Review of Human Rights: A Political and Cultural Critique by Makau Mutua

By Sonia Nair

By Sonia Nair

The classic narrative of “savages”, “victims” and “saviours” is constantly invoked in discussions of human rights. English poet Rudyard Kipling was the first to moralise imperial colonisation through his poem The White Man’s Burden that has since become emblematic of Eurocentric racism and Western aspirations to dominate the developing world. More recently, liberal feminists and politicians alike draw upon this same narrative when discussing cultural norms such as Muslim women’s wearing of the hijab and gender segregation, and the United States summoned this very same saviour mentality when it invaded Iraq in 2003.

It is this exact narrative which presents a particular creed or doctrine as universal that Kenyan-born American academic Makau Mutua has a problem with. In his now 12-year old book Review of Human Rights: A Political and Cultural Critique, Mutua calls for a reconstruction and multi-culturalisation of the “paternalistic humanitarianism” of the entire human rights project. While he steers clear of equating the two, Mutua says colonialism and human rights movement are both part of a “Western push to transform non-European peoples”.

“What is advocated here is the need for the human rights movement to rethink and reorient its hierarchized, binary view of the world in which the European West leads the way and the rest of the globe follows in a structure that resembles a child-parent relationship,” Mutua says.

The book is very personal, peppered with anecdotes from the time Mutua was baptised as a Catholic and forced to take a Christian name – reinforcing that Mutua “could not go to Jesus as an African” – to his confusion on why his parents abandoned their ancestors’ pre-colonial traditions in favour of Christianity. In Mutua’s case, the personal is political and he uses his upbringing as a launchpad to explore the problematic contradictions inherent in the human rights movement, particularly in its application in the African continent, and the ensuring “negation of the humanity of the African people” that took place.

In Mutua’s mind, the very essence of the human rights movement is problematic because it originated in 1948 with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the regime of Adolf Hitler – the “quintessential savage” – came to an end.

“Neither the enslavement of Africans, with its barbaric consequences and genocidal dimensions, nor the classic colonisation of Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans by Europeans, with its bone-chilling atrocities, was sufficient to move the West to create the human rights movement. It took the genocidal extermination of Jews in Europe – a white people – to start the process of the codification and universalization of human rights norms.” Absent from Mutua’s observations are non-Western perpetrators of war crimes, such as the Japanese.

This perceived double standard in the formation of human rights is raised elsewhere, as Mutua observes Europeans and North Americans descending on “supposedly backward natives in the Third World” with a human rights mission instead of focusing on the human rights violations in their own countries. He points to the US, notorious for its civil rights violations of racial minorities and the poor.

Mutua’s book may have been penned in 2002, but his fear of America’s unyielding power and influence was to become a reality exactly a year later when US-led forces invaded Iraq in purported search of weapons of mass destruction – selling it to the American public with noble promises of “liberation” and “democracy”.

Mutua’s ruminations were also published before the global phenomenon of Kony 2012 but he hits the nail on the head when he says “what the high school or college student ought to realise is that his or her zeal to save others – even from themselves – is steeped in Western and European history”.

He singles out the practice of female genital mutilation numerous times throughout as an example that taps into “Western stereotypes of barbaric natives in the dark continent”. To be clear, Mutua calls for the practice to be either modified or discarded, but in a way that does not make its practitioners hateful of their culture of themselves.

“The zealotry of the current rhetoric gives no room for such a considered intracultural, or intercultural, dialogue and introspection.”

In the first half of the book, Mutua concentrates on what constitutes the human rights narrative as well as the different types of human rights practitioners, but proceeds to concentrate on the African fingerprint in the second half and how the onset of colonisation coupled with the current human rights framework have failed the continent as it tethers on the brink of “political and economic collapse”.

At the heart of second half is a call for a different, nuanced human rights movement that marries the African worldview that places the individual within the community with European theories of individualism and social contract.

“Individual rights cannot make sense in a social and political vacuum, devoid of the duties assumed by individuals. This appears to be more true of Africa than any other place. The individualist, narrow formulation of human rights is ill-suited for the African political and cultural universe.”

Mutua’s book is as relevant in 2002 as it is today as he picks out troubling tendencies in the international human rights movement. Whether the cultural pluralism that Mutua advocates comes to fruition remains to be seen, but Human Rights: A Political and Cultural Critique is a searing critique of the human rights movement that forces us to re-examine our worldview and knee-jerk human rights strategies, and whether it is indeed possible to oppose a human rights violation without becoming insensitive to the dignity of the very people we seek to protect.