In spite of unprecedented gains in respect for human rights’ theory and practice, a number of challenges still persist worldwide. For instance, deriving from philosophical underpinnings, the subject of human rights has had to bear with the problem of universal vis-à-vis relative interpretation.[i]  Thus, considering that human rights are in tandem with the globalisation phenomena, how do we account for the apparent conflict between the developed and the developing worlds? Besides, what role does the human rights project play in the globalisation phenomena? Can the poor enjoy an adequate set of human rights? Is the human rights project a purely cultural phenomenon whose surge is only temporary? What should qualify as human rights?

There is yet another set of questions relating to the question of the discipline to which human rights belong both in theory and practice. While some scholars have claimed that it is a legal field and have gone ahead to disseminate it as such, others have seen it as a field of social sciences. Others though agreed that human rights have philosophical roots and are content to cast it in ethical terms. Some in the exact sciences have claimed that there exists no relationship between their disciplines and human rights.[ii]  Unfortunately, such disciplinary claims have sometimes led to open disagreement, misunderstanding and, in some places, hostility. Given this background, this paper defends the following claims:

First, that the knowledge of human rights assumes unity but has different aspects and emphases that allow it to be interdisciplinarity. This view seems more appealing because it treats human rights pursuits as interconnected.[iii]

Second, that the field of human rights is basically human values that ultimately find their justification in the epistemological and ontological realm. This, however, does not exclude other aspects of human rights.

Third, that traditional African human values are relevant in our contemporary understanding and practice of human rights. That is to say, African notions of human rights need to be debated, developed and fused with the Western conception of human rights for all humankind.




The Meaning of Human Rights


Even though the term ‘human rights’ had been used by Thomas Paine in his Rights of Man (part I, 1791 and part II, 1792), it was conventionalised by Eleanor Roosevelt after the Second World War, in the process of drawing up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Human rights are a derivation of the natural rights concept of the 17th and 18th centuries’ natural law philosophy whose major contention was that rights were not man-made, but were laid down by God. As such, they are natural entitlements or claims due to a person solely on account of being human. However, natural rights do not necessarily include all moral rights. Some moral rights and duties depend on special circumstances like relationships between friends.[iv]   From the above, human rights are now universal moral rights or ideals or values that envisage and are intended to fulfill, the potential of human beings. Human rights involve deliberate human effort in upholding the dignity of man and woman as opposed to constraining, scheming for, or omitting anything that may lead to the violation of that dignity. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights described human rights as universal, natural, inalienable, indefeasible, and not granted by the state. A person with a human right has no reason to be grateful to benefactors; such a person has ground for grievance if he is denied the rights being claimed. Consequently, no other person or group or institution can take them away because they have sanctity and validity that transcend ordinary positive law.[v]  In order to put them into effective operation, human rights have been encoded in several documents referred to as human rights instruments, which include charters, conventions, treaties, protocols, principles, constitutions, resolutions, declarations, and others. That is to say, they have been defined more precisely and are increasingly being given legal backing and greater recognition. In fact, a good number of human rights exist in the form of statutes; they can be monitored, and their status before courts of law is taking hold.

However, in the contemporary understanding, human rights include not only the liberal individualist concept and freedom from interference of various kinds, but also positive benefits like education, medical care, food and a decent living standard. These positive benefit-rights are different in the sense that their correlative duty seems to rest neither on individuals nor on anyone in particular.[vi] For instance, such articles as 36 and 39 of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda 1995, which say that everyone has a right to culture and that every Ugandan has the right to a clean and healthy environment, respectively, do not directly oblige any government to provide such rights. Nonetheless, this view is only partly true. One increasingly witnesses more potent frameworks for more specific duties, obligations and justiciability. In duties, for instance, General Comment 12 in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), clear duty bearers are mentioned, the state being one of the major ones. More importantly, the recent constitutional case in South Africa of Irene Grootboom and others versus Oostenberg Municipality, decided on 4 October 2000, has moved obligations within ICESCR to their desired conclusive end of standing before the court or justiciability.  

Human rights in the above category have also been presented as basic needs.[vii] These include rights related to such things as food, clothes, shelter, education, etc. In this regard, they have been presented as contributing to development or even as one aspect of development; therefore their uniqueness as human rights does not present anything new vis-à-vis any scheme of development.[viii] Indeed, until recently they have taken two divergent trajectories.[ix] In any case, development and human rights are ultimately for the fulfillment of humankind, development having been recognised as a human right with the newer, positive meaning of aiding all the important aspects of people as opposed to its previous restrictively economic meaning.[x]        

Lastly, human rights are now growing into an academic and professional discipline. The basis is largely logical in relation to other disciplines, but partly from its own disciplinary and professional practice. In this connection, human rights derives unity or autonomy and interdisciplinarity. I propose to demonstrate this last claim in this paper.


