Between Universalism and Cultural Relativism: A Justification for Universality in the Application of International Human Rights to Contemporary Africa
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When the United Nations moved to promulgate the ICCPR and ICESCR in 1966, the world seemed set on a path to an international regime of human rights. This regime, it was hoped, would provide sovereign nation-States with the necessary legal and political language with which to censure and/or regulate any State conduct deemed inimical to the standards set out in these human rights instruments. Yet, since the promulgation of these instruments, we still have as many reasons for concern about the achievements of the IHRs regime as we have for optimism. Part of this concern arises from the relativist challenge to the assumption that IHRs are universal. In this thesis, I look at the universalism versus cultural relativism debate in the context of post-colonial Africa, and seek to advance three independent claims. First, contrary to the conventional relativist view that contemporary African societies are structurally communal societies, I claim that these societies are, in fact, modern nation-States. Based on this claim, I argue that IHRs standards are culturally suitable for application to modern Africa, pursuant to the modified modernization theory. Second, I contend that the extant pleading for cultural relativism in Africa is as much fixated on the relevance and significance of precolonial African structures as it is based on reified assumptions about the relative roles of the human individual and community. Finally, I proffer a claim for a theoretical justification for universality and, thus, the application of IHRs standards to all modern nation-States, including those in Africa. I, therefore, approach this debate from both practical and theoretical perspectives. Practically, I argue that the adoption of the Western models of socio-political governance and capitalism has structurally and socially transformed pre-colonial African societies into modern nation-States, thereby necessitating the adoption of human rights as both a prophylactic and a remedial response to the threats of modernity. I, further contend that a more compelling moral justification for the universality of human rights standards lies in understanding the nature of human rights as “sui generis universal legal and moral rights.” This contention serves to overcome the limitations inherent in contemporary minimalist morality theories which, in my view, under prescribe both the scope, and validity of human rights by reason of reference to specific cultural, philosophical, political and theistic justifications.
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