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The West lacks the moral basis for setting human rights standards  

The West lacks a moral basis for human rights advocacy outside the capitalist and racist logic

A report of European Ambassadors reflecting on the refusal of African leaders to take sides in the Ukraine conflict recommends a “transactional” approach to aid as a means of securing influence over Africa and promoting European values. But there’s nothing new here since the West’s conception of aid directed at Africa has always been transactional.

Since the 1990s, the western push for democracy and human rights in Africa and elsewhere in the world has been and remains destructive and misguided. Western arrogance that underlies the idea that democracy and human rights as understood in Europe and America are universal is the problem; it hoists liberal democratic values to the level of universality. When it comes to human rights, those who claim to promote them in Africa, some well-intentioned, de facto reject the humanity of Africans.

Human rights as acknowledged and observed in any society constitute its sense of enlightenment. They are the conscience of a society and, as a result, are inherent to it. As a society reflects on the values it holds dear, this consciousness about rights grows and expands the realm of human rights to areas that were previously not covered. Societies grow by reflecting on who is vulnerable in what ways and therefore needs protection. It is how human rights are birthed. This reflection cannot be outsourced. That is because a society cannot function on the basis of the consciousness of another. However well-intentioned the desire to confer enlightenment might be, the acknowledgment that every society is endowed with enlightenment is the strongest introspection a human rights promoter can engage in.

The commonly held view that the health of a society is measured by its ability to protect its most vulnerable implies that some societies enjoy human rights more than others. That is; some societies more than others have placed far too many impediments against a human being’s ability to live life to its fullest, to act to the extent their conscience tells them to. As a result, such barriers constitute an assault on the dignity of the members of the society who, as a response to this collective conscience, feel the obligation to remove these hurdles.

In other words, the predicament of life is that a human being who is born endowed with dignity meets a society that is prepared to take it away. In response to this predicament, the instinct of the liberal has been to “empower” the individual. But the limits of empowerment are everywhere. You cannot empower another with human rights. You can only remove impediments: barriers to the manifestation of what is already in a person’s possession because they were born with it. When human beings attempt to empower others with human rights, they attempt to play God.

Euro-American hubris

Since Africans don’t desire to “empower” Europeans and Americans, then it is safe to say that the hubris of one-way empowerment is underlain by racism. Much as poverty is an impediment to the enjoyment of human rights for Africans, racism is a pernicious barrier in the West’s relationship with human rights; it confers them the burden to play God and, as a result, blinds them to a constructive role they could play in advancing ideals such as human rights and democracy.

The credibility of the West’s human rights advocates requires their admission that Africans and Europeans are equal as human beings; that neither is superior. For this assumption to hold, however, neither can be the custodian of enlightenment which they then confer onto the other. This places the West’s push for human rights in Africa in a bind: Europeans do not, even remotely, conceive of the possibility that a similar project to promote human rights in Europe can – and should – be undertaken by Africans. In other words, much as Africans might appreciate the West for its efforts to unburden them of the weight of poverty that prevents them from enjoying human rights, Westerners need Africans to unburden them of the racially-driven hubris that runs counter to the cause of human rights. This is a process that restores the humanity of Europeans and renders them morally capable of engaging on the subject of human rights. For instance, Europeans need to realise that material wealth is not an indication that one has superior values.

Clearly, the West lacks a moral basis for human rights advocacy outside the capitalist and racist logic. It is incapable of engaging on human rights with those to whom money isn’t life itself because it is incapable of assigning value to anything outside the capitalist ethos.  It is for this reason that western advocates conceive of aid and a people’s conscience as tradeoffs. In fact, anything that cannot be assigned market or pecuniary value is not a worthy pursuit. One can point to any ideal that the West swears by (democracy, human rights, humanitarian intervention) and the determination about what actions ought to be taken or not invariably comes down to the amount of money it costs.

This moral deficit explains the failure to stop genocides and war crimes despite possessing the tools to do so. When the Genocide against the Tutsi was raging in Rwanda in 1994, the US turned to a material calculation regarding the value of intervening to stop the genocide.

The World Bank Chief Economist, the celebrated economist Larry Summers advised that toxic waste from developed countries should be dumped at the shores of poor “low wage” countries because it made economic sense for the less productive population of the world to die rather than their economically productive counterparts in the West.  Similarly, Americans and Europeans talk casually about this or that a person being ‘worth’ such and such an amount of money. ‘Jenny’ is worth two million dollars!

