By Andrew M. Mwenda
An examination of the growing power and tyranny of international human rights organisations
International human rights groups largely founded and financed by the West have increasingly become powerful voices shaping politics in Africa. Their voice is respected by governments and mass media in the West. Given Africa’s dependence on Western aid, our leaders shape our politics around what these groups are saying. This undermines our sovereignty and nascent democratic institutions. It also reflects growing success by Western countries to shape post colonial Africa in their own image.
Human rights groups are often single-issue organisations and seek to make their single issue the only issue on which to judge a country. They are opposed to sovereignty which African countries achieved through hard-won battles of national independence. They claim to represent universal human values that know no boundaries. Yet most of their campaign is actually based on Western values born of a specific historical experience. Meanwhile, these organisations are not answerable to anyone. Their leaders and executives are not elected.
There is no democratic way to hold them accountable for their actions. Thus, the beneficiaries of the activism by human rights groups have no recourse to elections to remove their leaders from office if they did not meet specific expectations. They only have financial accountability to their funders, not political accountability to the beneficiaries of their advocacy. And even here, they account by showing their work i.e. exposing human rights abuses.
The structure of incentives here is to name and shame human rights violators, a factor that encourages them to vilify or even distort. The beneficiaries of the activism by human rights groups are not members of these organisations. So what they received from them are not political rights but charity. These human rights organisations present themselves as the altruistic self-appointed representative of the marginalised. They deny the principle that governments, even when elected, are actual representatives of the people. Governments and their elected officials are to be checked by these unelected organisations.
More critically, although they seek to influence government policy and lobby their home governments to pressure their client regimes to comply with their demands, these organisations cannot pay the price for their advice. They deny local nuance and context which may shape specific governmental practices. Yet they cannot be held accountable for the consequences of their advocacy and actions. Theirs is power without responsibility.
Human rights groups actually work as vehicles for the agendas of their home governments. Their aim therefore is not to advance the cause of democracy and its two components – contestation and participation. Instead, it is to eliminate participation of the citizen from politics so that they are reintegrated into the political process as wards – passive spectators to be helped and represented by the altruistic human rights group. In many ways, this development is a recreation of the colonial project.
The Europeans who promoted the colonial project claimed to be working in the best interests of the natives. One of their missions was to introduce commerce and trade in order to liberate natives from poverty. The other was to introduce “civilization” to emancipate natives from the tyranny of custom and the despotism of local chiefs. The third was to introduce Christianity whose aim was to save the natives from satanic worship. The native was not an active participant in this process meant for his own emancipation. He was supposed to be a passive recipient of European altruism. The heroes of the African people under this tutelage were David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley and Cecil Rhodes. Hence cities, lakes, rivers and their falls were named after them.
These lofty claims were not without justification. Most of Africa was still poor and backward and not exposed to trade and commerce. Many Africans lived under the tyranny of custom and the despotism of local chiefs and warlords. Some of our religious practices were oppressive to women and children. However, the lofty motives were a smokescreen to disguise the real motive of domination and economic exploitation.
The anti-colonial movement was an attempt to reject this narrative and bring the voice of the African at the center of the debate on his/her future. Western paternalism was exposed as arrogant and brutal. Africans needed to shape their own destiny. The period 1950 to 1990 was the era of this ascendance; the attempt by Africans to define who we are, what we want and how we want to achieve our goals. Our civic rights were to be realised through political struggle, not humanitarian intervention.
The actors and heroes of this effort were to be African revolutionaries mobilising, organising, inspiring and leading the African masses. The names of Livingstone, Stanley and Rhodes gave way to Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and Ben Bella. Colonialism was in retreat philosophically and literally.
The political and social movements that had emerged during the anti colonial struggle were membership-based organisations – farmers’ cooperatives, political parties, trade unions, student groups, professional and occupational associations – for drivers, lawyers, traders etc. These demanded direct participation in the political process. They rejected the notion that African interests were to be articulated by Europeans. This was the first flowering of democracy in Africa.
Armed struggles of the NRA, RPF, PAIGC, FRELIMO, MPLA, EPLF, TPFL etc carried a similar attitude – Africans remained the main actors. Even in the church, the colonial stranglehold over our souls was challenged by Christian revival movements. Our emancipation was to come from our own political struggles, not from charity by altruistic Europeans. Social and political movements evolved organically from the society and represented the demands and concerns of members. Beginning in 1980s but especially after 1990, western attempts to re-capture this initiative from Africans gained momentum.
It came in the wake of prolonged failures on the continent and therefore seemed to be justified by immediate necessity. So the workers’ union and the cooperative society has given way to the western-funded NGO; the revolutionary politician has given way to the aid worker. Yet the NGO is disarticulated from the society it serves. It survives by begging from abroad to pursue an agenda designed and developed from elsewhere. The mission of our generation is to resist this neocolonial project dressed in the old language of human rights that seeks to demote us from rights-bearing citizens to mere recipients of international charity – playing the role of spectator in the struggles shaping our destiny.