Standing Up for Human Rights





It is already 70 years that the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The declaration remains a giant step in the journey of human civilisation.

In sum, the declaration has established irrevocably the “equal dignity and worth of every person.”

The significance of the famous document (translated into at least 500 languages) derives from the historical fact that it is a synthesis of the perspectives of representatives from divergent legal, social and cultural backgrounds. The document is still a proof that mankind can unite in the interests of our shared humanity contrary to the centrifugal activities of the contemporary right-wing populists around the world. Whatever the merchants of hate and rationalisers of oppression may say the universality of the values embodied in the declaration remains unimpeachable.

Activities are still being organised globally on the theme of this year’s celebration: Stand Up for Human Rights.

The theme is a clarion call on us to stand up for our rights as well as the rights of fellow human beings. The underlying principle of the theme is reminiscent of the judicial pronouncement in one of the several legal battles to advance the frontiers of human freedom by the legendary Gani Fawehinmi. On that occasion the court said something to the effect that everyone should be his “brother’s keeper” in matters of human rights and their enforcement. It is even more so when the rights involved is the right to life.

There is also the striking resonance of the theme about the Nigerian condition; inequality, social injustice and assault on human freedom are open sores on the national conscience. Nobelist Wole Soyinka says that for him, “justice is the first condition of humanity.” In Nigeria today, justice is doubtless the first condition of nationhood.

Two features of the political and socio-economic landscape may be enough to demonstrate this point on this occasion of global reflection on equality, justice and freedom. These are the indifference to human rights violation of others and the sore lack of socio-economic rights.

The culture of popular resistance to human rights violations is receding and there is no lack of rationalisation of this socio-political retrogression. To start with, the violation of the rights of members of the poor classes hardly attracts the attention of the selfish society. Illegal detention, physical abuse and dehumanisation constitute the lot of the poor. In most cases there is hardly a voice raised on their behalf. If there is any voice at all it would not be as loud as the weighty voice raised   when a member of the upper class is the victim. To effectively stand up for the rights of the poor the justice system should be oriented in a way that takes into cognisance this class reality.

Besides, instead of exerting collective pressures on government to obey court orders that some citizens on trial be released from custody, there is a conspiracy of silence in the land. Even otherwise informed personalities have elected to look at the violation of rights of others with partisan, ethnic, religious or even sectarian binoculars. Technicalities are glibly invoked on an issue that is purely of human freedom. The rest of the society is becoming an ostrich when it comes to this development, which questions the fundaments of democracy.

The underlying philosophical point is hardly disputable: freedom is at the foundation of all the human rights declared December 10, 1948 by the world body and the subsequent ones added to the list as part of mankind’s march to progress.

Furthermore, the general climate of human rights in the experiment with liberal democracy since 1999 has proved that mere laws and judicial pronouncements might not be sufficient in the struggle for advancing human rights. As another Nobel Prize Winner, Amartya Sen, argues in his book, The Idea of Justice, it may be necessary to go “beyond the legislative route” to protect human rights. The eminent economist and social philosopher puts the matter like this: “It is perhaps important to emphasize that not only are there several ways of safeguarding and promoting human rights other than legislation, these different routes have considerable complementarity; for example, for effective enforcement of new human rights laws, public monitoring and pressure can make a considerable difference. This is one of the reasons why it is important to give the general ethical status of human rights its due, rather than looking up the concept of human rights prematurely within the narrow box of legislation –real or ideal.”

The second important area of reflection on this occasion is the material status of socio-economic rights in Nigeria. The burgeoning poverty in the land is being exacerbated by the increasing denial of socio-economic rights of the people. The rights in this neglected category include the right to education, healthcare, potable water, safe environment, social protection and others contained in the Chapter II of the 1999 Constitution. The obvious drawback, as petty bourgeois lawyers are quick to taunt the poor people, is that these constitutional rights are not justiciable. In other words, unlike the freedom of expression, which can be defended in court, it is almost impracticable to defend freedom from hunger, disease and ignorance foisted on the poor by the unjust system in court. Luckily, the indefatigable human rights defender, Femi Falana, has richly illuminated the path of seeking legal enforcements of some of these rights in his important book, Nigerian Law on Socio-Economic Rights. It’s a gallant effort against passivity in the struggle for human rights. A lawyer who reads that book may have a rethink on the culture of merely wringing one’s hands and proclaiming non-justiciability of socio-economic rights.

