For some reason, historians have largely seen fit to avoid the subject of African human rights and not least the 1981 African Human and Peoples’ Rights Charter. The subject has therefore been left largely in the domain of human rights and international and comparative law studies. As a result, the study of African human rights, with the slight exception of specific studies into the human rights abuses of individual African leaders, has not been handled in a manner with which most historians would feel comfortable. On the one side the study of African human rights has invariably been too partisan and proselytising and, on the other side, perhaps, historians may have felt reluctant to provide any form of historical explanation that may be regarded as somehow justifying abuses that are, frankly, distasteful.
My own interest is in the history of political ideas which means trying to explain how and why political ideas emerged and what they mean. Simply, what is the question to which a political idea is the answer?
In Volume 1 of my upcoming book The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights I have attempted to identify the concerns and interests that predominated in an admittedly heterogeneous African polity to which the OAU, founded in 1963, was intended to provide the face and forum of African unity. What, above all, emerges is a widespread existential resentment against a perceived discrimination against Africa across the political, economic, intellectual and cultural spectrum, seen as a product of racial prejudice, and a corresponding desire to redress this imbalance. This, in turn, impacts on the African perception of human rights, whether domestically or internationally, which identifies human rights as a Western project that failed to take Africa into account in 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted and which therefore does not reflect the nature and mores of African society and its particular concerns. Alongside this overwhelming existential concern there is also the political question of the historical experience and present nature of individual African polities with powerful often authoritarian leaders and the extent to which a political philosophy of human rights based on Western historical experience of centuries is congruent with such policies.
The key point, which has to date not been properly considered, and which Volume 1 seeks to address, is that it is only after such African concerns and interests have been identified that one can begin to make sense of the ideas that find their way into the text of the ACHPR and of the political process that the ACHPR had necessarily to follow if it was to be adopted and implemented.
This guest post was written by Nat Rubner who has a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge. He is an Honorary Research Fellow, School of History, Queen Mary, University of London. In the course of his previous 20-year career in international finance, he edited the first public international debt prospectus of the African Development Bank.
The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights Volume 1: Political, Intellectual & Cultural Origins is a landmark study of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.