Human Rights

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.

Disease and Health in Africa

Africa faces some very serious health problems. Africans on average face lower life expectancies, higher infant mortality rates, and a greater risk of disease than people in most other parts of the world.

Many people in Africa suffer from preventable diseases which are rare or easily treated in the industrialized countries: diseases like cholera, diarrheal diseases, high cholesterol, malaria. Particularly hard hit by some of these diseases are Africa’s children, many of whom die before reaching 5 years of age.

HIV infection is a large and rapidly growing problem in sub-Saharan Africa (see the following page for more on this disease). According to the World Health Organization, nearly two thirds of all cases of HIV infection worldwide are in Africa.

Even as Africans struggle against existing diseases, new threats continue to emerge. Among the most troublesome of these are the hemorrhagic fevers, of which Ebola is the best known. Although they are the cause of very few infections at present, an outbreak of one of these highly infectious diseases could be disastrous.


The Causes of Africa’s Health Problems

There are, of course, numerous causes for the thousands of health problems which afflict people in different parts of Africa. But at the root of most disease is one simple cause: poverty.

The 1998 WHO World Health Report sums this up clearly:

Poverty is the main reason why babies are not vaccinated, why clean water and sanitation are not provided, why curative drugs and other treatments are unavailable, and why mothers die in childbirth. It is the underlying cause of reduced life expectancy, handicap, disability, and starvation. Poverty is a major contributor to mental illness, stress, suicide, family disintegration and substance abuse. Every year in the developing world 12.2 million children under five years die, most of them from causes which could be prevented for just a few US cents per child. They die largely because of world indifference, but most of all they die because they are poor.

Among the most important consequences of poverty in Africa are:

Contaminated water. Probably the single greatest cause of infectious disease in much of Africa is contaminated water. Cholera is often spread through the water supply, as are many of the diarrheal diseases which are particularly deadly to young children.

Poor nutrition. People who are inadequately nourished are at a much greater risk from disease than those who are properly fed.

Inadequate Health Care. Most Africans do not have easy or affordable access to health care. Without adequate care, diseases which might readily be cured go untreated, frequently resulting in death.

Poor Health Care Education. People are most easily infected when they are unaware of the practices which put them at risk. One of the clearest examples of this worldwide has been in the spread of HIV infection.