Language of Rights January 11, 2021

On reading Sylvia Tamale

Chris Stone
The Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights

I’ve recently finished reading Sylvia Tamale’s fascinating new book, Decolonization and Afro-Feminism. It’s provocative from start to finish, but let me focus here on Chapter 6: Repositioning the Dominant Discourses on Rights and Social Justice, and in particular its first section, Human? Rights? 

Tamale is making a fundamental critique of the European tradition of human rights from Magna Carta through the Universal Declaration and up through the ICC; but she is also holding firmly to human-rights concepts of dignity, intersectionality, and struggle. Both her critiques and her commitments resonate powerfully with the ideas we debate in this Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights.

Tamale portrays the contemporary, Western, legal regime of human rights as a tool in the hands of the ruling elites of the West, which they have used for centuries (and continue to use) to entrench their own privilege. The nobles who forced King John to sign Magna Carta were simply protecting their own exploitive power, and the expansion of rights beyond this narrow circle with the rise of capitalism merely facilitated the further exploitation of the new working classes, granting workers the “freedom” to sell their labor under the most unequal conditions.  When the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, it was not only without the participation of most of the African continent, but the realities of white supremacy and colonialism belied the words themselves. For all its talk of rights and equality, the regime of legal rights did not merely exclude Africans and women from its protections; it legitimized and legalized the most “atrocious violence” against them at the hands of European and American men.

But rather than reject the idea of rights, Tamale is beating her own path towards a new conception of rights through African ideals and sources, rather than through European and American power. As she rehearses the history of human rights in the West, Tamale contrasts “the African conceptualization of ‘rights’…integral, interconnected, and indivisible,” with a Western, “state-centric model of human rights protection…wrapped in the cloth of sovereignty.” In African societies, she continues, “rights are claims not against the state, but against society.” Human dignity for Africans “emanates from a social paradigm based on reciprocity, solidarity and inclusiveness—values that are far richer than the basis on which modern rights have been founded” in the West. All of this matters, she insists, because “an intersectional understanding of rights is critical to any decolonisation/decolonial efforts.”

What I find so inspiring in Tamale’s book is the clarity with which she describes the awful baggage that the Western language of rights carries with it, and yet her insistence that a different conception of rights remains a crucial tool in our struggles for justice. She strives to correct our vision of rights, rather than to jettison the idea of rights altogether. From an extraordinarily broad array of African and global sources, she is fashioning a new language of rights.

Tamale introduces her chapter on rights with a poem, Of Broken Glass Ceilings, by Nafula Wafula. This is the section Tamale quotes:

I walk.
I walk through this journey alone
I tiptoe through the darkness, through the murk through the…dark
I stepity stepity step…I sway, I bounce…I walk…
I walk. As they lurk…they linger…they stare…they plot…
I march…. I match the footsteps of my ancestors,
those that came before me
those that cleared the path, my fore-mothers whom they never speak of,
the torch bearers
those who fought the battle so I can be here…
so, I can walk…march…journey on…

The poem also ends in words that resonate with the Symposium:

I believe in a just a fair world, where I am not subservient to another because we differ in color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age. Whatever differentiation,
I believe in equality, peace, togetherness…
and if you believe in the same,
raise your hand and be counted
Join the march as we state it
make a statement, embrace it, acknowledge it, not just when it favors you but every minute
Act like it, live it, epitomize it, shout it,
Raise your fist in the air, defiant, and own it
own your life and your role in actualizing it
every day…shout it.
Then I will not journey alone…you will be there…
you will not walk alone, I will be there…
Before you know it, we are a movement
undeterred, undefeated
If you own it, you give others the permission to own it,
to be it, to embrace it…
come…let us walk together. Let us journey…let us cross the finish line. Together
let us win.