Solidarity Language of Rights Episode 3January 05, 2021

3. Has the human rights framework outlived its purpose?

Hosted by Akwe Amosu
Produced by Peter Coccoma

South African human rights lawyer Kayum Ahmed’s entire career has been spent defending and extending the rights of excluded and oppressed people, at home and abroad. But this former CEO of the South African Human Rights Commission harbors considerable doubt about whether the human rights framework rooted in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights can meet the demands of radical black and brown activists.

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The Interview

‘Has the human rights framework outlived its purpose?, an interview with Kayum Ahmed, former CEO of the South Africa Human Rights Commission

Kayum Ahmed is a leading member of South Africa’s human rights community who led the country’s Human Rights Commission 2010-15. He began his life as a rights activist seeking to secure treatment and support for members of the muslim community who were HIV-positive and went on to be engaged in signature battles to defend rights in a country famous for its Constitution’s fealty to human rights principles. Notwithstanding that history, Ahmed has in recent years begun to have doubts about the power of the framework laid down by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights to respond to the constituencies and communities who most need it. As he told Akwe, hearing young black and brown activists in South Africa and elsewhere say the human rights paradigm does not address the roots of their oppression has caused him to wonder whether it is time to find a new source of authority for radical change.

The Coda

US civil rights activist Charles Cobb Jr shares a song commemorating the day that US civil rights activists met an African anti-colonial fighter in 1963

This episode’s Coda spotlights a brief but — to the participants — momentous encounter in 1963 between young black activists in the US civil rights struggle and a prominent African anti-colonial fighter. Kenya’s Oginga Odinga, shortly to become his country’s Vice-President, was on a tour of the United States at the invitation of the State Department when leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, got wind of his presence in Atlanta and asked for a meeting. Charles Cobb Jr, then a field organizer in Mississippi, was in the group that sat down with Odinga – a meeting commemorated in a song by the SNCC Freedom Singers.


Akwe Amosu: Hey, I’m at Akwe Amosu and this is Strength and Solidarity.

Strength and Solidarity is a podcast about the people and ideas driving — and disrupting — human rights work around the world.

In this episode,  

  • A tough critique of the human rights framework and questions about its relevance for black and Brown activists  
  • And in our Coda, we’ll be diving into the history behind a song commemorating the day, almost 50 years ago, when the US civil rights struggle met African independence in an Atlanta hotel. 

But before that, I’m going to check in with my colleague Chris Stone and ask him about an issue that I’ve been puzzling over. 

Part One: Conversation 

AAHey, Chris, how are you doing  

Chris Stone: I’m well, Akwe. 

AAWell, I’m picking the topic this week, because what’s on my mind is Nigeria and the #EndSARS protests that surged last year and continue – it set me thinking about how long this struggle to reform Nigeria’s police force has been going on. When I was a journalist working, even in the eighties on Nigerian issues, police misbehavior and brutality was already a known problem. And here we are in 2021, still looking at an egregious pattern of abuse with a whole new generation coming out onto the streets to protest. I know that you have directly worked with Nigerian police, and NGOs in Nigeria that have sought to introduce police reform. And just wondered what your reflections were? 

CS: It’s so inspiring to see what this new generation, these young activists have been able to do with the #EndSARS protest, to be able to watch them force the Buhari government that had promised time after time, year after year, to abolish this abusive unit of the Nigerian police finally forced to do it. That’s a huge accomplishment. I think it’s a great moment to take stock because of course it’s not just Nigeria. This last year has seen tremendous movement forward in street protest in political pressure in activism and rights advocacy on police abuse, from the United States and across Europe, across Africa, across Asia. So understanding why, why progress is so hard on police reform  is a concern in Nigeria, but it’s a concern all over the world as well. 

AA:  So what would it take to see some real shift? It seems as though there’s no political will on the part of successive generations of political elites to force a change in police practice. 

CSI think I’ve come to the conclusion after decades of working on this issue. That real reform only moves forward when you have an alignment between really strong political activism in the streets, in the society, in organizations, pushing for reform, outraged at abuses, , nd you have professional leadership inside police organizations that want a more professional, more disciplined, more accountable service, that aspire to lead a police organization, that is more true to the principles of the society,  than the police behavior has been. When those two things align up, you can make real change, but it rarely happens. 

AASo is there an example of a place where you’ve seen those two things come into alignment? 

