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The Point On Human Rights: Creating a Human Rights Culture: Beyond the Exalted Words and Declarations of the Constitution

Apr 14, 2009, 6:58 AM

"People go to Africa and confirm what they already have in their heads and so they fail to see what is there in front of them. This is what people have come to expect. It's not viewed as a serious continent. It's a place of strange, bizarre and illogical things, where people don't do what common sense demands." Chinua Achebe

Bashing the 'West' and blaming western imperialism for all the ills and problems of Africa is one of the favourite past times of the African intelligentsia, leaders and revolutionaries (elites). Recently, Jean Ping, President of the African Union Commission was at it: taking a go at the International Criminal Court. Mr. Ping's question was: why is that only African Heads of State, sitting as well as ousted are indicted by the international Court, surely, there are other world leaders who arguable could be indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity? Whilst it may be true that there are world leaders who have blood on their hands and have not been accused or indicted by the ICC yet, but this inaction on the part of the Court cannot be taken to condone the atrocities being committed in Darfur. Or to brush aside the terrible destruction that the wars of Charles Taylor have inflicted on the people of Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The other past time of the present African elite is the claim of exceptionalism for African problems requiring 'African solutions'. This is a bogus claim, a euphemism for lowering the bar of responsibility and accountability and used by leaders like Robert Mugabe to hold on to power indefinitely. There is nothing exceptional about African problems, other peoples have faced similar and in some instances worst situations but where able to turn adversities into opportunities rather than blame the 'West' or forces of nature. So in reality the blame-game that the African elites indulges in, is a smokescreen to hide their incredible incompetence in managing and solving the problems that modern life throw at us.

Last month Africans woke up to the terrible news of fratricide in Guinea Bissau. The head of the Guinea Bissau Army was assassinated and in an apparent retaliatory move, President Vieira was killed.  Guinea Bissau is increasingly and despairingly described as a "FailedState". It is common to read heart-breaking articles that described that country, for which Amilcar Cabral lived and died in the following terms, "There are few phone lines and almost no electricity. Even the President's office building has a generator roaring outside. The judicial police headquarters has no working communications radio, computer or phone. Its four police cars all need repair, and there is no money for fuel. In theory, police officers earn about $100 per month. But like the nation's judges, bureaucrats and Cabinet Ministers - they have not been paid since January. Civil servants received only three months pay last year." This parlous state of affairs is plainly and simply the responsibility of the leaders of Guinea Bissau. No objective analysis of the situation would place the blame anywhere else. We can bash the 'West' as much as we like but if we do not take responsibility for our own development and create credible development alternatives, we will remain in the poignant words of Fanon "the Wretched of the Earth".

In formulating credible alternatives, as Africans, we must ask ourselves the right questions, we must interrogate the relevant issues to us; we must not waste our intellectual firepower fighting imaginary enemies instead of tackling the real problems of poverty, ignorance, wars, civil strife and underdevelopment ravishing our continent. We must ask ourselves, how is it that the great and historic revolution led by the brilliant and inspirational Amilcar Cabral and the PAIGC could come to such a pass? More on the great Cabral later but this piece like the previous efforts on this column does not offer any specific answers to our myriad problems rather it seeks to plant the seeds of critical thinking about the state of Africa and to provoke a competitive contest of ideas about our own responsibility for developments in the continent in the hope that Africans can and will inherit a culture of human rights. 

December 10th 2008 marked the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights-UDHR, in this regard, it is pertinent to share a few observations on human rights in the context of continuity and change. We should all be committed to the legacy UDHR, a lasting legacy to be celebrated, but also an enduring trust to be honoured in the present. By definition, a tradition is handed down from the past. However, a tradition, if it is a living tradition, is not only handed down from the past but also taken up in the present.  First, we must question whether the very notions of continuity and change do not exist in contradiction to each other. After 1994, the definitions appeared to be rather simple - "the old regime was corrupt and ineffective" and slogans abounds as with all revolutions 'probity' 'accountability' 'transparency'. Definitions were easy and the entire world quite uncomplicated. Then a transition to constitutional government, constructed a wonderful Constitution, an election was won and the revolutionaries became the government. Definitions, roles and tasks have been exceedingly complex since. So, how does the 1997 Constitution manage continuity and change together? What part of what we are and do is alterable, as against those elements that must remain constant? Similar questions have arisen and were answered within the context of the Constitution. In the preamble, we are challenged thus:

"This constitution provides for us a fundamental Law, which affirms our commitment to freedom, justice, probity and accountability. It also affirms the principle that all power emanate from the sovereign will of the people.

The fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in this Constitution, will ensure for all time respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to ethnic considerations, gender, language or religion. In acknowledging our fundamental rights, we also affirm our duties and responsibilities as citizens of this Country.

