure to take into account the specific features of the local cultural context ignores the fact that there are issues of a universal nature that might already be at play within the local arena, such as in the example above regarding the right to freedom of movement.
Can a society that guarantees all civil and political rights but very few social and economic rights be said to have an effective human rights regime? And, what happens in a situation where the only way to guarantee social and economic rights for the majority requires that a minority should lose their property? The first instinct here would be to say that nothing justifies dispossessing a minority to satisfy a majority, for where are told that democracy (and human rights) is about protecting the individual or minority from the tyranny of the majority. However, what if the minority in question acquired the property that they have through wholesale theft and chicanery? What if the majority were deceived, cheated and beaten off their land so that a minority could parcel it out to themselves on the basis of colour alone? This is what happened with our land in Zimbabwe. Do we let the minority keep the land just because the common belief is that they have rights to property and know how to use the land productively? Well, as President Mugabe once said; “The fact that the person that stole my car has a driving licence does not justify him keeping it.”
But, we digress. The answers to these questions cannot be a simple yes or no. Rather, they must depend on whether conditions have been put in place that constitute the structural basis on which human rights can grow, and take hold in future. Taking note of the local context to put in place conditions that will adapt human rights from within is ultimately more important that seeking to transplant whole human rights conventions, with commas, semi-colons and apostrophes, into a society without any attempt to check whether the conditions suit. There must be a sense that evolutionary practice with very minimal outside prodding/cultivation will ultimately bring about effective human rights regimes in all locales, while transplantation leads to resistance.
Local knowledge is also important in order to foster both understanding and implementation of universal human rights norms. It is important to avoid making value judgements about what cultural standards must be maintained or go altogether. A lot of what the West believes about Africa is false, based on the writings of so-called Africa experts whose claim to such expertise is that they visited the continent and them went home to write about it. Such apparent lack of local knowledge makes the message questionable, as recipients ask why they should trust something coming from someone that seems to have no idea about who they are and where they come from. Very few of these experts are African. Very few live in Africa. Imagine this: if President Mugabe started campaigning about the rights of the Eskimo people in Canada, he would be condemned as someone who does not have enough knowledge on the subject, corrected on the fact that their correct name is Inuit, and asked why he worries about oppression in Canada when his people don’t have basic rights. Yet, these same people see no problem with coming to our lands and lecture us on rights, while they lie and mislead their populations into destructive wars, invade their citizens’ rights to privacy through widespread wire-tapping and actively put in place measure, like in several states in the USA, to stop minorities from voting. Following the Florida debacle of 2000, how many foreign observers have been sent to the USA to check that elections are not rigged once again?
It is true that there are certain areas where it must not matter where the local context is in its development/acceptance of rights; where universal human rights norms must always take precedence. However, such areas are not hard to identify: for example; there would be no society that would argue a local context to justify torture. Still, “rights need to be presented in local cultural terms so as to be persuasive, but must challenge existing power relations to be effective”
Anyone seeking to impose their culture on others must not assume that just because they have clothed it in language that does not identify it as culture, it ceases to be. The relationship between proponents of the human rights agenda coming from the West and their intended recipients must be grounded in respect, not paternalism.

 