CSOh, I think there have been and when they do line up, it’s so exciting. So in, in the state of Rio, in Brazil, for example, at the turn of the century, 1999 and 2000, Luis Eduardo Suarez was made the undersecretary for police. And at the end of this period of dictatorship, military rule, in Rio, you had this alignment between civil society and public pressure for police reform, and in Luis Suarez, someone who was really determined to make that reform from the inside. And there was, briefly, a period of real change that made a real difference in saving probably hundreds of lives in the favelas because the police stopped simply marching in to the favelas with their guns blazing. What doesn’t happen – you can’t count on the elected leaders to drive real police reform; in the end, in any country. Those elected leaders are too ambivalent. They want to hold on to the power, that control of the police gives them. And so I think that’s why it takes this alignment between public activism and professional leadership. 

AABut it doesn’t sound as though that’s a very durable basis on which to try and drive reform. I mean, look at the situation in Rio today. 

CSNo, I think, I think this is not a situation where you can reform policing and then relax. Policing is always going to be in danger of slipping back to abuse. The question is, can you make progress? Can you stop the killing? Can you stop the beatings? Can you stop the corruption? 

AAOK so let’s get back to Nigeria. Why is it that in Nigeria police reform is proving so difficult to move forward? 

CSWell, in Nigeria, you have the kind of public demand for better policing. Nigeria is one of those places with really strong civil society organizations that have been at this for a very long time. There are coalitions of organizations across the country working on police reform, and there are some dedicated organizations for whom police reform and working with the police to try and improve their respect for human rights has been at the center of their mission for decades. That is half the requirement. What you don’t have is the other half. You don’t have the leadership inside the police determined to build a more professional police service. You have it occasionally, but the Inspector General of Police in Nigeria at a head of the Nigerian police service is in office for such a short time, a year, two years, maybe if you’re lucky that they don’t have the time to make real reform. 

AAAnd, and why are they in for such a short time? 

CSThe law forces them to retire at a very young age, uh, at around 60 years of age or a certain number of years of service. And they’re often appointed because of their seniority in the service. You know, sometimes you have, uh, abusive leadership and it’s good to get rid of them quickly. But when you have someone like Solomon Arase, who was the Inspector General of Police from April 2015, for just about 15 months, he was able to make some progress – civilian oversight of police, a complaints mechanism was strengthened, but he was only in office for less than a year and a half. 

AASo even though we’re seeing amazing power on the streets, what I’m taking from what you’re saying is there has to be something that shifts the way that the police force forces presently structured before they’re going to get the kind of answer they want. 

CSI think that’s right. I think the protestors understand that, which is why the demands combine a need for accountability and a need for reform with structural change in the police and in the police oversight bodies. So that the police leadership is more independent of the regime and has the time to build the kind of professional service that would be more accountable, that would be more respectful of rights. 

AAWell, let’s hope for that. Thank you, Chris. 

CSThanks, Akwe 


Part two: Interview 

AAMy interview this week is with Kayum Ahmed, a leading South African voice on human rights. He began his activism seeking to uphold the rights of HIVpositive people in his country, eventually becoming the CEO of the South African Human Rights Commission before moving on to study in both Europe and the US.  He currently works in the public health program of the Open Society Foundations in New York, and teaches as an adjunct professor at Columbia University. Ever since I heard Kayum describe a trenchant critique of the human rights framework by young South African student protesters, I’ve wanted to know more. So I asked him to explain why they were so skeptical. 

Kayum AhmedIt starts in some ways in 1948, with a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which fails to take into consideration slavery and colonization, and the injustices of the past. It seems to draw a line in the sand and suggest that we only look forward, um, without taking account of these inherent systemic issues, historical injustices that give rise to the systems of oppression that we have in the first place at the moment. So this is some of the, the challenge that I have with human rights discourses and its inability to tackle those bigger questions. 

AASo I think an advocate for the universal declaration would say the whole point of human rights is that they don’t distinguish between humans. Any human has these rights. And so a demand that there should be some retrofitting is unnecessary. These rights are inherent in humanness and black people are human. The declaration didn’t exist during slavery exists now and it covers everybody. So what’s the answer to that? 

KAI think it’s a good argument. The challenge of course, is that even the Universal Declaration says something like, uh, we are born inherently equal as human beings, and it makes an assumption about this inherent equality. There are counter arguments to the inherent nature of rights, discourses, whether rights are something that you are born with as an individual, or whether it’s something you claim as a sort of legal right? And so depending on where you fall on that philosophical line, I think if one argues that rights are inherent, then clearly the differences between human beings and how we are born and where we are born must then play out subsequent to that birth. So if you’re born poor and black, or rich and white, you may be equal but your outcomes are fundamentally different. And then for those who argue that rights are something you can claim, that everyone is equal in their ability to claim rights, again, rights have largely become a sort of declarationist or legal discourse in which your claim to a particular right is often only possible through a Human Rights Commission or through the court system, which again, in some ways is designed for a particular kind of person to claim their rights. So even, even if we agree that everyone is born with inherent dignity, with inherent rights, how one claims the right to access those rights becomes another barrier to achieving this universal sense of human rights. 