This Constitution guarantees participatory democracy that reflects the undiluted choice of the people. The functions of the arms of government have been clearly defined, their independence amply secured with adequate checks and balances to ensure that they all work harmoniously together towards our common good.

As we usher in the SecondRepublic and beyond we give ourselves and generations of Gambians yet unborn this Constitution as a beacon of hope for peace and stability in our society and the good governance of The Gambia for all time".

The most important questions thrown up by constitutional government includes the use of the rule of law to perform social engineering feats; mastery of work in the legislature as part of instruments of transformation, oversight of government implementation of policies, mass mobilization and accountability. And the challenges that need to be addressed include: how to use the state creatively to pursue sectoral and general interests. The people in whose name the Government exist have to continuously ask tough questions. If these are the challenges of the present to the government, what then of the challenges of rights, and our obligations? How do these fit in when there is no easy fallback to bashing the past? Should any part of the rights and obligations be altered or modernised?

There is an exceedingly important and humbling challenge that we have to respond to in recognising that very little of what we do is permanent. History will demonstrate that the infrastructure development and the concomitant opportunities it generates are unlikely to be a constant feature. With hindsight, the electorate had been kind to the former regime that brought it freedom by re-electing them at each General Election with a larger majority - whilst this fact may have been unprecedented in African history, it was not and is not a right to which any government may lay historical claim, but it has to be earned and re-earned.

And so what of the rights that we describe in such exalted terms in the preamble to our constitution, which parts can we say, in good conscience, has been realized or need to be modernised? How do we manage continuity and change in the context of rights?  Who determines this? We should not discuss rights in the abstract, of course. What do we say to the family of Chief Ebrima Manneh, whose mysterious disappearance more than two years now have remained unexplained? Last week the State has come out to say that Chief Manneh is not in State custody and his whereabouts are not known to the State. What exactly do we say to the parents of the schoolchildren who were killed during the April 10th & 11, 2000 incident? What do we say to the widow of Deyda Hydara? Or how do we respond to young people who demand the dignity that accompanies the right to work, when the economy may not generate sufficient jobs for the particular skills which they may have, or not have - as the case may be? What parts of our rights are adaptable? What parts are enforceable? Is there a way of reinstating those rights taken by individuals? To what extent should we rely only on the Courts? What values afford us a compass by which to steer?

The issue of human rights is an essential part of defining the foundation on which this constitutional state is based. Our Constitution, and especially Chapter IV- our Bill of Rights, has been inspired by the UDHR, which we should be proud of. We are the host of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights and the African Centre for Human Rights and Democracy Studies. Nevertheless, we should never take any part of the formality of our rights for granted. Moreover, against the backdrop of this impressive architecture for human rights, we should pause to consider what remains undone, and, more importantly, how we can bring life and strength to this unique feature of our democracy. This should be our response to the challenge of continuity and change. As mentioned earlier, after 1994 the definitions were relatively easy and the task at hand not as complex as the present responsibilities. Now, we have to build a single, caring nation, one in which the values that drove us so fervently over many decades are required to be measurable in evidence.

The challenge is therefore to build a human rights culture, to give life to the formal structures. Culture is complex - it is the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, and material objects acquired by people in the course of generations through striving.  By definition, culture cannot be static. Culture is dependent on values, values that sometimes are even unconscious to those who hold them. However, culture cannot be merely of the state. Sure, it helps if the state leans in the same direction, then the development of norms and mores does not have to be an antagonistic contest between the state and the people. However, we need to remind ourselves that the responsibility to govern merely creates a range of possibilities to intercede in support of a system of values - those contained in our Constitution. There is nothing pre-ordained about the outcomes of government policies - so making laws, which is an integral part of what Government does in itself, does not guarantee the molding of values, that you cannot legislate values, just as you cannot legislate culture.

The culture of human rights goes far beyond the ability to recite the constitution, memorise the UN Charter or be conversant with human rights case law. It is about communicating the values that underpin the culture, bringing out some of the tenets that may even be unconscious to those who hold them. It is also about working with others to develop and hone the shared objectives from shared values. None of this can be done without drawing attention to that which deviates from the underpinning values.

Amilcar Cabral did this forcefully, He said

"But, confronted with Africa's vital need to develop, the following will be no less harmful: systematic exaltation of African cultures without criticism of their shortcomings, blind acceptance of cultural values without consideration of possible negative and regressive aspects, confusion between what is the reflection of a material and objective historical reality with what seems to be a creation of the mind..and finally the uncritical and unscientific analysis of cultural phenomena "

This is a hard-hitting description of a tendency in which personal aspirations atomise into an anti-social individualism, with a focus on slavish worship of the past and meaningless rituals. Needless to say, the attendant problems of corruption will be a force to contend with. When this happens, it erodes the culture, and in our context it is the evolving culture of human rights that is perhaps most at risk. We need to consistently remind ourselves that nothing but bricks and mortar is likely to be permanent. But life is about far more than bricks and mortar. Moreover, the infrastructural developments we have since 1994 will be measured by the durability of the system of values we are able to inculcate. Therefore, it is to values we must look to rebuild the culture of human rights. There are few sources that address these as poignantly as the writings of that great African intellectual Amilcar Cabral. It is fitting that we remind ourselves when we discuss relevant issues about African culture and civilization to draw on ancestors and leaders like Cabral for inspiration and explanation.

