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Home / Opinion - Ubuntu: Why the African approach to human rights is not wrong

Opinion - Ubuntu: Why the African approach to human rights is not wrong

2023-06-06  Correspondent

Opinion - Ubuntu: Why the African approach to human rights is not wrong

Domingo Goagoseb

The philosophical nature of human rights is based on the idea that every person has inherent worth and dignity simply because they are human. This principle emphasises that all individuals are entitled to certain basic rights and freedoms, regardless of their race, gender, religion, nationality or any other characteristic. 

The principles of human rights are grounded in various philosophical traditions such as natural law theory, social contract theory and Kantian ethics. These traditions emphasise the importance of individual autonomy, dignity and respect for human life.


African context

Human rights in an African context are often viewed through the lens of Ubuntu philosophy, which emphasises the interconnectedness of all people and the importance of community and cooperation. In this context, human rights are seen as a collective responsibility rather than an individual entitlement. African human rights frameworks often prioritise social and economic rights, such as access to education, healthcare, and housing, over civil and political rights. This is because many African countries face significant challenges related to poverty, inequality and underdevelopment that impact people’s ability to enjoy their basic human rights. In addition, African human rights frameworks often emphasise the importance of cultural diversity and respect for traditional values. This is because many African societies have unique cultural practices and traditions that are central to their identity and way of life.


Western approach 

The Western model of human rights is based on individualism, which emphasises the importance of individual freedoms and autonomy. This approach assumes that all individuals have inherent dignity and worth and should be treated with respect and fairness. However, this model may not be universally applicable in non-Western societies where cultural values and traditions differ significantly from those in the West.

The imposition of Western-style human rights on non-Western societies has been a topic of debate for many years. While human rights are universal and inalienable, the way they are implemented can be complex, particularly when it comes to balancing universal human rights with cultural values and traditions. 


A critique 

The Western approach towards human rights tends to focus too much on civil and political rights while neglecting economic, social, and cultural rights. This approach can be seen as imposing Western values and norms on other cultures without taking into account their unique histories and traditions. This can lead to cultural imperialism and undermine the cultural values and traditions of non-Western societies.

Some critics also argue that human rights organisations can be selective in their focus, prioritising issues that are more politically expedient or easier to address while neglecting more complex or controversial issues. This can lead to a perception that these organisations are not truly committed to promoting human rights but rather are driven by political or ideological agendas. Additionally, the Western approach tends to emphasise individualistic notions of rights and freedoms while neglecting the importance of community and social relationships.

There is an alarming gun violence problem in the United States right now. We are witnessing masses of innocent children tragically losing their lives. What went wrong and where?

Interestingly, individualism has been identified as a factor that may contribute to the issue of gun violence in the United States. While individualism promotes personal freedom and autonomy, it can also lead to a lack of social responsibility and empathy for others. Studies have shown that individuals who prioritize their own needs over those of the community may be more likely to engage in violent behaviour, including gun violence. This is because they may not feel a sense of responsibility towards others or understand the impact their actions may have on society as a whole.

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu

One reason why the Ubuntu approach is not wrong with regard to human rights is that it recognises the importance of social relationships and community in promoting human dignity. In African culture, individuals are seen as part of a larger community, and their well-being is tied to the well-being of others. This means that human rights are not just individualistic but also collective, and they are based on the idea that everyone has a role to play in promoting the common good. 

Furthermore, the Ubuntu approach emphasizes the importance of empathy and compassion towards others. This means that individuals are encouraged to treat others with respect and dignity, regardless of their background or status. This approach recognizes that everyone has inherent worth and value, and it promotes a sense of solidarity among people. 

Finally, the Ubuntu approach recognises that human rights are not just legal or political concepts but also cultural ones. This means that cultural practices and traditions should be respected as long as they do not violate basic human rights principles. By recognising cultural diversity while also promoting universal values such as respect for human dignity, the Ubuntu approach provides a framework for promoting human rights in a way that is both culturally sensitive and effective.


* Domingo /Goagoseb is a cultural apologist. His views are written in his capacity and do not represent any organisation. He can be reached at

2023-06-06  Correspondent

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