AASo you’ve written about how those who feel that the rights framework is inadequate have talked about the importance of decolonizing it, of the decolonial frame. How does that help? 

KAThe decolonial frame attempts to de-link from dominant EuroAmerican thinking about rights So for instance, one of the counterarguments made by those schooled in the African philosophical tradition would suggest that human beings are not necessarily born equal, but that humanness is something we acquire over time, that you become human; you are in the process of becoming human. And that may be a very different way of looking at the idea  of humanness and the human in human rights. There are traditions who draw on indigenous thinking to argue that the idea of the human is deeply problematic and flawed, that humans can’t be separated from non-human nature. And so when we think about the human and human rights, it privileges an anthropocentric worldview that, that disregards, climatenature – the trees and animals and so on. So there’s also that particular perspective. And then I think there’s a perspective which suggests that no matter how hard we try, humans rights is a flawed discourse and it can’t be decolonized. And so a de-colonial approach invariably suggests that we need to abandon the human rights framework altogether and come up with an alternative, a new way of looking at the world. And those who argue for that more radical approach suggest that human rights have been so completely co-opted through the United Nations systems, through countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia, who claimed to be human rights defenders, but we know are not. And so if a discourse has been so profoundly abused, perhaps it’s time to move on to some alternative framework. And I think these are the sorts of critiques that are being offered at the moment around human rights. 

AAI’m mean, I suppose another counterposition might be look, the Declaration of Human Rights is a statement of principle. It’s not a tool for correcting real power imbalances in the real world. And that if you want to do that, it’s not declarations, principles that make the change. They may inform your choices, once you have achieved the change you want to make, but you need to mobilize mass power to overthrow the advantage that people with power, whether they’re white, or rich, or whatever other selfempowering tools they’ve managed to amass, are using. And so I guess – is it possible that the critique is overestimating the power of the principle itself to make change? 

KAI think the critique is that if we were to mobilize the masses, as it were, to overthrow those in power to challenge those in power, one of the critiques is that human rights discourses and frameworks are designed in such a way that they would either tacitly support those who hold power or potentially be an obstacle to those who want to challenge power in that, human rights frameworks may suggest that overthrowing a government is completely against human rights principles, that you have to engage in some sort of quote unquote civilized discourse, and that you need to use the legal mechanisms available in order to change things. So, there’s an inherent contradiction there. The other is that human rights frameworks may in fact, aid and abet those in positions of power. It creates a particular framework and paradigm within which we need to operate. And so if we are going to be challenging the system and overthrowing the system, it probably means challenging this human rights framework at the same time, which is so embedded and knitted into the system.  So that’s, I suppose, a countercritique to the, to the counter-critique! It’s complex and messy and honestly, I one of the questions people often ask is, so what is the alternative, right? If not for the human rights framework, what are you suggesting? And I think this is, where I come up short. I don’t know the answer. So I continue to operate within this human rights paradigm using it for its value and its power. And I’m not saying it doesn’t have any of those. I think it is incredibly powerful too, but at the same time, we need to build an alternative vision and alternative framework and I struggled to figure out what that looks like exactly.  

AAIt’s noticeable to me that you don’t see the human rights frame feature prominently in the most passionate black struggles in the world today, is this the reason – this critique that you’re laying out –  is that the reason why human rights is not, despite being so powerfully anti-racist in its framing, is not showing up? 

KASo on the one hand, the Black Lives Matter movement has come out publicly saying that they are a human rights organization, that they are human rights group. And they did this in this fantastic Time magazine article. At the same time, when I talked to student movements, working in different parts of the world, particularly most recently, the decolonial movements that have emerged at universities in different parts of the world, human rights is not part of the vocabulary of liberation. It is, in fact, seen as having been co-opted by those in power. It’s often the universities in those contexts,  the vice chancellors and the presidents of universities who would talk about engaging in civil discourse and talking about civil rights and human rights the students want a new radical language that doesn’t necessarily operate at the level of the human rights frameworks that are being articulated by those in positions of power. So, yah, there is something to be said about the lack of human rights discourses in these conversations. And I think that certainly raises questions about its continued value in this new generation of struggle that I see emerging, particularly among blackled organizations across the world. 

AAI suppose that the human rights community itself may be somewhat to blame for this situation, or this skepticism. Because when you look back to the Cold War and the heavy emphasis that Western countries laid on civil and political rights in their fight with the Soviet bloc, there was very little interest then in a broader definition, or a more inclusive definition of rights that would have met some of the demands and claims and concerns of black and brown peopleexcluded people, poor people in the world. 