Legal Contribution


We have already mentioned that human rights were connected with the legal interpretation of rights and, therefore, need no further clarification. However, besides this specific connection, human rights are increasingly forming part of law at the international, regional and local levels. Much legal effort is spent discussing, administering, drafting, defending and disseminating human rights knowledge. Indeed, there seems to be a close association of human rights with law. For instance, some universities require a legal background for admission to postgraduate studies in human rights.[xi] However, even if the legal connection to human rights is obvious, it is not exactly comprehensive, independent and exclusive. For instance, it is clear that the work of Enlightenment philosophers played a unique role in the definition and effort to implement human rights. Religious tenets are also a precursor to the human rights discipline as discussed below.


Religious Contribution


Nearly all major religions of the world pursue care for others or the principle of brotherhood. They share the universal interest in addressing the integrity, worth, and dignity of other human beings. In fact, some of these religions want to carry this principle beyond worldly life, to the idea of a blissful life after death. For instance, in regard to Christianity and Judaism, the book of Genesis emphasises a shared fatherhood and, subsequently, a shared brotherhood. In general, the Holy Bible is full of human rights claims for its part, Hinduism emphasises dharma (duty) and good conduct (Sadachara) toward those in need. In the Manava Dharma Sutra (Treatise on Human Duties) it is stressed that all human life is sacred and should be loved, which is why Mahama Ghandhi pursued the principle of non-violence.

The founder of Budhism, Siddharta Gautama preached against the caste system as well as proposed building as egalitarian society. In Confucianism, too, the founder, Kong Qui, in the Analects, asserted that human beings ought to be treated with equal worth and that within the four seas, all men are brothers. The Islamic teaching is particularly emphatic on justice, sanctity of life, personal safety, freedom, mercy, compassion and respect for all human beings. Even most African traditional religions, that in general do not assume revelation, embody human rights principles because of the fusion of religion with morality. Thus Gyekye Kwame observes that:


Whatever the moral virtues possessed by, or ascribed to, God and other spiritual powers, it should now be clear that the compelling reason of the Akan pursuing the good is not that it is pleasing to the supernatural beings being approved by them, but rather it will lead to the attainment of human well-being.[xii]


In general, therefore, the religious contribution to the appreciation, understanding, and protection of human rights finds great justification in religious teaching. It is owing to these efforts that the moral imperative of universal obligations toward humankind was first conceived and established.


Contribution of Social Sciences, Arts, and Humanities


Social sciences, including commercial subjects, social anthropology, sociology, economics, education and others are related to human rights. However, ostensibly, political science and gender studies do claim more relevance to human rights knowledge than other nonlegal sciences. This view is probably enhanced by the dual design of the United Nations system of hard law versus soft law, the latter described as political, but acting morally. At this point, the line between what is political and what is philosophical becomes thin. Yet, not only do social scientists teach, research, and advocate on issues of human rights, they also analyse, defend and lobby on behalf of human rights. Moreover, humanities especially languages, drama, literature, music, philosophy, fine art, journalism and others (religion having already been mentioned) are related to cultural rights. As disciplines they contribute directly to the knowledge of human rights through developing, dissemination, teaching, and theoretical justification of their respective fields. For instance, it has always been claimed that without writing, teaching, and speaking a language, such a language may disappear, and it falls upon the above specialties to sustain and protect a language. Thus drama, music, artistic expressions and trade, all help the growth and promotion of cultural rights. Of course, the role of education is fundamental, for it not only promotes such rights through teaching, but it also actually disseminates human rights knowledge itself.   Since the role of ethics is fundamental to human rights, we deal with it next.


Ethics and Human Rights


The relevance of ethics to human rights is logically implied by the definition of human rights as moral rights or values.  Consequently, the disciplinary connection between ethics and human rights is obvious. It is in ethical terms that human rights are expressed, and it is in ethics that the justification of human rights is based. In short, under what reasons should a human being be seen and treated positively? What reasons can be adduced for treating human beings justly? What is the content of human values? These and related questions constitute the part of ethics which ultimately informs human rights knowledge.  In short, the ethical discussion precedes the discussion about human rights issues.

In addition, some human rights are still recognised clearly, encoded as ethical declarations as opposed to treaties (charters, conventions, and covenants), declarations and resolutions. Such ethical declarations are called codes and principles. These are normally attached or annexed, not as legally binding parts of resolutions adopted by participating states at the international level, especially at the United Nations.[xiii] Moral pressure is envisaged; here the ethical implications of human rights are overt.


