The Namibian (Windhoek)

11 January 2013

Namibia: A Need to Innovate Human Rights Activism

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WHAT is the task of a human rights activist? Helping victims of human rights violations may be the first answer. Now there are specialists dealing with perpetrators and victims of rights violations, which include law enforcement agencies, lawyers or psychologists.

The human rights activist may advise victims how to approach these professionals. They may even criticise certain institutions if they don't do what is expected of them. Assisting victims of human rights violations can be a 24-hour job. Nevertheless, a human rights activist has a more fundamental role: to reflect on the basic norms of society. The moral and legal principles of society constantly meet with each other and reality. They actually don't just meet. They get into conflict on a daily basis.

While it is the task of a judge, for instance, to carefully craft a judgement on any such conflict, the human rights activist has another vocation: They alert the public and initiate debate. Open deliberations within society are very important.

However, it is a major challenge in Namibia to inspire public debate on these matters of grave concern. While the media contribute as much as they can, open debate in public spaces has almost vanished since independence in 1990. People talk in taxis and queues but shy away from public events where their concerns could be taken note of in a more effective way.

This is especially problematic in matters like gender-based violence or ethnic issues. Human rights activism has to find a way for people to discuss what they have at heart. General invitations to an unspecified public may not always provide the most conducive environment. Other formats need to be tested.

Issues like starvation, unemployment need to addressed from a human rights perspective. Starvation probably is the most significant sign that something is wrong in the society. Even though the country is wealthy too many people go hungry for the most part of the year. Food and water as the most fundamental human needs are not negotiable. Does Namibia's legal system really incorporate solidarity? Or is it based on an old liberal approach?

If we look at the incredible level of consumer debt: Is it really all the debtors fault? Is the legal system really balancing the rights of both sides? Can a debt collection take away the funds needed for food in the family?

Human rights activism may be able to come forward with innovative concepts for parliament and judiciary to defend human rights against a too narrow understanding of contractual property rights.

Contrary to some Marxist beliefs, historical studies show the poor usually do not rise up to 'fight against the rich'. Therefore, nobody may gain from trying to encourage public protest by 'the poor'. In fact, the studies hint at the explosiveness of the situation once protests get ethnic colours. Human rights activism is walking a thin line when promoting protest.

Unemployment certainly is the second most severe violation of a key human right in Namibia. Human dignity is strongly linked to being productive members of society. Young people are highly challenged by the feeling of uselessness and the lack of social status. What is the meaning of the right to work? A labourer isn't just offering a service which can be priced on a market - as Adam Smith thought. Hegel already knew: Work is embedded in social life. It is not just an issue of a lone individual. It depends on the structures within society. The human rights approach helps to get beyond the simple ideas of liberalism and socialism. African ethics have responses too.

It is quite easy to demonstrate for the rights to food, water and work. But such demands may slowly alter our political system. The constitutional expert Wolfgang Boeckenfoerde warns about the new role the Supreme Court finds itself in.

If citizens can take government to court because of a lack of food the court may become supreme in a way it was not meant to be. The Supreme Court may become the paternalistic supervisor of us all. It may start telling us how much a human person may consume daily, what may be an adequate pension, whether a 'street-kid' has a right to get some shoes and so forth. Human rights activism has to consider the consequences of what it asks for.

In addition, the gap between moral and legal justice is widening. More and more penalties lack legitimacy. In some cases the public demands higher sentences in others it even feels pity for an accused. The connection between an illegal action and a sentence is not clear.

The human rights movement should propose better ways of connected justice.

 Andreas Peltzer is the co-chair of the NANGOF [Namibia Non-Governmental Forum] Trust sector for human rights and democracy

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