In his collection entitled Unity and Struggle, he articulates his views so clearly.  Let me share four of these with you - reality and realism; truth; criticism and conflicts. On the subject of reality and realism he writes, "Do not confuse the reality you live in with the ideas in your head." Essentially, he argues that for a struggle to be prosecuted successfully, the leadership must appreciate the everyday existence of the people, and start from this point to advance the struggle with the people, drawing from the reality of their lives. He does not argue that activists be held back, but rather that activists must have "both feet planted firmly on the ground." These words speak so directly to the challenge of building a rights culture - all across our continent, but especially here in the Gambia. Human rights are not acquired in the abstract; they are built on the capacity to transform the lived reality. On the subject of truth, Cabral has been paraphrased into a slogan, which I am sure that we can all repeat. Claim no easy victories, tell no lies. In the full text he writes, "We must put an end to lying, we must not be able to deceive anyone about the difficulties of struggle, about the mistakes we make, the defeats we may suffer, and we cannot believe that victory is easy. Nor can we believe evasions like, "it seems that" or "I thought that". This is one of the great defects of some comrades." Ours is a struggle against forgetting and for a culture of human rights. It is in this context that his words are so incredibly resonant.

In respect of criticism, Cabral advances the watchword, "Develop the spirit of criticism between militants and responsible workers. Give everyone at every level the opportunity to criticize, to give his opinion about the work and the behavior or the action of others. Accept criticism, wherever it comes from. Always remember that criticism is not to speak ill, nor to engage in intrigues. Criticism is and should be the act of expressing an open candid opinion in front of those concerned." Who should lead, who should measure the honesty and who is sufficiently confident to blast the intrigues masquerading as criticism?

And , on unity, he forthrightly says, "there are no real conflicts between the peoples of Africa. There are only conflicts between their elites." Just pause and consider these words. These messages are not new. They speak directly to leaders and activists and to their relationships - with each other, within the nation, with the people, and perhaps most importantly with their values. These words speak to the contradiction between continuity and change. And they strongly address the humility required to rekindle the culture of human rights. As long ago as 1963, these issues were raised in President Kwame Nkrumah's New Years' message to the Ghanaians. We are reminded in that message that:

"We are united, but we are not yet working as hard as we should. That is not because there is no dedication or vision in us as a people, but because we do not make calls on ourselves and if we prove to be old wines in new bottles, we shall fail to arouse the enthusiasm and spirit of our people. If we become self-satisfied, and allow ourselves to be bound by tradition, precedent and habit, or if we allow the apathy of a  few people  in key positions to slow down our progress, we shall be undermining the spirit of our revolution."

This spirit dovetails well into our own constitutional exhortations, 'which affirms our commitment to freedom, justice, probity and accountability. It also affirms the principle that all power emanate from the sovereign will of the people'. These words, are not being heard often enough, or have too often been swept aside? The struggle for a culture of human rights - which is a struggle that looks beyond the material conditions to what, in fact, should define our sense of nationhood - is not negotiable. Nevertheless, by way of self-criticism, we should concede that it appears not to be sufficiently taken up in the present. The struggle for human rights must be prosecuted with as much vigour, vigilance and determination as the struggle to overthrow colonial rule. The success of this venture depends on building the 'New African'. It is a struggle about values. It is a struggle against forgetting where we come from and what we have it in us to become. It is a struggle that can best be advanced through education, tolerance and unity. And, it is continuous.

Let me conclude with the words of another great African intellectual: 'What strategy should we put forward from where we are? That is the most important and relevant issue. I do not have a blue print for that and shall not try to offer one but - assuming that the overall analysis of the global capitalist system at this point in time is correct - then what can we do? Firstly, one must never resuscitate the past. Things have changed. It is not that the experiences before have failed, I do not think that failure or success is a correct way of analysing things, rather that it has provided changes and reached historical limitations and entered a new phase. The system is changing and the challenges are changing. One can never respond to new challenges by trying to reproduce the responses which had their efficacy in a previous period. If we look at what I think are the challenges, we ought to develop the struggle at all levels: national - meaning the boundaries of the state (a political reality); regional and sub-regional; the South -with all the internal limitations and contradictions; and at the global level...  We should look at moving from our cultures towards universal culture, the universal dimension of the future we want for all humankind'. Samir Amin

Almami Fanding Taal is Legal Practitioner with a special interest in Human Rights, Media Laws, and Good Governance & Institutional Development