Exact Sciences and Human Rights


Initially, it may appear that the exact sciences have little to do with ethical issues of  human rights and that the two can be separated without lose to the scientific aspect. For instance, it may be argued that science is identified by the method it adopts, namely, empirical evidence, and logical formulation of the steps toward specific results. This characterisation of science, however, raises some questions; for instance, the empirical characterisation would exclude mathematics. But a more formidable criticism came to prominence in the 19th century, under the influence of Ernst Mach and Karl Pearson. For them science is merely an accurate and economical description, whose practical task is to enable scientists to predict events. In this view, the method did not matter as long as predictions came out right, i.e., with high probability.

Yet, more relevant questions may be raised: Does the scientific enterprise have any social end or purpose? If it has, who defines that purpose? How is this end achieved? What considerations are considered in determining the method? Is this the end, or does the method determine the end? It is my view that every study has an end, which in turn has a value or values. These values are social, but the sociability of these values could either positively support the welfare of humankind or undermining it. Here, the connection of science with human rights becomes clear. Even studies about stars in progress bear specific values. In our current situation, the human rights implications related to HIV clinical trials come to mind.  The death of Dr. Lukwiya, who died because he was devoted to treating ebola patients at Lacor Hospital, in Gulu, Uganda, emphasized such ethical implications even more strongly.

In another context, the emergence of “black-box” theories, related to the analysis of cybernetics, almost led to the abandonment of the traditional method of science without losing its scientific character. Matters were not made any better by the suggestions of P.W Bridgman’s operationalism, that concepts employed in scientific theories must be defined in terms of actual operations carried out by scientists in measuring their quantitative values. Yet, one may need to know how these concepts are constructed without a system of valuation. The latter views of R. Carnap and K. Popper, that the important thing about scientific propositions is that they are confirmable and that scientific propositions are falsifiable, respectively, raise serious skepticism over the scientific method, and suggest a large space for human valuation in the realm of science, hence and its related implications for human rights.

It must be pointed out that to say that all categories of knowledge contribute to one body of knowledge is not to claim that human values include the totality of all knowledge. What is being proposed is that every specialty could claim a legitimate autonomy, but that such autonomy scarcely excludes human values. Mathematics, for example, it may appear superficially to have no relationship with human values, but mathematical applications shade into human values and human rights issues.[xiv] In any case, the relevance of computerisation and other technologies to human rights is now taken for granted. To sum up, S. Mike has said that propagating genetic engineering in Africa is unethical, adding that the West does not know the consequences of this kind of technology. Though contradictory in his statements, he added that such technology is intended to destroy Africa’s crop production.[xv]

In consequence, the understanding and practice of human rights should be seen as presuming the contribution of all disciplines. The convergence of the disciplines derives from, and is justified by, among other reasons, the underlying core of human purposefulness. Probably, knowledge could be sought for its own sake, but this is hard to explain for the social significance of such knowledge soon becomes opponent. Take for instance, the consistency of a logical argument. Not only is such an endeavour good, but it is also potentially applicable to finding a solution to a practical problem. Even if one were to insist that knowledge is good per se, one would be hard put to explain who or what, in the first place, makes knowledge good. And for whom would this knowledge be good?   

It is the centrality of human beings centrality in knowledge pursuits that accounts for the convergence of different disciplines. This echoes the role of human values in the creation of knowledge, which in turn suggests human rights knowledge and hence the unity of human rights. It does not matter that the purposes may be negative. For instance, the current argument that drugs for HIV patients have to be expensive because there is need to invest in the production of more effective drugs. Such an argument betrays the negative motives of the scientists but the centrality of human beings is no less undermined.

It is also true that human rights knowledge contributes to the larger body of knowledge. Indeed human rights knowledge ought not to aim at fragmentation of knowledge which could result in a lack of a comprehensive conception. Human rights derive from all disciplines and, in turn, contribute to other disciplines. Above all, the categorisation of knowledge is not sufficient by itself and does not necessarily sever its relationship with other disciplines. It only creates conditions for more easily handling specified knowledge for the service of knowledge in general. If other important disciplinary connections to human rights seem to have been highlighted in human rights literature, one fundamental aspect, namely, the epistemological basis of human rights, has not been considered. Perhaps, as rationalist claimed, all knowledge is ultimately one, and this convergence ought to be envisaged. We consider it below.






Though human rights have often been traced to the ethical realm, the underlying epistemological issues have been neglected.[xvi] This section of concerns the epistemological relationship between human values and human rights. It deals first, with the meaning of values, followed by a consideration of the relationship between epistemology and human values. Our major question, therefore, becomes “How do we come to know of any values at all?” At this juncture, the question is not which values but rather, how we know that these are values?  What is their origin? Because human values form a sub section of values, it is important to deal with the term ‘value’ first, before we examine human values. Later, we shall return to the origin of values.

