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Africa’s freedom struggles and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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Africa’s freedom struggles and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

70 years since its adoption, the declaration has inspired liberation movements
Franck Kuwonu
From Africa Renewal: 
Agitating for change: Women wave flags during a demonstration in Kasbah Square, Tunis.     Photo: Panos / Alfredo D’Amato
Photo: Panos / Alfredo D’Amato
Agitating for change: Women wave flags during a demonstration in Kasbah Square, Tunis. Photo: Panos / Alfredo D’Amato

Sovereign African countries barely existed when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, three years after the end of World War II.

It was the first time an internationally agreed-upon document unequivocally stated that all human beings are free and equal, irrespective of color, creed or religion.

But then, most of Africa was still under colonial rule. Only four African countries—Egypt, Ethiopia, Liberia and South Africa—were UN members, and three of them signed the declaration. South Africa did not sign, because of the declaration’s potential to disrupt its practice of racial discrimination and segregation, also known as apartheid, which lasted from 1948 until 1994.

Years later, the declaration would help transform African territories into independent states and inspire the continent’s own African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, adopted on 21 October 1986, a document created to promote and protect human rights and basic freedoms. On 10 December 2018, the world marked the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

On 6 March 1957, barely a decade after the adoption of the declaration, Ghana’s then–prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, told a huge celebratory crowd at the Old Polo Grounds in the capital, Accra: “At long last, the battle has ended! And thus, Ghana, your beloved country, is free, forever!”

Ghana, a former British colony, had just gained independence.

In his speech Mr. Nkrumah aptly invoked the principles of equality, freedom and justice for all—the same principles that the declaration enshrines.

Before the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, then Republic of the Congo) became independent in 1960, Patrice Émery Lumumba, a historical figure in the continent-wide independence movement, emphasized that self-determination in Africa was a basic human right, underscoring the relevance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the fight for independence.

“Let [the West] today give proof of the principle of equality and friendship between races that its sons have always taught us as we sat at our desks in school, a principle written in capital letters in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Mr. Lumumba said in 1959 at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, a renowned center of intellectual ferment in colonial Africa.

“Africans must be just as free as other citizens of the human family to enjoy the fundamental liberties set forth in this declaration and the rights proclaimed in the United Nations Charter,” he added.

Paradoxically, in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ most enthusiastic supporters, including Belgium, France, Great Britain, Portugal and Spain, still possessed colonies in Africa in which most natives were subjects rather than citizens.

Freedom and Justice

The declaration’s proclamation of universal equality, freedom and justice strengthened the momentum toward self-determination in Africa and helped usher in an era of sovereign countries. It would also inspire several liberation movements, including those that fought against apartheid in South Africa.

The right to asylum, to freedom from torture, to free speech and to education are some of the 30 rights and freedoms contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It also addresses civil and political rights, including the right to life, liberty and privacy, in addition to economic, social and cultural rights.

It sets the basic standards of individual rights and over the years has inspired several human rights legislations across the world, including the Freedom Charter in South Africa.

Unsurprisingly, anti-apartheid activists worldwide would draw on the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in their fight. In 1955 then-president of the African National Congress, Chief Albert Luthuli, said, “People from all walks of life [must meet] as equals, irrespective of race, color and creed, to formulate a Freedom Charter for all people in the country.”

The Nobel Foundation awarded Mr. Luthuli the Peace Prize in 1960 and described him as “the leader of ten million black Africans in their nonviolent campaign for civil rights in South Africa.”

Africa’s Charter

Although African leaders framed their quest for national independence as demands for justice, equality and dignity for all, the first two decades postindependence (the 1960s and 1970s) were marked by human rights violations.

Authoritarian and single-party regimes, including military administrations, had replaced elected ones across the continent.

Kéba Mbaye, an architect of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, described the situation at the time: “African governments appear clearly to have sacrificed rights and freedoms for the sake of development and political stability.”

Dictators such as Uganda’s Idi Amin (1971–1979), Equatorial Guinea’s Macías Nguema (1968–1979) and Central African Republic’s Jean-Bedel Bokassa (1966–1979) were accused of egregious human rights violations.

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights was intended to promote human rights from an African perspective, including by emphasizing collective political rights and the right to national self-determination.

“The Committee that drafted the African Charter was guided by the principle that it should reflect the African conception of human rights [and] should take as a pattern the African philosophy of law and meet the needs of Africa,” Amnesty International observed at the time.

The charter clearly acknowledges the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in its preamble and explicitly recognises civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

Strong and alive

Over the years, the principles of freedom, equality and justice embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights continue to fuel citizens’ demands for democracy and for accountability from authoritarian and single-party regimes.

“The Universal Declaration is strong and alive,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet remarked in New York last September, adding that the declaration “has empowered millions to march, to come together and to build progress.” Women and men are now inspired “to demand an end to discrimination, tyranny and exploitation,” Ms. Bachelet declared.

In African countries such as Cameroon, the DRC, Gabon, the Gambia, Kenya, Niger, Madagascar, Mali, Senegal, Tanzania and Togo, it is not uncommon to see citizens taking over the streets to demand equality, fairness, justice and dignity.

In the last two decades, citizens have pressured many African countries, including Nigeria, the Gambia, Liberia and Zimbabwe, to move from authoritarian regimes to democracies, opening up political space.

Most of these countries now regularly hold democratic elections, although questions are raised whether some of these elections are free and fair. Also, in many countries, vibrant civil societies are advocating for transparent and accountable governments, accentuating progress in the entrenchment of freedom of speech and association.

“We still have a long way to go,” Ms. Bachelet noted. “But in the past 70 years, humanity has moved a thousand steps forward.”

From colonies to independent states to more open and pluralistic societies, Africa is certainly making progress.   

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