KAI think that’s fundamentally part of  the challenge that plays out even today. And so even in a place like the United States, talking about socioeconomic rights, and I happen to teach a class on socio-economic rights at a law school here in New York, where, when I first proposed the idea and believe it or not, the class started three or four years ago and I’m the first person to teach a class in socio-economic rights at Columbia law school. They’ve never taught a class on this before.  And when, when I proposed the class to the faculty committee, they were very worried that noone would turn up for the class. Of course, it’s oversubscribed just because of the interest that people have in developing this idea of socioeconomic rights, but also shows how our systems of education are so completely out of touch with where younger people are.  So while the discourse may have been – and I agree with you –  socioeconomic rights, definitely seen as an Eastern,’  more sort of left wing approach to rights discourses, there’s increasingly a recognition of its value in places such as such as the US Europe, of course, has long moved toward adopting this idea. But the problem that we have today is that a company like Johnson and Johnson, for instance, a large pharmaceutical company that has been involved in awful scandals about making medicines available and, and being sued in court for various products that cause cancer on their website. They openly sign up to an acknowledge, both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political and Socioeconomic and Cultural rights: so you have a private entity that openly endorses human rights principles and instruments, and believes that what they are doing in terms of their work is to promote these human rights ideals. And so it raises this paradox ,in some ways.  You have these instruments that are meant to ensure liberation from the very corporate entities that have now adopted these frameworks. And I feel like when you get to that point in the life of a discourse, that perhaps it’s time to think of radical alternatives, and maybe the time for tinkering with human rights frameworks is over, perhaps as a provocation, it is time to abandon rights frameworks and to move on to alternative ways of seeing the world.  One that speaks to the radicality that students and black folks and brown folks across the world have been pushing for. And that human rights has thus far miserably failed to deliver on. 

AA: Kayum Ahmed. We spoke to him in New York  


Part three: The Coda  

AA:  And now for the Coda, our regular segment where someone recalls a poem, a proverb, a quotation, or perhaps a piece of music that gives them inspiration or insight into the work they do to advance rights. We’re going back to the US civil rights struggle in the early 1960s Journalist, author and historian of the civil rights struggle, Charles Cobb Jr. was in his early twenties and a field organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, in Mississippi. He wanted to tell me about a song commemorating the day in 1963, when some young black activists in the deep South met a Kenyan whose country was about to become independent and who was to be its first vice-president. 

[Song: “Oginga Odinga” Freedom Singers, from Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966Smithsonian Folkways] 

Charles Cobb JrI don’t remember how we knew or found out that Oginga Odinga was either on this tour or that he was in Atlanta. We had been called in from the field for a meeting in Atlanta at SNCC headquarters. That’s why we were there. And then we sort of interrupted our meeting to go home, to go down to this hotel, to meet this Mau Mau, is what we thought we were going to... and he was warmI mean he had no reason to invite us into his room – or really his suite – and spend that amount of time with him. This was more than just a perfunctory, glad to meet you, glad to meet you. But he talked to us about Kenya and we talked to him about our movement and whatnot for at least an hour.   

We were invisible to media and this is 1963. We were always anxious to make what we were doing visible, and there was a risk hovering over everything. That was one of the things I think interested. Oginga Odinga cause I think the level of violence directed at activists like us was unknown. It’s one thing to be refused service at a restaurant or something like that. It’s another thing to have your house or church blown up. 

Matthew Jones was in the group that came to see Oginga Odinga. Matthew was working in Southwest Georgia as a SNCC field secretary. I think Matthew had actually studied opera at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga – he wanted to be an opera singer! But he became one of the important songwriters in SNCC and later would be one of the original singers in that core group called the SNCC Freedom Singers. Anyway, Matthew was there, he just came up with the song and it became a very popular song in SNCC, you know, almost right away. 

Odinga Odinga was not yet the vice president of Kenya because Kenya wasn’t independent yet. It was about to become independent. But what impressed, stayed with us and what we wanted to talk about was the fact that here was a black guy getting ready to be the vice president of a country That was brand new to us Yes, we had read about Nkrumah, and, and yes, we knew the name Sekou Toure, but really to be face-to-face or in conversation with someone who is getting to ready to be the vice-president of a country or a political figure, that was what was really new to us.  


AAThanks to Charlie Cobb for that window on a fascinating historical encounter with Kenyan anti-colonial leader, Oginga Odinga, memorialized in the music of the civil rights movement. And also thanks to Smithsonian Folkways for allowing us to play the song by Matthew Jones and the SNCC freedom singers. If you have a favorite item that relates to your own passion for rights and justice, and would like to tell us about it, please do so – drop us a line at 

OK, that’s it from Strength and Solidarity for this episode. If you’d like to know more about our work, visit our website,, and please add us to your podcast library and join us again. A shout out to our producer, Peter Coccoma, I’m Akwe Amosu,  see you next time.