The notion of value derives from economics; originally it meant the worth of a thing, and valuation meant an estimate of its worth. Later it became a technical term leading to the branch of economics called the theory of value and the branch of philosophy called axiology. The philosophical meaning has two strands. In the first, but narrow sense, value refers to such terms as good, desirable or worthwhile. But in a wider sense, it covers all kinds of rightness, obligation, virtue, beauty, truth, and holiness. This is a positive meaning. The opposite of this would be disvalue or negative value.

In the second sense, value refers to what is good or desired or what is cherished. For instance, when reference is made to African values or democratic values, it means that Africans have a set of standards they cherish or desire, and that democracy has a specific set of good values or standards. Sometimes, it means the thing that has value when goods are called ‘valuables’.  Values are of different types. According to the culture in which they are held they may or may not vary along with the emphasis with which they are held. For instance, while human life is universally respected, the emphasis attached to the care of hungry relatives in Europe is much less than it is in Africa, though probably for different reasons. Moreover, one could talk of cultural values, moral values, economic values, social values, aesthetic values, political values, etc.  Before we can proceed, it is important to clarify human values. On the one hand, human values may imply the values or worth attached to a human being because of his or her uniqueness. On the other hand, it may be the values human beings put on anything they cherish. Whereas the former is specific, the latter includes the scale of things that may be preferred or held dear by a person or persons. Both meanings are applicable, but human values in a specific sense are similar to the so-called fundamental rights and ideals or universal moral rights, while in the broader sense it includes also rights that have been referred to above as basic needs. In either case, both form the basis for understanding human rights; whereas values may not be human rights, human rights are values. 


Human Values and Knowledge


I would like to add that values are knowledge, and extended discussion of statement with Professor Dalfovo has not changed my view. [xvii] He cautioned that some values may be simply emotional or a matter of “likes” and “dislikes.” Indeed, initially some values may seem to lack epistemological support. However, a deeper analysis should indicate to us that a simple liking for the colour “yellow” is implicit in epistemological processes. Besides, Prof. Dalfovo has pointed out that some values may be given, bequeathed, and may, therefore, not be part of rational consideration. However, this position may be seen differently. Let us listen to Leopold Senghor:


The African does not begin by distinguishing himself from the object, the tree or the stone, the man or animal or social event. He does bot keep it at a distance, he does not analyse it. Once he has come under its influence, he takes it like a blind man, still living, into his hands. He does not fix it or kill it.[xviii]


The mode of arriving at liking or disliking may be incorrect, or may short-cut a full rational consideration, but that is not to say that the process cannot be improved or does not exist. Consequently, it matters at this stage not what type of knowledge it is, or that someone is aware that what he knows is a value, but rather that human beings possess values that are knowledge, and that these values are a product of a cognitive process, however imperfect. This concept is sufficient for our purpose. For instance, although almost universally people cherish having money and may seem not to be thinking about it, they already have a conclusion, an opinion, or a view about it. Thus, human values are a form of knowledge or truths about human beings in respect to their dignity. But these values are always held in a specific culture or in a given society, irrespective of whether one or many persons are involved. Therefore, social knowledge is useful for communication, relating, organisation and the general existential life of a specific people, but more specifically for the manner of respecting human beings within that society. In short, values are standards or ideals for social action. But how does one accept one standard for action and reject another?

Even though the questions of human values pertain to the realm of moral perception or a conception of what ontologically it means to be human, in order to serve as values, they must first and foremost be known. They have first to be known and approved either ratiocinatively, emotionally or otherwise. These values are positive and intended to elevate or help realise humanness in full. As such, they encompass the worth or level of dignity and the sacredness attached to human beings. For instance, to talk about human life, honour, health, etc., is to talk about human values. In fact, human rights are human values to an extent that they sometimes are referred to as the philosophy of humanism, while in legal terms it may be referred to as humanitarian law. Having said the above, we address another major question: Whence comes the knowledge of values come from?


Origin of Values


It will be remembered that in opposition to the relativism of the Sophists’, Socrates’ cherished aim in establishing universal definitions through his midwifery (the Socratic maieutic) was to establish universal standards for the ethical conduct of individuals and states. In other words, Socrates declared the relationship between epistemology and moral conduct. He proclaimed that a virtuous life and enlightened life are one and the same thing, indeed, that the virtuous man is the one who knows moral goodness, namely the man of wisdom. This insight of Socrates could be expressed differently: How do persons come to know what is good for them? Indeed, can they enjoy the good without knowing it? If they enjoys the good after knowing it, how does they know it; more clearly, what determines or informs one’s value system?

