Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Why Human Rights? And Where? Part I

I recently had some opportunities that made me feel proud of the work that I do. At the same time they highlighted how gargantuan the task of 'protecting human rights' truly is. Humility is a staple at every meal, these days.

From May 16-20, I was in Lagos, Nigeria, for the African Network of Constitutional Lawyers Annual Conference. The theme for their conference this year was 'Nurturing Judicial Independence and Accountability in Africa'. I was asked to present a paper that I had submitted. Briefly, the paper was on the recent decision by the High Court of Kenya to issue an arrest warrant for Omar al-Bashir, the President of Sudan, should he enter Kenyan territory. If you'll recall, I blogged about it back in December, as the case was brought to court by ICJ Kenya. In particular, the paper I wrote focused on how the Bashir Decision was a good indication of the growing independence of the Kenyan Judiciary. It was a simple paper, and seemed well-received.

But this isn't a post for boasting. The conference was a forum for lawyers and legal academics to congregate from around the continent. There were lawyers from Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Brilliant minds from across Africa, all discussing major issues on the status of Judiciaries in Africa. The picture that was painted wasn't exactly glowing. Rampant corruption and underfunding of the judicial system in places like Nigeria have led to bizarre decisions where judges are acting as 'gatekeepers' for the political elite, sheltering them from responsibility and accountability. In Cameroon, the fact that judges have to 'answer' to the President is a serious violation of the independence of the Judiciary, and seems to have led to some serious miscarriages of justice. It highlighted some of the ongoing issues of corruption, impunity, and poor governance that continue to be a problem in Africa.

At the same time, it was a congregation of smart, passionate, and insightful individuals, who have dedicated their lives to bringing about a positive change. I once had the misfortune of hearing someone say that "the problem with Africa is Africans". I never really understood that sentiment - which Africans? All of the individuals I have had the pleasure of meeting have been hard-working, dedicated, and resourceful. Even those people living far below the poverty line have come up with innovative ways of making ends meet. Especially in the Human Rights field, many lawyers and activists toil tirelessly to fight against injustice and tyranny, putting their own lives at risk, for little or no material gain. So I wonder again - which Africans are causing the problems?

Lagos itself was quite an experience. The city is massive, with a population nearing 20 million people. I was staying on Victoria Island, which is apparently a more 'upper class' area. It was hard to tell one from the other, as Lagos is a crowded city - high rises next to low-income settlements, all cramped together as the city literally spills out into the sea. There is a shanty town built on stilts that is completely on the water. Despite the well-built roads, car transport is just as cramped - traffic is horrendous, dangerous, and loud. Nigerian people are just as loud and boisterous, but are incredibly friendly and jovial as well. It's obviously a vibrant country, despite the ongoing violence and tensions, and the people I met were fun-loving and really enjoyed watching me eat the local food. I was completely unprepared for Nigerian food, which was incredibly spicy, and rather exotic - including snails, among other things. Luckily, they also really like fried rice.

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