Achieving Human Rights in Africa: The Challenge for the New Millennium

by Paul J. Magnarella


Fifty-one years after the United Nations adopted the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and almost nineteen years after the Organization of African Unity (OAU) adopted its own African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the human rights situation on the African continent is decidedly bleak. Indeed, achieving genuine respect for human rights may constitute the greatest challenge facing Africans in the new millennium.

In June 1999 UNESCO Director-General Federico Mayor expressed his deep concern over the ever increasing number of African countries afflicted by war and associated human rights abuses. Fighting has raged in Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau, Angola, Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Rwanda and Burundi, Ethiopia and Eritrea (1). The same month, a report by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers estimated that more than 120,000 children from ages seven to seventeen were being exploited as soldiers across Africa. Some of these children voluntarily joined government or revolutionary armed forces, but tens of thousands of them were forced to become soldiers at gunpoint (2).

Amnesty International also reported that twenty-four African countries had serious and widespread human rights violations in 1998 and that armed conflicts, social and political unrest continued unabated, leading to appalling human rights abuse throughout the continent (3). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that in 1998 there were about 3.5 million refugees in Africa, eighty percent of them women and children under the age of five (4). In its 1999 survey, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Africa’s refugee population had increased to 6.3 million (5). “Of the ten top refugee producers in the world, five were African: Burundi, Eritrea, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Sudan” (6). In general, HRW concluded that “much of Africa made little headway in adjusting to the imperatives of democratic rule and respect for human rights” (7).

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Paul J. Magnarella, Ph.D., J.D., is a Professor of Anthropology and Visiting Professor of Law, at the University of Florida. He currently serves as Special Counsel to the Association of Third World Studies, and served as Expert on Mission with the UN Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague during the summer of 1995.