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Democracy and Human Rights

Article 21 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights provides that everyone shall have the right to participate in the governing of their country directly or through their representatives , and that the will of the people, as the basis of the authority of government; shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections recognising the principles of universal and equal suffrage and held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures . This direct linkage between human rights and democracy, by making ‘democracy’ a human right, so early in the development of the modern international human rights discourse, shows that the framers of the first international human rights instruments believed that it was not possible to have human rights without democracy.
However, there is no similar linkage given to socio economic right as a sine qua non for democracy. This, of course is a question of geography: if the UN declaration had been drafted in Moscow or Leniningrad, you can bet that the prominence of civil rights over economic rights would have been reversed.
Subsection (3) also suggests what was to be understood as the meaning of democracy and supports the view that it is popular control and political equality, coupled with ‘a framework of guaranteed citizen rights, a system of representative and accountable political institutions subject to electoral authorisation and an active civic society’ (as stated by a human rights author called Beetham) in a defined territorial polity that makes for democracy. This has led to the claim that human rights and liberal democracy are two sides of the same coin. ‘Democracy, no matter how narrowly defined, is seen as a safeguard if not a guarantor, of civil and political rights’. Put differently, without democracy, civil and political rights are doomed. Note that it is never claimed that democracy is a guarantor of social and economic rights. But ask the ordinary person in Zimbabwe why they want democracy and they will reply that this is so that their lot improves. Not so that they get the right to have gay marriages or freedom of movement, but so that economically, they are better off. Now, since no-one has plausibly claimed that democracy actually guarantees economic betterment, is it not possible that our people have been made to pursue the wrong aim? Another human rights author, Arat argues that ‘as more countries become ‘democratic’, fewer people will actually enjoy democratic rights and more people will be denied social and economic rights’ .
Arat is not a lone voice. There are those that question democracy as a national form of political organisation and advocate that the relationship between human rights and democracy must be treated with caution.
However, any system that continually questions itself, that allows debate on its own efficacy is one that is self-perpetuating, and thus durable. The citizens of Athens would not recognise democracy as we know it, with its political elites and even dynasties , just as we would consider their model unwieldy, not to mention sexist (as it did not allow women participation) and oppressive (as it allowed for classes of people that were perpetually excluded, like slaves).
For it work in Africa, democracy must evolve, become African. Any Zimbabwean, even those that do not support Zanu PF, if they are honest with themselves, will have to admit that they felt revulsion and anger at the idea of the gay activist Thatchel ‘arresting’ President Mugabe in London. Such revulsion does not mean support for our President or condemnation of gay people, but merely that what he did was to insult the person and office of our President. We are Africans first, before we are educated and westernised. Show me an African that thinks it’s ok to throw rotten eggs at your President and I will show you a liar.
Democracy needs to adapt to it’s environment, something it will never do as long as it’s push into Africa is sponsored by those with an agenda to keep us subjugated and oppressed so that they continue to loot out economic wealth.
The ability to regenerate, to adapt to changing circumstances and times, makes democracy a suitable glove for human rights to wear. However, therein lies the rub: democracy works because it is allowed to change, to adapt to different situations, to fit into the rubric of each society and become not a foreign imposition, but something familiar, home grown. In this respect, so called democracy promoting NGOs, with their Western models of democracy and Western ideas, effectively stop democracy from taking root, from becoming home grown. It is ironic that even those people that claim to be champions of democracy subconsciously become Africanised even as they cling to the crib sheets given by their colonial masters to learn by rote. Attend an MDC rally and people will sing songs praising Morgan Tsvangirai, building a personality cult (sic) in apart that claims to be social democratic along the lines of it’s Western funders’ ideal.
Democracy needs to be home-grown, our thing, not some foreign import. Democracy viewed in this way is not an inherent impediment to the growth of human rights. Quite the opposite, as human rights expand, so too will democracy. For example, there is a developing human right to the environment, which has not been stifled by force in the West, has thrived in the free market of ideas, buffeted by criticism by big business and other climate change sceptics. While it is not yet a universal right, in some places it has even become justiciable. Such a development seems unthinkable, and is indeed dangerous, in some not so undemocratic locales, where they actually have a science called climate change denial!
The Bible says something like ‘seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and everything will be added unto you’. One might want to borrow that and say ‘seek ye first the economic rights, and everything will be added unto you’. The MDC’s seemingly single minded pursuit for civil and political space, couched in human rights and rule of law arguments, is as misguided as it is doomed to fail: the people of Zimbabwe would be better served by being masters of their own economic destiny rather than acquire rights to walk along a street without having to seek police permission. And, as long as the MDC refuses to accept that the first step toward guaranteeing economic prosperity is endorsing the land repossession initiatives started by the people of Svosve village in Mashonaland East way back in 1998/9 (before the MDC was formed), it runs the risk of becoming irrelevant as a political party. Only by guaranteeing economic stability can our people find use in democracy and human rights discourse.
In an era of advanced globalisation, developments in human rights discourse quickly transcend national boundaries. But globalisation itself brings with it challenges to the relationship between human rights and democracy, not least of which is the problem of trying to transmogrify something that just cannot be supplanted from one place to another.
