Many African countries have become notorious over the past few decades for their alleged violations of human rights. Among the best known recent instances are the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, the suppression of political opposition in Nigeria, and the practices of the Zairean government of President Mobutu.
Not too long ago, South Africa’s apartheid government was the continent’s best known perpetrator of human rights violations, systematically denying rights and freedoms to the country’s black majority. In the 1970s, Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda provided vivid examples of brutal human rights abuses, behavior common to a sociopath in developed countries.
But human rights violations in Africa are by no means unique to the post colonial era. Undoubtedly the worst violation of human rights in the continent’s history was slavery, the forced removal of millions of Africans from their homes and into forced labor in the New World.
Shortly after slavery ended, colonialism began for much of the continent. This period brought with it new kinds of human rights abuses, including the denial of political rights to Africans, forced labor in some areas, and the displacement of people from their traditional lands.
As colonialism ended in Africa, new governments took control. Several quickly became the object of criticism by outsiders and some of their own citizens of rights violations, while others established records of respect of the rights and dignity of their citizens.
But most countries in Africa, as elsewhere, established mixed records on the subject of human rights, in part because the definition of human rights, and therefore of violations of those rights, is complex and subject to numerous different interpretations.
What are Human Rights?
The definition of what consti_readings human rights is almost always controversial. Many people regard the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the United Nations in 1948, as a statement of international consensus on the issue.
But even the UDHR is subject to many interpretations and criticisms. Since it was adopted in 1948, during a time when most African countries were still colonies, Africans had little say in its content or wording. Should they therefore be bound by its provisions?
One of the clauses in the UDHR holds that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” Does this mean that abortion and the death penalty are both human rights violations?
And what about practices which are part of the long-standing traditions of some peoples, but violate the sensibilities of others? An example of this is the practice called female circumcision by its adherents, and female genital mutilation by its opponents. Common in several Sahelian countries, it has been at the center of considerable controversy in recent years.