Many philosophers have contributed on this issue. Plato and the rationalists assumed that there was absolute, necessary truth that could be discovered through reason. These necessary truths would logically be assumed to include ethical principles. Spinoza works this out most elaborately in geometric fashion—as he entitles his Ethics. However, Spinoza’s ethics has a somewhat empiricist-emotivist base, namely, that what is morally good or bad is a product of a sense of feeling pain or pleasure. The empiricist Hume seems to have taken up this position as well, because he pointed out that the moral sentiment is actuated by only what is pleasant or unpleasant, or what is felt to be useful or pernicious, either to its possessor or to others affected by it.[xix] This was particularly significant for Bentham’s utilitarianism. However, what seems relevant here, is the claim that the values of goodness or badness derive from a subjective evaluation of the experiences of pleasure or pain.

Here, the contribution of Immanuel Kant is important. In his Critique of Practical Reason, Kant argued that moral judgements like “we ought to tell the truth” and “thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour” are a priori judgements and laws whose basis must be found in the realm of concepts of pure reason. This part of reasoning that makes Kant a rationalist. In short, our moral principles already exist in us, but have to be discovered by use of reason. Besides, he contends that the adequate explanation of the a priori conditions of human morality will not be found in those universal and necessary laws that impose moral obligation or rational necessity. It is experienced as ‘thou ought,’ which also implies ‘thou canst.’ Without this moral ‘ought.’ people would never know themselves to be free.

I find it difficult to agree with the Kantian position because he invokes a rationalist innatism which seems to be the weakest aspect of rationalism. For instance, how do we affirm that this is my ‘neighbour’? What constitutes ‘bearing false witness’? How do we ever tell that this is ‘truth’ if it is just how I feel today? What will happen tomorrow when I am feeling differently? It is for this reason that J.S. Mill and other empiricists have claimed that the so-called necessary truths are highly generalised instances of experience. The empiricists supported by the pragmatists and positivists agree in denying a priori existence of an absolute, eternal and universal realm of values.

According to the pragmatists, values are constituted by the evaluating activity of the process of inquiry, a process stimulated by a problematic situation. Values are discovered the way facts are discovered, namely, through experience. Whereas behaviour is said to be good when the consequences are unsatisfactory, the locus of value is said to be located in human desire and satisfaction.[xx] Positivists assume an empiricist epistemology and, in fact, seem to be completing the work of the empiricist in terms of practical ends. But whether conceived in empiricist or in pragmatic terms, the old Socrates’ criticism that the approaches of sense perception are bound to err becomes apparent.  

When existentialists claim that existence precedes essence and, therefore, emphasises the freedom and authenticity of the individual, they are relativistic even though they are drawing on the meaning of existence and experience of the individual. In his Thus Spake Zarathustra, F. Niestche defended the view that values can only be made by the individual seeking authentic, primitive existence. The constructivist approach is amenable to existentialist and pragmatist epistemology. In either case, it is implied that values are relative. In general therefore, no single approach seems impregnable to criticism, though the thrust to universalize human rights remains strong.

Having said this, a question arises: Who holds these values? Are values universal or relative?  This question is particularly difficult because of its implications, especially for human rights. The question raises epistemological issues of another character, namely, whether values are objective or subjective points of view? Or simply, do moral judgements have any justification? For example, are we not deceived in claiming that, for instance, human beings value association? In Africa, generally, elders are not only respected, but they are also cared for by their close relatives. Can we then say that Europeans devalue their elders because they do not personally care for the elders as opposed to Africans who personally take this responsibility? Since this paper is concerned with human values, let us shift our attention to them, for here disagreement among philosophers has been strong.


Epistemological Complementarity 


In spite of the weakness of the above approaches, it remains true that human values exist and are realities everywhere. In my view, the above approaches are not exclusive; instead, they complement one another to provide a more complete explanation of the source of values. In the first place, I find useful the Kantian view that for anything to be known, it must be known by using some power, which Kant called the a priori conditions of human thought.[xxi] With this view, Kant would seem to have ruled out the rationalist innate ideas without necessarily negating reflection because he says there are two sources of human knowledge, namely, sensibility and understanding. When Kant says that objects of knowledge are also thought, he is admitting to the application of reason to the search of knowledge, a view close to rationalism. In short, both rationalism and empiricism need to work together to generate knowledge.

But this is not all that produces human values or human rights and consequently, other approaches become relevant. For instance, pragmatism becomes relevant because even though values are seemingly stable, they are not always permanent. They change in time and space. For example, in the past, I used not to care about Christmas cards, but as I continue to relate with people who value these cards, increasingly I feel obliged to do likewise. Whereas existentialism seems less applicable here on account of its denial of the legitimacy of society over the individual, the post-modernist emphasis on constructivism, on the other hand, is very relevant. The point here is that most of approaches are complementary rather than exclusive in their explanation of the source of the knowledge of values and consequently their explanation of the source of human rights. Such an approach seems to agree with L. Senghor’s view of African epistemology:


Negritude is expressed in the emotions, through an abandonment of self in an identification with the object; through the myth, I mean by images—archetypes of the collective soul, especially, by the myth primordial accorded to those of the cosmos.[xxii]            


What is being proposed by Senghor is that, knowledge is acquired and transmitted through the experiences of life, but that does not exclude reason.

