Reclaiming Humanity: Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights as the Cornerstone of African Human Rights

By Agbakwa, Shedrack C. | Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

Reclaiming Humanity: Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights as the Cornerstone of African Human Rights


Agbakwa, Shedrack C., Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal


A point very often missed in human rights praxis is that economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCR) "are the only means of self-defense for millions of impoverished and marginalized individuals and groups all over the world."(1) Despite the international rhetoric on the equal relevance, interdependence, and indivisibility of all human rights,(2) in practice states have paid less attention to the enforcement and implementation of ESCR, and their attendant impact on the quality of life and human dignity of the citizenry, than other rights.(3) African states, still living with the nightmares of slavery and colonial exploitation, are perhaps unsurpassed in this dreamy, rhetorical exercise.

African states ought to take the lead in the enforcement of ESCR, given Africa's deplorable socio-economic conditions. They ought not to emulate the industrialized states of the North which can afford the luxury of hollow rhetoric in the implementation of ESCR. Regrettably, African states have so far failed to match their words with appropriate, sufficient action.(4) Where African leaders have asserted the importance of satisfying ESCR as part of protecting other rights, some have done so with the intention of using this rhetoric as a ploy to suppress civil and political rights.(5)

Africa's worsening socio-economic conditions, and resulting exacerbation of civil and political strife coupled with the current lack of interest in the enforcement of ESCR,(6) renders the effective realization of human rights on the continent a remote possibility. Even if largely unintended, the neglect of ESCR, a substantial part of an indivisible whole, as brought about this sad state of affairs. This Article contends that there is an urgent need for a change of attitude and a relocation of emphasis from neglect and discriminatory enforcement of human rights to respect and balanced, holistic enforcement. Given the prevailing socio-economic circumstances in Africa, ESCR remain the cardinal means of self-defense available to the majority of Africans.

Part I of this Article emphasizes the imperative of a holistic and non-discriminatory enforcement of all human rights in Africa and links the failure of African governments to safeguard the socio-economic rights of their citizens to the widespread incidence of civil and political strife. Part I contends that, in contemporary Africa, a government's legitimacy is largely a function of its ability to guarantee and protect the ESCR of its people.

In contrast to many scholars and commentators who have pointed to the under-development and acute economic crises of African states as the reasons behind the non-enforcement of ESCR,(7) Part II contends that underdevelopment and economic crises are hardly the whole story. It argues that recognition and enforcement of these rights catalyze development and are inextricable from it. Any quest for meaningful development ought to be predicated on the effective protection, enforcement, and realization of ESCR. While mindful of the poor economic conditions of many African states, Part II argues that these conditions do not justify outright non-enforcement of ESCR.

Part III discusses some factors militating against the realization of ESCR in Africa. Part IV highlights the consequences of the continued marginalization of these rights. In strategizing the way forward, Part V articulates alternative enforcement approaches that will ensure a non-discriminatory and more effective enforcement of ESCR. In Part VI, I shall offer a few concluding remarks.

The aim of this Article is not to analyze the various rights traditionally classified as ESCR. Rather, it seeks to question the marginalized enforcement of ESCR as codified in the African Charter (work, health, education, and cultural rights), including the "new rights,"(8) such as access to the public services of one's country, public property, and other services.(9) The Charter does not expressly provide for housing or social security rights. …

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Reclaiming Humanity: Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights as the Cornerstone of African Human Rights
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