From Framing Fellow Alex Perullo: I chose the entry point “rights.” There is a strong argument being put forth that violence in many areas around the world is declining in part because of the strong focus on rights.

Given the global flow and movement of ideas, people, and technology in the contemporary period, rights are a vital means for individuals and communities to promote their own worldviews. The idea that people should not only promote certain rights but also protect them is a far reaching concept.

Marches in Dar es Salaam protesting the death of  journalist Daudi Mwangosi by police in Iringa. Photo by John Bukuku.

Key Terms

Rights: Moral or legal entitlements that guarantee protections for individual citizens or specific groups of people.

First generation rights: These rights focus on liberty (i.e. freedom of speech) and the ability to live securely within a society.

Second generation rights: Relate more to collective or group rights, such as the ability to live without discrimination, to organize unions, to earn enough to sustain an adequate standard of living, and receive an education.

Third generation rights: The most recent and most expansive of the generations of rights, the focus here is a variety of issues, such as the right to development, peace, and a healthy environment.

European liberalism: Though it had origins prior to the 18th century, European liberalism is often attributed to the Age of Enlightenment, which pushed against absolute monarchy and hereditary privilege, to espouse stronger notions of liberty for everyone. John Locke, for instance, pushed the notion that everyone has a natural right to protect their life, liberty, and property against the “injuries and attempts of other men.”

Cultural rights: Increasingly, attention is being paid to the rights of specific communities or ethnic groups. These rights, which can include traditions, customs, and beliefs of a specific population, may differ or even contrast to the rights of other citizens within a specific country.

Nonprofit Organizations (NGOs): Organizations that exist to support the rights of people in communities and that often have tax exempt status.

Universal rights: The notion that some rights should be guaranteed to everyone regardless of sex, class, age, race, ethnicity, gender, or nationality.

Flexible legal structures: The notion that there are various ways of interpreting legal matters based on context, evidence, and cultural interpretations of the legal code. In other words, law is not universally understood or enforced.

Discussion Questions

1) How do you define or understand the meaning of the word rights? What are rights that you believe are important in your daily life?

2) What are the different types of rights discussed in the chapter, such as first, second, and third generation rights?

3) Are rights something that can be universally agreed upon? If yes, what are the rights that everyone agrees upon? If no, what are some of the reasons that the meaning and intentions of rights can become so contentious in cultural, political, and economic circumstances?

4) What is the reason for the dramatic rise in nonprofit organizations throughout East Africa or other parts of the world?

5) Should the British government be able to withhold aid to countries that do not protect gay rights even if the aid is not related to issues of sexuality?

6) Is the contemporary issue of rights simply a new way for foreign powers to control the political and social direction of civil society in African countries?

Additional Materials

Haki Elimu (nonprofit organization)

Haki Elimu (Educational Rights) is a nonprofit organization based in Tanzania that works on a variety of civil society issues, including creating informed and engaged citizens; making government more open and responsible, and creating an environment where children are actively learning in schools. The organization has produced numerous educational documents, particularly for young people, including a cartoon book series that raises issues about government accountability. 

The Greenbelt Movement (nonprofit organization)

Founded in 1977 by Wangari Maathai, this grassroots organization created community groups that worked for both social and environmental causes. The organization supported communities in the planting of over 51 million trees in Kenya, while also providing economic stability to local peoples. Read Wangari Maathai’s autobiography Unbowed or watch the documentary film Taking Root about her life and the work of the Greenbelt Movement.

Maathai, W. (2006). Unbowed: A memoir. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Merton, L., Dater, A., Maathai, W., Lampson, M., Haneke, T., Klein, J. and Samite. (2008). Taking root the vision of Wangari Maathai. [Harriman, N.Y.]: New Day Films.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (international rights document)

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a widely used and referenced document of the United Nations. During the 1950s and 1960s, many newly independent African countries adopted elements of the UDHR for their constitutions and legal policies. The UDHR was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 10 December 1948 as a common standard that should be achieved by all nations.

Human Rights Watch (international nonprofit organization)

The organization Human Rights Watch formed in 1978 as a means to monitor government compliance with the Helsinki Accords. Originally called “Helsinki Watch,” the organization worked to support citizens of the former Soviet bloc through publicly shaming abusive governments through media coverage and engagement with policymakers. Since that time, the organization has expanded to address human rights globally and has been particularly influential in Africa. The organization regularly releases reports about rights abuses, including child labor and environmental hazards affecting local communities, occurring throughout the continent.

Human Rights NGOs (edited volume on rights)

The edited volume Human Rights NGOs in East Africa examines the impact of NGOs on East African governments, as well as specific issues impacting civil society in the region. The editor Makua Matua notes that East African governments historical held hostile policies against human rights in the region, but that significant changes have occurred in the region since the 1980s.

Mutua, M. (2009). Human rights NGOs in East Africa: political and normative tensions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

East African Cultural Rights (books that focus on cultural rights)

A great deal of human rights conversations focuses on issues impacting major cities, industrial areas, or commercial centers. However, there is an important body of literature on either traditional rights in specific communities or on conceptions of rights among a particular ethnic group. The following books and articles each touch on what might broadly be defined as the cultural rights of specific East African populations.

Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. (2007). Luo culture and women’s rights to own and inherit property. Nairobi: Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.

Mugo, M.G. (2004). African orature and human rights in Gikuyu, Shona, and Ndebele zamani cultures. Harare: SAPES Books.

Madsen, A. (2000). The Hadzabe of Tanzania: land and human rights for a hunter-gatherer community. Copenhagen: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs.

Shivji, I.G., and Kapinga, W.B.L. (1998). Maasai rights in Ngorongoro, Tanzania. London: IIED.

The Supreme Price (film about rights and gender in Nigeria)

This documentary film looks at a pro-democracy movement in Nigeria that aims to increase the number of women in leadership roles.

Can be taught with these Framing the Global chapters:

Anne Griffiths’ chapter on “Land” discusses the central importance of land for the livelihoods of families and households. Having access to land or owning property are often seen as significant aspects of a person’s natural rights.

Faranak Miraftab’s chapter on “Displacement” examines issues of the rights of workers and migrants who find themselves in a meatpacking industry in Illinois. Miraftab’s discussion of the “global restructuring of the meat industry” illustrates tensions over capital and rights (43).

Michael Mascarenhas’ chapter on “Sovereignty” addresses the roles of NGOs in working on humanitarian issues. Mascarenhas examines the role of NGOs and the type of sovereignty they practice with regard to the state.

Classroom Assignments

There are a variety of assignments online that provide a useful means to engage students in discussions of rights. The University of Minnesota Human Rights Center, for instance, provides a list of activities that can be used with students of many different ages.