Indeed, values presuppose an accumulated experience and recognition that this is the case or that it is not the case. It could be through social mechanisms assuming any of the above approaches that values are developed, recognised, upheld, and, if need be, discarded in accordance with new experiences and social circumstances. This means that values are a result of social construction, much as they are a social knowledge, and, in many cases, a patrimony.  This implies that values can change or even adopt what previously was a disvalue. For instance, in Ankole traditionally it was a value to grow and appear fat, but now it is increasingly negative to grow fat. Many other examples can be adduced to illustrate what is being proposed.




African Communal Life


In order to appreciate human rights in the African context, a general picture of the social life of Africans is necessary. African society presents contradictory implications for human rights. On the one hand, it values communal life, and the attendant concepts and practices offer greater scope for protection of human rights. On the other hand, its hierarchical character together with its negative practices create apparent difficulties for human rights protection. To begin with, it is now a generally accepted fact that African life is “corporate,” which is to say communal. Work was shared, benefits were shared, evil was shared, much as hopes were shared. The success of one member was the success of all, while the shame of one was equally the shame of all. This meant that a number of social ties that kept community together. Laws, customs, traditions, set forms of behaviour, regulations, taboos, regulations, etc., constituted the value system of the people.[xxiii]  Individual life had little place in African context and was greatly discouraged. 

This social arrangement had its strengths in terms of human rights implications. It should be stated that Africa shares in the universal construction, appreciation and use of human values, which are the source of human rights. To a large extent, African human values are a factor in the practice and implementation of human rights. It may be said that African social life was communal, and, therefore, incompatible with the Western conception of human rights on account of the Western individualistic basis. Moreover, such a society might be oppressive. However, while these differences may be accepted, the differences of conception alone do not imply a better or worse protection of human rights. It basically means that human rights appear in differing cultural and historical circumstances. On the contrary, it may be argued that the African culture carried a wider framework for the protection of human rights for African corporate life protects everyone? For instance, when a child died, the whole community would grieve in pain for the dead child. The treatment of the sick child or even of adults was a communal affair. Every relative, friend and neighbour would look for medicine, advise, and participate in the welfare of others.  The child belonged to the community, not just to the individual.[xxiv] Land was shared, which made it possible for everybody to produce food. Accessibility to food was not hampered by any communal institution. In this way, Africans were able to approach human rights from a positive, humanitarian frame of reference. That is, not only was a human being honoured for being human, but also his or her needs were everyone’s concern, in contrast with the Western liberal interpretation.[xxv]


Hierarchical Life


African social life was not only communal, but was also subsumed under a hierarchical universe. Human relationships were categories based on the assumed level of the vital force or the position of the individual in the totality of things. According to both P. Tempels, in his Bantu Philosophy (1934) and J. Mbiti, in his African Religions and Philosophy (1969), the African community use a metaphysical and social hierarchy in a descending order beginning from God, to dead founders of clans or ethnic groups, to dead grand forefathers, to the living-dead, the elders, and then, to men, women, children, animals, plants and finally to inanimate beings. Moreover, this hierarchy was not static but interactive, in such a way that the greater vital force had influence over the lesser and the lesser force could be manipulated to affect the higher force. Further, the hierarchy was intertwined with religion, God being the common denominator, mover, and protector of all beings. 

In the context of human rights, as said above, a hierarchical society involved different levels of being or existence. An elder took precedence over youths, man over woman, and God over everyone and everything. Implicit in this hierarchy was social inequality for men enjoyed more rights than women. Besides, the rights of youths did not match those of elders. More socially successful men and leaders in the community had wider social space as well as more rights than less privileged people.

On the other hand, it must be pointed out that the hierarchy implied reasonable protection of human rights within a historical context.  In the first instance, those higher in the hierarchy, had greater responsibilities. As a rule, every man had a fundamental obligation to look after his wife and family. Failure in this obligation drew shame upon the family and the whole community. Moreover, the man or elder who wronged the people below his vital force was sanctioned seriously by the community, depending on the gravity of the wrong done. Even more strongly, combined with the communal aspect of life described above, the hierarchical society bore an overwhelmingly protective responsibility over its lesser individuals. For instance, the killing of one person in a clan meant that the whole clan could respond even more seriously, which maintained a balance of forces. In short, if we are to understand human rights in terms not only of entitlements, but also of obligations, then African society was strongly conscious of the protection of human rights, irrespective of the conception of human rights they may have had. This view totally agrees with T. H. Green and E. Barker who claimed that the motivating force of rights was concern not only for oneself but for the other and that the good of society is constituted of such relations.[xxvi]


