The Centre for Human Rights, based on UP Main campus at the Faculty of Law, works toward human rights education in Africa. This centre, along with 14 other partners, corroboratively presents the award-winning master’s degree programme in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa. UP Associate Professor Magnus Killander explained that the centre was established in 1986 and was quite controversial at the time, given the history of the university. The centre, an academic department in itself, has such well developed PhD courses that as many as 500 applicants from all over the continent vie for the 25 places available each year. Part of the educational challenge is explaining possible conflicts of rights that can arise, such as the right to education versus the right to practise your own religion, culture and beliefs. For example, there have been stories in the past of schools not allowing students to practise their religion. This is a case where a person’s right to freedom of religion is limited, but in a reasonable and allowable way as the school has the right to discretion of its students and their behaviour.


Recognising that with every right comes a responsibility is a vital aspect of this education. “There needs to be a balance, for our privileges can be no greater than our obligation,” Xiaobo says. In the light of this, the Department of Basic Education launched the “Bill of Responsibilities” in 2008 as a guide for learners and schools. The document outlines the responsibilities that correspond with the rights found in the Bill of Rights. An example of this is recognising that the right to freedom of speech is not without limits or conditions. It should be respectful and based on the truth.


Some people believe the 30 articles adopted and proclaimed by the general assembly of the United Nations to be one of mankind’s greatest moral achievements, but a thought provoking article entitled “The case against human rights” written by Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School and published by the UK Guardian on 4 December 2014, seriously challenges this belief. Prof. Posner makes the point that the ambiguity in these human rights treaties allows for governments to rationalise almost anything they do. The sheer quantity and variety of rights (most countries formally have as many as 400 international human rights) can provide no guidance to governments given that one human right might prevent the government from protecting another. Prof. Posner goes on to say that even though each of the six major human rights treaties has been ratified by more than 150 countries, many remain hostile to human rights.


Saudi Arabia ratified the treaty banning discrimination against women in 2007, yet their law subordinates women to men in many areas of life. Despite ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child, child labour still exists in countries such as India, Uzbekistan and Tanzania, all of which do business with powerful western countries. China cites “the right to development” to explain why the Chinese government gives priority to economic growth over political liberalisation. The “Free the Slaves” organisation estimates that between 21 and 36 million people are forced to work against their will in China. While non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International do achieve success, Prof. Posner says that NGOs do not take an impartial approach because they realise that they cannot make poor countries comply with all the human rights listed in the treaties they ratify, so they end up picking and choosing. Perhaps the best that can be said of the human rights movement is that it reflects a genuine desire. Human rights are a complex issue and the water is further muddied by the different cultures and moral convictions of different nations.


What is apparent is that the battle for human rights is not only an ongoing one but a dangerous one for activists. 2014 Nobel Peace prize winner Malala Yousafzi can testify to this and, closer to home, Prof. Killander revealed that the centre of Human Rights is mourning the death of one of their collaborative professors, Prof. Gilles Cistacwhowas, who was assassinated on 3 March 2015 in Mozambique because of his views on human rights.


The youth of today should never lose sight of the need to take up the baton not only for human rights, but also for the responsibilities that come with them. When we enjoy our picnics or braais on 21 March, let’s just pause and take a moment to remember where we have come from. That in itself is a positive contribution.


Illustration: Faith Honey

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