Interview • Alice Mogwe
What have you learned from the work you have done on capital punishment that you would like to share with people in other parts of Africa particularly?
I think capital punishment has been seen to be an imposition of the Western world. This is an argument used by those who support the death penalty and don’t want to see it abolished. Through my experience of working in the African Commission, it’s become really clear that to engage in a constructive and effective way on the continent we need to find a hook. And the hook needs to be what links us with our contextual reality – in other words, with the cultures of the continent. As you know, we have a value concept called ubuntu or butu, which speaks very much to the relationships between the individual and his or her community or society.
Underpinning ubuntu is the concept of dignity, which is really core to how Africans see human rights. So the African Commission’s Working Group, in interpreting the Article of the African Charter that looks at the right to life, has focused on the right to a dignified life. The Working Group has used that approach to begin to address the question of the abolition of the death penalty in the African context.
In short, one thing I have learned is the importance of context, in terms of dealing with human rights issues generally but particularly in relation to the death penalty.
Is this contextualization already occurring, or does much more still need to be done?
When we talk about the African continent we often make reference to statistics. We say ‘x countries have abolished the death penalty, x countries have agreed to a moratorium’. But when one looks at where the majority of these countries are located on the continent they are often in areas which were colonized by the French. Not by the British. And I have often asked myself why. There is a tendency to blame colonization for everything, and yet we know historically that even before the colonial period there were instances in which the death penalty was imposed – though not in a wide-ranging way and in fairly limited circumstances. And the death penalty was one of a number of forms of punishment. Others would be banishment or compensation, etc. So, while on the one hand there appears to be movement, you have got to look at how sustainable that movement is and how deeply rooted the decision-making process was, to ensure that it continues. If you look at those countries that were colonized by the French, […] they use the CFA, a common currency which is controlled by France, and therefore one has to ask oneself to what extent their decisions to abolish the death penalty are rooted in their historical traditional African context, and how much of their decision-making is the result of the influence of France.
So one needs to look behind the statistics […] Earlier today, in the Plenary Session, somebody spoke about needing to ensure we don’t have a reversal of the gains that have been made and that is important to keep in mind and keep an eye on.
Are you making a general human rights point about the integration of cultural values?
Absolutely. The death penalty is not an exception. We just happen to focus here on the death penalty. But when one meets resistance from the modern State on the continent, one of the arguments is ‘Oh, that is alien and foreign’ because the activists have not done enough to find out about our historical context, our own story. We all know that paganism pre-existed Christianity and the Goddess of Easter was linked to Easter in the Christian faith, but no such attempt was made when human rights were shared with the African continent. No attempt was made to try and ensure that we contextualized our understanding of human rights. I think that is part of the problem that we see reflected in resistance to human rights – for example, when people say that gay rights is a foreign thing, or that the death penalty ‘was imposed by the colonizers so why are they now telling us to get rid of it?’
I have learned the importance of context, in terms of dealing with human rights issues generally but particularly in relation to the death penalty
From this perspective, what advice do you give the international community?
How can they act differently to help the process of acculturation you describe to occur organically?
I have reflected on whether I believe in the universality of human rights and I have reached a position that I believe in the universality of human dignity. More and more I see rights, culture, religion, as different forms or tools which have been created to protect dignity. We end up engaging in so much disagreement and conflict about these tools, yet we all believe in human dignity. That point was made by somebody at the opening session today. I think we’ve really got to try to be critically aware of the unconscious imposition of a particular world view on the rest of the world. Sitting in the European Parliament today, I heard the term ‘European values’ more than once. I heard ‘European values’ last year when we held the human rights defenders’ conference. I heard ‘European values’ being used again during the EU-NGO Forum last year in Brussels. It is always used in relation to human rights. I asked a question last year about why this was. I got quite a candid response. I was told European values are ‘international’ values and that was a statement of fact. So one should not be surprized when human rights activists from the South raise the kinds of questions that I do because there doesn’t seem to be sufficient space for us to acknowledge that there are different roads to Rome. We have been told that to get to Rome, we have to take this route and only this route. And that if we start talking about different cultures, or Asian values or African values we are being a cultural relativist, which for human rights activists is an incredible insult, as you know. So people shut up.
But let me ask you a question. Do our African States mean it when they ratify international standards? After all, when the UDHR came into being in 1948 – we all celebrated that it was 70 years old last year – a lot of those countries that signed on to the UDHR had colonies at the same time. That intrinsic contradiction, at the conceptual level, the practical level, the economic level, the political level, must have some influence in terms of how we see those international instruments. There’s never time or space to talk about it because as soon as you raise it you’re a cultural relativist. ‘Don’t you believe in human rights?’. There’s often a very easy movement from European values to human rights and then to universal. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in everything human rights stand for.
All I am saying is that we are at a time in our history when there is contestation for meaning and recognition of difference. We are fearful of difference. There is nothing wrong with being different as long as one is not discriminating against or undermining the dignity of the next person. We should not fear difference. We are pushed into believing we are all the same but that some people are more the same than others. That is part of the challenge.
You have created a variety of NGOs. Looking ahead, what priorities do you have for making that work legitimate and sustainable and rooted.
First of all, my understanding of human rights does not begin with learning about the UDHR which was written in 1948. My understanding of human rights really began as I grew up in a part of the world where apartheid existed – hearing stories, reading the papers, listening to relatives, seeing refugees. I knew that apartheid was wrong, but not because I had a strong culture of human rights and UDHR. Second, international instruments do not necessarily contain all the rights, if you want to call them that, in which I believe. In terms of ubuntu, for example, not returning a greeting is a huge insult, but I can’t take you to court for it. It’s not justiciable and therefore it doesn’t exist. And that is part of the problem of turning dignity into a right. There’s no other cultural way to settle it. Is [justiciability] what we are talking about when we talk about dignity?
So [..], it’s a matter of seeing the link between global and local or national or regional in a way that permits us to grow towards ensuring that everyone is able to live their life with dignity, and we know that means having jobs, having shelter, health care, etc. So in future I think that will be an important part of it.
Our organization is very small. I remember in very early years I was involved with the feminist movement. There was that phrase: ‘The person is the political’. One does not separate oneself from the bigger picture. Culturally, one does not separate the individual from society and the community. […] So I think, starting off in one’s own community, [find a way to engage] based on what we have in common with one another, civil society organizations and Governments. … Building on what we have in common, as opposed to focusing on what divides us, I believe is one way forward. And that feeds into a less confrontational relationship with the State – which is another hallmark of human rights. Challenging this, challenging that, winning battles – at times it’s not very constructive. There are times to fight but one should not forget to look for times when you can actually engage.