As humanity celebrates the 70 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Nigerian justice sector should do more to protect the rights of the oppressed and the poor in the society.

Are there Still Tribes in Nigeria?

The story of the 26-year old American evangelical missionary, John Allen Chau, is a tragic one that should attract the sympathy of all regardless of faiths. He was killed in the course of his life- mission of converting to Christianity members of the “lost tribe” of North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal in India. Their population is estimated to be between 50 and 150 and it is believed to be unstable. Some even say, Chau “knew he might die.”

According to one report, North Sentinel Island “ is home to the Sentinelese people, who are among the world’s last uncontacted tribes – that is, indigenous groups that maintain no contact with modern civilisation (italics added for emphasis). Most past efforts to contact the Sentinelese have been met with hostility.”

The action of the missionary was said to have violated Indian laws, which seek to protect the people in their isolated state. Human rights experts are divided in their opinions on the matter. Some think the Sentinelese “should be let alone” while others say it is the obligation of the society to connect them with larger world.

Our hearts should go to the survivors of Chau.

His sad story says something again about the meaning of the category, tribe, which is still being used most inappropriately in official documents and speeches in Nigeria. Even professors appear on television condemning “tribalism” and describing some persons as “detribalised.”

Only on August 16 last year, this reporter humbly drew attention to these self-inflicted insults of describing Nigerian ethnic groups and nationalities composed of millions of members as “tribes.”

The piece is reproduced below in parts to further draw attention to this trend:

“In his work entitled Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Marxist literary critic, Raymond Williams, observes as follows: “Every word I have included (in the volume) has at some time, in the course of some argument, virtually forced itself on my attention because of the problems of its meaning seemed inextricably bound up with the problems it was being used to discuss.”

In the book, the Welch scholar illuminates on the origins of over 100 words while he takes the reader through the trajectories of their meanings over time within the context of culture and society. Although the approach of Williams was essentially cultural, it is worth noting that the changes in the meanings are politically and ideologically loaded.

If Williams were to conduct his research in today’s Nigeria, he would probably be interested in how the meanings of some words are changing almost imperceptibly. These words, which could be veritable candidates for Williams’ Keywords include “tribe,” “radical”, and “mantra.” The cultural, political and sociological implications of the meanings of these words ought to interest our cultural theorists and social scientists. Doubtless, these problematic words are used to discuss serious problems of the Nigerian politics, economy and society.

Perhaps the most sociologically problematic word used in everyday conversation in Nigeria is “tribe.” It is often assumed to be complimentary when you openly acknowledge a Nigerian as “detribalised.” Meanwhile, no one bothers to tell us if the person being praised was ever “tribalised” before the process of “detribalisation” allegedly began. In official documents, provisions are still made for Nigerians to indicate their “tribes.” When you make statements to the police, you are asked to indicate your “tribe.” People proudly introduce themselves as belonging to the tribes of Ijaw, Igbo, Tiv or Fulani when filling visa forms of other countries. Here we are sometimes talking of nationalities of tens of millions of people! Commentators seem united in proclaiming “tribalism” as a major problem of Nigeria. So to achieve national integration, our leaders should be “detribalised” in exercising powers, so goes the advocacy. The word “tribe” is used by people who are seemingly oblivious of the derogatory import of that sociological category.

Yet, eminent political scientist, Okwudiba Nnoli, has thoroughly dealt with the misnomer that is called “tribe” in his seminal work entitled Ethnic Politics in Nigeria. According to Nnoli, it is utter misuse of words to be talking of “tribes” in modern Nigeria. What we have in Nigeria are ethnic groups, nationalities (and some even now talk of nations!) and certainly not tribes. The colonialists pejoratively refer to the “natives” as belonging to “numerous tribes.” And 57 years after independence, members of the elite have uncritically adopted this insulting label fit only for those who lived in primitive societies. Members of a tribe might not even be aware of the existence of other tribes a few kilometres away in the primitive society. Indubitably, none of the over 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria should be referred to as a tribe…”

The insult should stop. To start with, the word “tribe” should no more appear in official documents and speeches to describe Nigerian ethnic groups. And scholars and public intellectuals should lead the way by stop using “tribes” when they mean ethnic groups and nationalities.

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