Other Cultural Values


One may appreciate cultural values by examining African languages, speech, dance, farming, customs, traditions, etc. For instance, the noun stem of the word ‘muntu’ among the Bantu people is a profound word for a human being. The word carries much more profundity than ordinary words. It conveys that the human is that being which is sacred, highly valued and inviolable. To report that “omuntu yaafa” (that a person has died) is to report the worst news ever; the loss of life is incomprehensible, unacceptable, and the worst evil ever. For this reason that Banyankore says: “rufu temanyiirwa,” that is, no one ever gets used to death. Furthermore, among the Banyankore, human life is believed to be so sacred that whoever takes the life of another is bound to face some calamity, and can never wash his hands clean of blood. In short, he remains a criminal for the rest of his life. A killer never enjoys peace, because he or she is dreaded, shunned, reminded, suspected and whispered about. It is further believed that such a person will go mad, and thus such killers or evildoers need to visit medicine men for cleansing.

As Gyekye Kwame notes, the dignity and respect accorded to humanity is derived from another pervasive value, namely, the African belief that all human beings are children of God.[xxvii]  Thus, because human beings are a creation of God, logically human beings bear some goodness in themselves and, therefore, deserve dignity and respect.  Taken a step further, that all people are children of God means that all are brothers, a fundamental supposition of human rights, even in the Western Christian tradition. Indeed, this universal brotherhood is reflected in the communal structures and actions through out African traditional societies. These bonds include the extended family, the clan, the community and broader social relationships.[xxviii] Universal brotherhood is also reflected in African actions like generosity, greetings, funerals, rituals, etc. The works of L. Senghor, J. Nyerere, but specifically K. Kaunda in A Humanist in Africa as said above, emphasise this even though they do not relate these ideas to the notion of human rights as presented today. However, the high value they see in the person is an important basis for the modern concept of human rights.

Two examples of customs demonstrate this concept, namely, greetings and funerals. Once again, as Gyekye Kwame observes, when strangers have occasion to meet, they normally ask about the origin, clan, relatives, and other details, but with a view to creating a more brotherly relationship. The greetings are interested in the well-being of the person together with others. Once good friends, the bond can be as strong as good as a consanguine relationship. For funerals, everyone who comes to know about the death of a person, with the exception of children and the disabled, must bury the dead because human life is so valuable that when it is lost nothing else can substitute for it.

Of course, there are also counter actions and practices that may seem to undermine the above values. These may include sorcery, human sacrifice, murder, conflict, and others. However, these actions derive from the evil minds of some people in African societies. Such actions and practices never form part of the value system of the African society. As said above, these were disvalues and injustices that may occur in any society. Kwame’s invocation of a metaphysical explanation is specific and unsatisfactory because different human sacrifices were and still are carried out.[xxix]  Consequently, the concept of human rights as understood today is in complete accord with the traditional African concept of human values. In fact, African traditional human values promote greater human rights in Africa.


Changing Perspective of Human Rights


It is important to mention two things. First, that to talk of the African view of human rights is to generalise. Africa is a quite a large territory with a great variation of cultures and worldviews. Second, the traditional conception of human beings and their related actions were forced into a crisis by both colonialism and other forces, whether benign or not. Consequently, the perception is fast changing and to talk of the traditional conception may be misleading. However, in spite of these changes, the sacredness of human beings is essential in Africa.  Indeed, as A.T. Dalfovo asserts, human values are everywhere upheld, though these expressions may differ due to differences in culture. After all, the Western conception of human rights is already in African constitutions, taught in African universities, implemented by a variety of institutions, and appreciated by different layers of African society. Consequently, positive African values and the notions of human rights are need to be debated and developed in the context of our times. The African sense of the dignity, universality and unity of humankind, is the basis of the protection and implementation of human rights.




In view of what has been discussed above, the following claims can be made. The debate about human rights exclusively belonging to some specific realm is not useful. Indeed, human rights knowledge assumes the contribution of other sciences and thereby suggests a unity of knowledge. In this regard, the interdisciplinary teaching of human rights by the Human Rights and Peace Centre (HURIPEC) at Makerere University is commendable.  This view seems more appealing because it treats human rights pursuits as interconnected, thereby creating a wider core for their accession, understanding and dissemination.

It must be pointed out that human rights forms part of values cherished by humankind, but these values constitute our knowledge of man and his destiny in the universe. In fact, it is the relevance of people in the pursuits of knowledge that accounts for the interdiscipline of human rights knowledge. This knowledge is not explained by one or two theories, but by every aspect of  a people’s epistemology, implying that human values find their origin in people’s habitual ways of acquiring knowledge. This serves to demonstrate, once more, that human rights knowledge is not only unfolding all the time, but needs to be presented holistically, in tandem with the infinite positive possibilities of a people.

