African Values, Human Rights and Group Rights: A Philosophical Foundation for the Banjul Charter

In Oche Onazi (ed.), African Legal Theory and Contemporary Problems: Critical Essays. Dordrecht: Springer. pp. 131-51 (2014)
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A communitarian perspective, which is characteristic of African normative thought, accords some kind of primacy to society or a group, whereas human rights are by definition duties that others have to treat individuals in certain ways, even when not doing so would be better for others. Is there any place for human rights in an Afro-communitarian political and legal philosophy, and, if so, what is it? I seek to answer these questions, in part by critically exploring one of the most influential theoretical works on human rights in a sub-Saharan setting, namely, Claude Ake’s ‘The African Context of Human Rights’. Ake famously maintains that a typically Western approach to rights is inappropriate in the sub-Saharan region, in two major respects. First, Ake contends that although a human rights legal framework might be suitable for an ‘individualistic’ society, it is not for one of the sort common among traditional black peoples, for whom group rights are alone apt. Second, Ake maintains that, insofar as rights are relevant, rights to socio-economic goods are of much more importance in an African context than rights to civil liberties, due process and the like. Using Ake’s article as a foil, I draw on values salient in sub-Saharan moral worldviews to construct a unified philosophy of rights that not only provides reason to doubt his two claims, but also offers a promising way to reconcile a communitarian framework with a robust prizing of human rights alongside ones that are more collectively oriented. In short, I aim to provide a principled foundation for the core elements of the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights.

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Thaddeus Metz
Cornell University (PhD)


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