Magazine article New African

Human Rights through Chinese & African Eyes. (SPECIAL VIEWPOINT: China/Africa

Magazine article New African

Human Rights through Chinese & African Eyes. (SPECIAL VIEWPOINT: China/Africa

Article excerpt

The debate surrounding Chinas role in Africa and human rights issues is the focus of many of our letters. This month we dedicate your letters page to this special viewpoint by Augustine Hungwe and Tom Zwart who explain why the African and Chinese approach requires a better understanding.

On 1 August 2012, Mrs Hillary Clinton, who at that time was the US Secretary of State, gave a speech in Dakar, Senegal, in which she stated that her country was promoting democracy and human rights as part of its cooperation with African states. She advised Africans not to work with countries that were only interested in economic gain and therefore ignored human rights. Although she did not mention China by name, it was clear to her audience that China was the country she had in mind. By making this statement, Mrs Clinton not only managed to step on the toes of the Chinese, but also on the toes of the Africans she was addressing. If China, in the view of the Americans, is a "devil", then certainly the Africans are selling their soul to a devil by entering into economic deals with him (however profitable), which do not require the promotion of democracy and human rights. This assumption, though, was, and still is, wide of the mark for three reasons at least. First, both China and African states are actively engaged in promoting and protecting human rights in their own jurisdictions, albeit not in a way that will always appeal to Western commentators.

In the West, human rights are usually perceived through the lenses of legalism and liberalism. In this view only legally enforceable individual rights, which may be invoked against the government, if need be in law suits before courts of law, may be called human rights. Moreover, these human rights have to reflect liberal values, like individualism, personal autonomy, and rationality. Westerners also tend to focus on civil and political rights, while ignoring the importance of economic and social rights, as well as third generation human rights like the right to development.

However, in China and Africa, values and social institutions other than law have emerged over centuries and sometimes millennia which can be described as human rights, and which meet the requirements of human rights treaties. They include concepts like kinship, reciprocity, harmony, humility, reconciliation, consensus-building, mutual respect, hospitality and spirituality, which serve as very important building blocks for human rights protection. According to a new receptor approach to human rights, which is being developed by a group mainly consisting of African and Chinese scholars, a state can rely on such values and social institutions to fulfil its international human rights obligations. The concept is based human rights only being effective if they spring from local values.

The Western focus on civil and political rights does not only deny the wholeness of human rights of which social and economic rights are an integral part, but also leads to a distorted picture of reality.

Second, China and African countries perceive their cooperation in their own common philosophical terms, and therefore they do not necessarily resort to the Western vocabulary of human rights. To close observers, it is clear that the relationships between China and its African partners are not only determined by mutual benefit--which by the way includes immaterial advantages as well--but also by morality. …

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