Lastly, the African traditional conception of a human being is in agreement with the contemporary understanding and practice of human rights. Even hierarchy is at the service of the community in spite of its shortcomings. A human being is so valuable that he or she is never thought of as an individual but rather in terms of a community.  The African conceive the human being as sacred, whose needs ought to be fulfilled. Such a concept forms the basis for human rights. It does not matter that the concept ‘human rights’ was not applied, it is more important that it was present. Its conception needs to be explored with a view to its greater promotion in our times.



[i] Although human rights are often described in universal terms, there is another view, namely, that human rights are relative citing the relevance of cultural imperatives and subjective aspects of human nature.   

[ii]  During a seminar on interdisciplinary teaching of human rights organised by the Human Rights and Peace Centre (HURIPEC), at Makerere University, in August 2000, some representatives claimed that they did not see how the exact sciences could relate to human rights.

[iii]  In this paper, knowledge is used to refer to what one is aware of.

[iv] D. D. Raphael, Problems of Political Philosophy (2nd ed.) (London: Macmillan, 1990), p. 104.

[v] Stanley Ben, ‘Rights,’ in Paul Edwards, Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1972), pp. 195-199.

[vi] See D.D. Raphael, Problems of Political Philosophy (London: Macmillan [second edition], 1990), p. 110.

[vii] Fabio Sabatini, in “Rights based country programming in development cooperation: UNICEF’s experience in Zimbabwe,” a paper presented at the Third Expert Consultation on the Right to Food, Bonn, 12-14 March, 2001.   

[viii] Asbjorn Eide, in Katherine Salahi, Food Policy (Oxford: Pergamon), Vol. 21, No. 21, 1996, p. 23.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid. See also A.T. Dalfovo, “The Rise and Fall of Development: A Challenge to Culture”, in African Philosophy, SABINA, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1999, pp. 39-49.

[xi] For instance, the University of Oslo lists as part of its requirements, the disciplines of law and political science. See the flyer about the Master of Arts in the Theory and Practice of Human Rights issued by Norwegian Institute of Human rights (2000-2001) for Norwegian Students. Bora Laskin Law Library, University of Toronto also borders on the confinement of human rights to issues of law.

[xii] Gyekye Kwame, An Essay on African Philosophical Thought (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992), p. 146.

[xiii] Your Rights, Monthly Magazine by the Uganda Human Rights Commission, Kampala, Vol. III, No. 6, July 2000, pp. 3-6.

[xiv] The invention of the Maxim gun and early 19th century technological development is cited as one of the causes of World War I. The precise mathematical calculations and consequent production of precise weapons have far-reaching consequences for human rights.

[xv]  Dr. Samson Mike, who is the coordinator of the African Universities Initiatives and lectures at the West England University, said the above when he was giving a paper, “Africa is so Poor so that the West can be Rich” at Rock Hotel, Tororo, Eastern Uganda. The Monitor, 7th May, 2001.

[xvi] Much of the philosophical discussion has focussed on ethical considerations.

[xvii] A.T. Dalfovo is the former head of the Department of Philosophy at Makerere University, Kampala (1984-1999).

[xviii] In fact, L. Senghor talks of African emotion. Cited in P. English and K. Kalumba, African Philosophy (Garden City, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996), pp. 46-47. E.A. Ruch and K.C. Anywanu make a similar observation. E.A. Ruch and K.C. Anywanu, African Philosophy (Rome: Catholic Book Agency, 1984), p. 95. 

[xix] See his Treatise on Human Nature, Sections 1, 4 and 6 in Martin A. Walsh, History of Philosophy  (London:  Cassell, 1985), pp. 280-281.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi]  In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant called these conditions “pure categories” or “pure principles of understanding.” These conditions seem to be convincing, but Kant seems not to have bothered to explain their origin. Could they be innate? 

[xxii]  L.Senghor, “Discourse d’Oxford,” cited in A.E. Ruch and K. C. Anywanu, op. cit., p. 206.

[xxiii] John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (London: Heinemann, 1969), p. 208.

[xxiv] Ibid., p. 205. This view was expressed in both K.Nkrumah’s Consciencism (in both 1964 and 1970 editions) and J. Nyrerere’s Ujamaa, Essays on Socialism (1968).

[xxv] Kenneth Kaunda, A Humanist in Africa (New York: Nashville, 1963).

[xxvi] This view is cited in J.C. Johari, Contemporary Political Theory, Basic Concepts and Major Trends (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1980), p. 33. 

[xxvii] Gyekye Kwame, African Cultural Values (Accra: Sankofa Publishing Company, 1996), p. 24.

[xxviii] Ibid. See also A. E. Ruch and K.C. Anywanu,  op. cit.,  pp. 223-253.

[xxix] Ibid.,  p. 30.