Panelists address Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ effects on Africa

Abbey Wells, Staff Reporter

To commemorate the United Nations’ World Day of Social Justice on Feb. 20, the Inamori International Center for Ethics and the Social Justice Institute sponsored a panel in which they examined human rights in Africa. These institutions host events annually to address human rights issues throughout the world.

In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states that every person in the world is entitled to human rights. The panelists addressed how the document affects Africa.

Felix Kumah-Abiwu, Ph.D., and assistant professor of Pan-African studies at Kent State University, talked about the effect of the UDHR on voting rights in his native country, Ghana. He questioned whether Africa is reflected in the document as most of the continent was still under colonial rule when it was created.

Despite his reservations, Kumah-Abiwu acknowledged that the UDHR has significantly shifted the framework of the political and legal systems in Ghana. For example, the country’s 1992 constitution includes a provision which protects and promotes the human rights of Ghanaians.  

Kumah-Abiwu credited the UDHR with influencing many political developments in his home country, such as prisoners recently gaining the right to vote.

“This is not the case in the United States, but I would suggest that one of the other positive impacts was just last December, thousands of prisoners were allowed to vote in Ghana,” said Kumah-Abiwu. “That’s another step forward.”

While encouraged by the promising developments, Kumah-Abiwu admitted that Ghana still faces voting challenges, like election violence. “Before the election, during the election and post-election violence is a major problem in Ghana,” said Kumah-Abiwu.

Another panelist, George S. Kamanda, a human rights scholar and student at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, addressed women’s rights in Sierra Leone, where he was born and raised.

Through his experience as a human rights advocate, Kamanda discovered that a key problem was that people in Sierra Leone did not know about the rights guaranteed to them by the UDHR.

“If they’re given the opportunity to know about these rights, then they’ll be aware,” said Kamanda. “They’ll know how to defend themselves, and they will also know how to participate in social change and also their own governance.”

Kamanda believes that the UDHR has had a major impact on women in Sierra Leone. While women do not have equal say in Sierra Leone, they are gradually receiving more opportunities to participate in government. In 2008, Umu Hawa Tejan-Jalloh became the first female Chief Justice of the country.

However, Kamanda warned that a few select women in government do not equal inclusive change.

“Selecting a few prominent women doesn’t mean women empowerment for all,” said Kamanda.

While Kamanda is proud and happy about the developments in his home country, he remains wary.

“I’m cautiously optimistic about whatever we do because we need to sustain this change,” he said.

A third panelist, Sara Thiam, Ph.D., visiting assistant professor of anthropology at Case Western Reserve University, examined children’s rights in Senegal and Mali. She has done extensive research on the “taalibes” who are children whose educations consist of memorizing the Quran. They are considered to be victims of human trafficking because they spend much of their time begging in the streets to support their studies.

“The scale of which students are begging today in the streets of Senegal is massive, up to 30,000 children. Some estimates go up to 100,000 children throughout Senegal,” said Thiam.

The enormity of the issue has led to many humanitarian and children’s rights efforts targeting this group of children.

While the UDHR has led to many promising advances throughout Africa, the panelists all agreed that there are still steps to be taken. However, Kamanda said that not every African country is at the same level of development, so the international community should not view the continent as a “one size fits all” situation.