Democracy, human rights and material benefits

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By Professor Ganfu Yang
By Professor Ganfu Yang

 PEOPLE have the tendency to attach importance to particular human rights according to their ideology and political convenience. New privileges have also been created and elevated to the status of human rights in order to entrench particular political and economic systems.

It goes without saying that certain basic rights are indispensable for the meaningful existence of all other rights. These rights are not only valuable in themselves but also are instrumental in making possible the enjoyment of all other rights. Among the basic rights are the right to free speech and expression, the freedom of person, the freedom of the individual, one’s right to own property and equality of opportunity.

However, different cultures have different interpretations of the basic human rights. Generally speaking, the West and East bear the clear division thereof, and they often stand in tension with each other, which explains the reason why the two cultures often engage themselves in bitter arguments and debates. Contrary to the Western perception of basic rights noted above, Chinese regard shelter, food and clothing as the fundamental parts of basic human rights. Without these, freedom of speech and expression will not find its feet and will furthermore become meaningless.

There are mainly two classes of human rights, namely classical human rights generally known as civil liberties and the new social and economic rights known as a needs based theory of human rights. Each theory is critical of the other. The civil liberties theories claim that the old civil rights and the new social and economic rights cannot be achieved at the same time but are in fact incompatible; the new rights cannot be enforced by law without at the same time destroying that liberal order at which the old rights aim. They further hold that the system of classical civil liberties has helped to gradually reduce poverty and to enhance the dignity of man by preserving space for individually determined actions.

According to them, the new theory of human rights threatens to enslave human beings by restricting the area of their individual freedom and by making them reliant on government for the satisfaction of their material and psychological needs. The recognition of a system of “rights” incompatible with the old civil liberties provided a theoretical basis for the curtailment of individual freedom.

The new ideology of human rights bases itself however on the belief that the purpose of human rights is not to facilitate self-actualization but to provide direct satisfaction of human needs. The needs-orientated theories of human rights have as their underlying premise, the belief that human needs are objectively ascertainable and are distinguishable from human wants which are considered artificial and inessential. The “Needs” theorists thus elevate certain needs to a position of superiority over other claims on the basis that they constitute what is essential to the good and healthy life. On this basis they claim that the satisfaction of such a need is a human right.

It must be noted that in all but a handful of democratic societies, human rights have become political slogans devoid of substance. In democratic societies, where governments are restrained from excesses by law and public opinion, the gravest threat to human rights arises from their increasing mis-interpretation and misapplication. In Africa, including Namibia, it appears democracy and human rights are misinterpreted and misapplied to a large extent. Due to the profound influence of the Western cultures, Africans are too keen on their democracy and political rights whereas they forget / devalue / belittle their material benefits to satisfy their individual rights to property, food and clothing which should be at least treated with equal consideration as their civil rights are if not taken precedence over political rights.

The flaw of African democracy and human rights lies in Africans’ recognition of superiority of their political rights to their material benefits, which detract their attention from and hinder their social and economic development. Many projects regarding economic development and welfare of people are either cancelled or delayed time and again in Africa.

Neckartal Dam Project in Namibia is no doubt a good testimonial of such phenomenon. Disappointed by the much delayed project, President Hifikepunye Pohamba said the project has been sabotaged due to some processes to be followed.

However, the backward state of social and economic development in Africa has awakened African people who are aware of the problems of seeking democracy and human rights at the expense of their basic human rights. The Afrobarometer recently measured public attitudes on democracy and its alternatives, evaluations of the quality of governance and economic performance in more than 30 African countries.

A total of 1 200 Namibians were interviewed. The survey concludes that a weak demand for democracy exists in Namibia. “Namibians, like other Africans in Afrobarometer survey countries, see democracy as both political rights and processes terms and in material benefit terms as well.”

This reflects the strong perception among Namibian respondents that inequality and unemployment are the key problems that Namibian democracy needs to address. The current mass housing program by the Namibian government is a clear indication that people’s welfare is under caretaking on a par with their political rights.

The importance of this awareness is historic and far-reaching. This change of perception will bring about revolutionary changes to Africa in terms of social and economic development and Africans’ material benefits.

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