A society whose imagination on the worth of human beings cannot transcend money is fundamentally at odds with human rights. If indeed western values are at odds with human rights, then the West cannot be the custodians of the standards of human rights. After all, a good custodian must grasp the value of what is in their care. 

Cognitive dissonance

The West is unprepared to accept that these deficiencies in its own value system mean that it cannot superintend over human rights. It, therefore, exists in cognitive dissonance. It at once claims to be the custodian of the ideals that every society aspires for without itself having to practice model values that would allow it to be the standard for others to live up to.

It is ingenious because the West is able to inspire without having to do inspirational things – to live up to that inspiration itself. As a result, while most people unequivocally embrace the values the West claims to stand for, it is hard to find the same kind of inspiration in the West’s destructive actions around the world. Meanwhile, with few able to see through the contradictions, the West moonlights as a standard setter of human rights without having to meet those standards and punishes others without having to punish itself.

But with cognitive dissonance comes anxiety and restlessness. Unable to make a moral appeal for human rights with itself as a credible reference point, the West turns to coercion, manipulation and blackmail. It turns to these primitive tools to enforce its watered-down version of human rights that runs on capitalist morality and racism.

The irony of claiming superior values while also relying on the most primitive measures to enforce them is not lost on anyone. But the right to punish conceals the moral deficiency in the western value system and sustains the illusion of superiority, after all it would be hypocritical in epic proportions to punish others for lacking something that even the punisher lacks.

Aid sanctions

Since everyone is born endowed with dignity and every society is in possession of enlightenment, human rights cannot be exported. Neither is there a need for western experts on human rights. All people need is that barriers that suffocate this enlightenment from coming to life be removed. One of those is poverty. It is a pernicious barrier that stands in the way of the ability of the economically vulnerable to enjoy their human rights. This is what development aid should be about. However, to receive aid is not to receive enlightenment. There is no moral tradeoff between a people’s consciousness and aid. To suggest that there is one is to demonstrate unmitigated moral depravation. By failing to understand or accept this, western human rights promoters attempt to play God in the eyes of recipients of aid. In other words, even the constructive part that the West can play in the promotion of human rights is sabotaged – by the West.

One will be hard-pressed to find an African community that doesn’t despise a person (in Kinyarwanda: umutindi, the lowest possible station a person can descend to before they take on animal-like characteristics, ubunyamaswa) who donates a material item and goes around bragging about it or requiring that people behave a certain way as a result of the donation. Indeed, those who donate in silence are held in esteem. Both umutindi and inyamaswa are deemed to have lost the endowment of (self) dignity that a human being is otherwise born with. In other words, something unusual must have happened to them along the way and if they cannot respect themselves society is free to despise them. 

The tendency for Europeans to condition their aid on visibility runs counter to African values and betrays a moral impoverishment on the part of the former. Ironically, at photo-ops between donors and recipients, one party is in awe of its own generosity while another is in awe of the other’s moral impoverishment. In other words, in the African sensibilities, the self-aggrandizing party that constantly reminds the other of their dependency ends up humiliating itself.

The discourse of what people should give up in exchange for aid might make sense in the moral capitalist ethos; however, it falls flat from the African perspective of what is morally tradeable.

At any rate, the expectation that people give up their right to self-determination in exchange for aid is itself a violation of human rights. Moreover, it should be problematic that those who claim to possess superior values turn to primitive tools – threatening aid cuts – to induce change in those who do not subscribe to those values. It is evidently self-defeating to use a tool that undermines human rights (aid for interference) in a push for human rights!

To be sure, there are few voices within the western political elites, academic and media circles who oppose this depraved conception of human rights promotion. But they are too scarce to induce real change regarding what the aims of aid should be.

If aid is a tool for interference, then it would be consistent with the desires of academics, NGOs and western officials to threaten to discontinue it the moment recipients begin to resist certain set conditions. However, if it is a tool for human rights promotion then its aim is to serve self-determination and be a tool for resisting those who seek to control Africans and dictate how they should manage their affairs. In the latter instance, it serves the purpose of removing impediments to the enjoyment of human rights. In the former, it is a tool for the violation of human rights.

This transactional logic that seems to coerce the economically weak suggests that those who do not need aid are free to abuse human rights. A moral principle that is only applicable to the economically vulnerable is deficient because it contravenes the principles of natural justice. If it is morally deficient, then it cannot be a tool for securing a moral good such as human rights! It underscores the moral impoverishment in the inability to assign value to human rights outside of the capitalist logic of money and things.

The conclusion is self-evident. The West cannot be the standard for human rights.


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