Human rights, livelihoods and Ubuntu for the 21st century

Published on Pambazuka News, Horace Campbell, Dec. 09, 2010.

We cannot separate ‘the question of human rights and Ubuntu – our linked humanity and our peaceful coexistence with planet earth’ in the pursuit of ‘international peace and security’, writes Horace Campbell … //


In Africa, working people supported the UDHR as a document to use for mobilisation. In 1948, when this document was written, most African countries were under colonial rule. In the process of achieving their independence, Africans wrote their own Charter on Human and People’s Rights. Throughout the anti-colonial struggles, African intellectuals and human rights activists refused to accept the Western concept of human rights that excluded the question of self determination. These activists exposed the intellectual deformity that was manifest in the international campaign of powers that supported apartheid while championing human rights. 

The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights which came into force in 1986 recognised that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights did not cover people’s collective rights, especially the right to self determination. The limitations of the UDHR were even clearer in terms of the rights of women. In 1979 the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was instituted as an attempt to repair one of the limitations of the UDHR. Thirty-one years after this convention, the US remains a non-signatory to it. The reproductive rights of women and their right to bodily integrity have taken the question of human rights beyond the state, church, patriarchal family forms, and conservative women. The battles over reproductive rights have brought into focus the fact that human rights cannot be separated from the rights of women and the right to healthcare. This is even more so in the context of the debate over the provision of universal health care in the United States. The healthcare industry and their allied politicians have so commercialised healthcare that not only was government intervention to provide universal healthcare coverage for tens of millions uninsured Americans denied, the over 200 million citizens who have health insurance are tied up in rigorous procedural complications designed to deny them access to the coverage they pay for while maximising profits for the health insurance companies. It is on the question of the reproductive rights of women that religious fundamentalists have now emerged as negative forces in the struggle for human rights. These fundamentalists mobilise ideas about tradition to reinforce patriarchal domination over women. The oppression of women is also linked to the oppression of same gender loving persons. Even some of the leading human rights advocates in Africa have been silent on the extreme anti-human statements that have been propounded by so-called ‘radical’ leaders in Africa. Within the rank of religious organisations, the most profound work is needed to challenge the anti-human position of those who would oppress same gender loving persons. Human rights in the 21st century must be extended to protect all human beings against all forms of torture and dehumanisation, whether in the name of religion and tradition or through the invisible hands of capitalism and neo-liberalism.


Those who organised for the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights worked hard to oppose dictatorship yesterday. Today, the new tasks require new thinking and new forms of organising. The task of re-humanisation and healing are linked to new modes of thinking and new forms of consciousness. At the time of the 1948 human rights declaration, Western governments gave themselves the prerogative to decide who is human and what is right. This was most evident in South Africa, where in the same 1948; the principles of apartheid were entrenched. Since the end of formal apartheid in 1994, international capitalism has sought to entrench a new global apartheid based on the kind of class structure that defends 1 or 2 per cent of the population. The towering challenges that confront humanity in the 21st century – environmental crisis, the crises of the capitalist mode of economic organisation, militarisation of the earth, and crises arising from the binary and hierarchical conception of human being – are now enough to take the veil of Western ideation of human and property rights off the face of our collective humanity. One of the central ideas I put forward in my book, ‘Barack Obama and 21st Century Politics’, is that a new concept of social collectivism (Ubuntu) must be the basis of economic, social, and political organisation if humans are to survive the challenges of the 21st century. As we celebrate international human rights day, we want to reiterate here that we cannot separate the question of human rights and Ubuntu – our linked humanity and our peaceful coexistence with planet earth – in the 21st century if we must have international peace and security. (full text).

Comments are closed.