Just because a form of democracy has resulted in respect of human rights in country X, it does not follow that the same result will be replicated in country Y. This is what one writer identifies as the ‘one size fits all democracies’ fallacy. Hoping that a system that has been in development in Europe since before Jesus Christ was born should work perfectly in Africa after the serious crimes against humanity committed by the West on that continent is not just asking too much, but a naked attempt to shift blame for the economic malaise from their historical crimes to supposed present day violators of human rights.
This incremental approach to democracy and human rights is rooted in history. Even the development of human rights in the West started with a few rights: the Magna Carta gave a few rights to a few landowners, the Declaration of Arbroath spoke eloquently about freedom of men when it meant a handful of nobles , and the United States declaration of independence opens with ‘We the people..’ when what it means is “white men, not women, and of course not blacks and not slaves’. From these humble beginnings, experience seems to suggest that some form of representative democracy is conducive to an atmosphere of respect for freedom, and this freedom feeds into the exploration of other freedoms. Criticisms of Zimbabwe’s so-called inability to bring about human rights that do not seem to follow this trajectory but root the critique in a time and place fail to appreciate the symbiotic relationship between the two. This is wrong.
Many people in Zimbabwe say the words ‘democracy’ ‘rule of law’ or ‘human rights’ so often that, thanks to the Independence government’s push for universal literacy, they are generally understood by a vast majority of the population to mean a government that is answerable to the people and desired by all. However, ask deeper and the matter seems less clear. What is democracy, really? And what is its relationship with/to human rights?
Suppose for one moment that even if you couldn’t define democracy, you can point to examples in some countries and be able to say, ‘there is democracy in country so and so’. But, is that useful for any purpose? Really? Is there truly an importable version of democracy from other places? Is it possible to replicate other people’s idea of democracy and plant it elsewhere? And is democracy synonymous with human rights?
I happen to believe not. Something that is shaped by the realities of a particular place is not replicable elsewhere. And, in my view, therein lies the trouble. The tragedy for Africa in general and Zimbabwe in particular is that people from the West either do not get this, or getting it, do not care.
In my view, democracy is really no more than what a people in one country have agreed it will be. The problem with democracy in Zimbabwe now is that other people are not giving us a chance to develop our own vintage, choosing instead to impose their own ideas. Sadly, some of those in the forefront of this push come from countries where some very seriously skewed arrangements pass as democracy that, if replicated in Zimbabwe, would be condemned and vilified as the height of oppression and undemocratic arrangements. A few examples will illustrate this point.
Take one example from the democratic model in what some might claim is the world’s most respected democracy, the USA. The senator from Delaware, Idaho, Rhode Island and Kansas requires less than 1m votes to sit in the senate for 6 years, while the losing candidate in California will get up 10m and still not make it into the senate. The fact that a state with barely a million people carries the same weight as one with tens of millions when it comes to senate elections is seen as the great equaliser: yet the obvious disparities in population are so glaring. When the delimitation committee in Zimbabwe designates that some constituencies in urban areas must be eliminated to create more equitable population balances in all constituencies they are vilified as government puppets.
Or take further the example of the gerrymandered congressional districts all over the USA but in particular in California, Texas or Florida, where it is almost impossible to remove incumbents from their seats because districts are drawn up in such shapes as to lose all meaning: meandering along certain groups/routes as their crafters try to keep certain types of voters within particular districts. Now, if you for example transposed that to Africa, proponents of ‘free and fair’ elections (including former US President Jimmy carter, who travels around the world advocating free and fair elections but never in the US) would call that vote manipulation or worse, rigging.
Or take for example the hanging chards fiasco of Florida in 2000. The fact that George W Bush got the presidency handed to him by people owing their position on the Supreme Court to his father and his father’s predecessor is very hard to dispute. Replicated in an African state, the NGO and ‘civic society’ communities would be apoplectic. Yet, in the USA, condemnation is confirmed to and condemned as the rumblings of the fringe left. The so called ‘voter suppression’ laws being enacted in states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Texas to name but a few are clearly meant to disenfranchise minorities thought to support one party, but no accusations of skulduggery or chicanery have been made by the NGO community that we know of, and no-one is taking of reporting anyone to the International Criminal Court, as some lunatic elements have suggested about our President.
The UK has a monarchical system of government, where the head of state inherits the throne and position of head of state from their parent or other inbred ancestor, and yet the fiction is perpetuated that the UK is a democracy. Many an MP talks about ‘our democratic system’, ‘equality before the law’ when the reality is nothing but!
The people of Brunei enjoy social and economic rights better than many in the world, yet they are ruled by a monarch, who they do not vote for or choose in any other way. Yet, nobody is worrying themselves about the abuse of civil and political rights in Brunei.
What it boils down to is this, where people conspire to agree that their system works, they are quite happy to call it a democracy if it suits their public image needs. And as long as that system guarantees economic prosperity or at least some measure of social and economic wellbeing, then they will be quite ready to maintain the fiction that it is, because it works, and say that it brings about human rights.
So, it is probably fair to say that when you have a nationally accepted democratic model supported by economic systems that guarantee good life for the citizens, there would be a general tendency to say that human rights are respected. Where people are suffering economically though, it is easy to start complaining about the lack of civil and political rights. And, since most of the world’s suffering and Zimbabwe’s problems in particular are largely due to the machinations of international capital interests (the IMF, the World Bank), it suits the interests of these forces of manipulation to promote the fiction that salvation lies in getting more civil and political rights. Yes, the father in Kitsiyatota looking at his family as they go to sleep hungry one more time, why, let’s get him just a bit more freedom of assembly and association! A little more free speech and his family will be fine!
Really really? I think not.

 

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The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step

So, here goes………

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