Historically, the concept of human rights originated from the philosophy of natural law. This theory was mainstream in the Roman civilization. Natural law emerged when Europe and some parts of Asia embraced the teachings of Christianity and Greek philosophy. As a result, people believed that there are specific duties that govern societies and consciously and unconsciously abide by them. It wasn’t before 1215 A.D that the natural law theory changed into natural rights. 

Flashforward, in 1689 A.D, European countries constitutionalized them (the British bill of rights being one of the first to emerge). Centuries passed, colonization happened, being the first to demonstrate the ignorance in the interpretation of rights in European societies. However, that changed after the two world wars, highlighting the need for a global understanding and implementation of human rights. Hence, in 1948, natural rights evolved into human rights and, alongside the United Nations, introduced the Universal Declaration of Human rights. In the declaration, there are a total of 30 human rights.

So, what are human rights?

We can derive from words rights, meaning things to which one is entitled or allowed freedoms that are guaranteed and human. In other words, these are things and liberties we are guaranteed and entitled to because we are human. So far, rights are classified as political, civil, social, and economic. Around the world, these different classifications are interpreted in countless ways. Just pause and think of how they are perceived in your home country?

Capitalism and colonization.

The human rights declaration defined rights as a wholesome entity. Unsurprisingly, this has been difficult for political and economic systems to comply. The social and economic rights (usually termed socio-economic rights) have been alienated from political and civil rights. In this sense, countries define the former as precursors of the latter or vice versa. Others claim that they ought to be determined by the society and political system altogether.

To understand the current conflict, we need to take a walk back into what can be called the history of colonization and capitalism. After the colonial era, former colonies and other developing countries perceived the west as those with an ideology of superiority that seeks to use human rights diplomacy to advance their involvement in other nations’ domestic affairs (Qi, 2005). Many African and Asian countries rejected the model suggested or imposed by the west to prioritize political freedoms to reach sustainable growth. The European countries and the United States set themselves as examples for that model in the industrial era. However, it was also not a secret that the period saw massive success because of the exploitation of colonies, wars, and other domestic conflicts to channel resources from less developed nations. Hence the ideology was in more ways than one criticized.

After the fail of socialist causes like the soviet Union and failed socialist economies like Cuba and others, the world again turned to the west. The framework of was straightforward; Private capitalism-Liberal democracy-political rights (TED, 2013). The model was a dream for lower-income countries and a goal for developed countries. The prioritization of individual freedoms and civil rights over economic and social rights saw massive support worldwide, then came China. China stepped on the scene as the controversial fellow claiming a seat on the global stage. She was vocal on their denial of the western ideology of rights claiming that an individual’s freedom cannot overtrump the interests of a community as a whole. The alternative was that the state must promote social and economic rights over individual rights.

The Chicken and egg dilemma.

Depending on which kind of capitalism a country applies, rights and freedoms are talked about differently. According to Noorani (2014), China’s government has proudly affirmed that the right to subsistence is the most important of all human rights, without which the other rights are insignificant. In this argument, we can identify that China’s system concentrated on availing its citizens with opportunities and avenues for good social and economic outcomes and do not mind if some political and civil freedoms are sacrificed in the process. The ‘brave’ human rights watch say; that, of course, subsistence indeed survival depends on the existence of political and civil rights, especially those related to democratic accountability. In other words, democratic accountability is a solid economic and social rights safeguard. 

So wait a minute, which comes first or what could be the foundation of the other. From the Human rights watch perspective, we can deduct that political and civil rights are the foundation of social and economic rights. But Qi (2005), Contradicts the latter by stating that rights are valued and executed depending on historical, ideological, and social conditions that create respective political and economic systems. In countries like Chile, Taiwan, and Singapore, economic growth inclusive of availing social and economic necessities has been a prerequisite to democratic accountability. 

For the past decades, these emerging economies have challenges the west’s rhetoric. One of the reasons is that countries and individuals are looking for rational models rather than ideological concepts. The model applied in these countries, and most notably China has wowed lower-income and developing countries as short-term but successful. The model is State capitalism-de-emphasized democracy, prioritizing economic rights (food, shelter, education, healthcare). This model has been termed as the pathway to prosperity.

Where do we stand?

As the African people, the choice between what to prioritize can be puzzling. We want our individual freedoms as we have been denied for so long, from colonization to oppressive regimes. We want to hold our governments accountable; we wish to express our identities and opinions. But the cost of the latter is too high. One we can not always afford. As Dambisa Moyo put it, democracy is expensive. 

On the other hand, when we look at the results of countries like Singapore and China, we are compelled to conform (which we are already doing). For the past fifty years, China had moved over 300 million people from poverty, increase the rate of secondary education from 28% to 82% in 2013, and the income inequality has been one of the fastest to decrease in the world (TED,2013). On the other side of the curtain is the United state with growing inequalities and some European countries being ridiculed for their attempts to provide socio-economic rights. 

To achieve a comprehensive standard for human rights on the continent is more impossible than it is difficult. The concept of rights has been politicized. The impossibility lies from the fear of extensive political and civil rights will result in more coups and revolutions than the countries can afford, to the inability of institutions to enforce laws that provide certain rights and freedoms.

The most critical question, in my opinion, is What do we believe is suitable for us (the African continent). So far, our leaders have aspired to prosperity and economic growth while communities preserve local societal morals and values. These two do not contrast; however, is this enough? In the era of technology, globalization, and close interactions, the next generations will not be satisfied with a foundation and institutions (laws, practices) that do not protect them as individuals with a particular identity or voice.

The discussion of human rights is complex from a political, economic, and social basis. Rights are not just entitlements and freedoms. They require the owners of those freedoms to be knowledgeable about them. In this case, not just understand but comprehend from their everyday experiences. It means as African societies; some questions must be asked. 

What does democracy mean to us? Is it the ability to come and go from office to officials or the ability for people to ensure the delivery of those in office? What do civil rights mean to us? Is it the freedom to have and voice opinions without repercussions, or is it the ability to choose compromise over confrontation and not be mocked for doing so? Should the enforcement of freedoms dictated by some burden the pillars of cultures and historical heritage? Those are questions that have to be asked as we are constantly told what to want by our leaders and told what is right and wrong from history and the international community.

A piece of thought!

Born and raised in post-genocide Rwanda, I have grown up with parents suffering from PTSDs, which they were unaware of. Afraid that their neighbor might harm us, we were not allowed to go out to play. We created close relationships with those kids because it was a crime for parents to talk about ethnicity (it was less of a reality for us). The latter would be stripping the freedom to speak one’s mind. Due to previous inequalities, some were wealthy; others were highly impoverished. The government claimed shares in businesses to secure social services. To some, that is appropriation. When civil organizations back perpetrators of crimes to become a legitimized party, the pain in our parents’ eyes is sometimes unbearable. 

As an individual, I applaud our country’s efforts to prioritize economic and social rights over political and civil rights. What is the use of freedom if there are no resources to enjoy it? It is then that there should be an understanding that this is a journey that will allow future generations to enjoy the most extensive political and civil rights. 


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