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Centre of Governance & Human Rights (CGHR)


3rd February 2014

CGHR Research Group paper

The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights and the African Fingerprint: An ethnographic re-visitation.

Dr Niklas Hultin (Research Associate, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge)

Since its inception, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (and the African Commission) has been discussed by legal scholars as embodying what Makau wa Mutua has referred to as an “African fingerprint.” Legal scholars have pointed to specific features of the African Charter such as the featuring third generation rights alongside first and second generation rights, the emphasis on amicable resolution and inclusiveness, as evidence of this fingerprint. Furthermore, the Charter and its various preparatory documents also include numerous discussions of African heritage, African values, and African civilisation. This sets the African Commission apart from the other two regional systems in that it seeks to combine a distinctively African approach to human rights with the latter’s putative universalism. Indeed, in a much cited speech at one of the preparatory meetings of the African Charter, Leopold Senghor (then the president of Senegal) tasked the delegates to maintain the universal nature of human rights while at the same time incorporating African heritage

Drawing on the “new” anthropology of human rights that has developed since the early 2000s in which the “culture of human rights” has been a central question, this paper asks to what extent this idea of an African heritage or African traditions has informed the African Commission’s view of human rights. In the first part of the paper, I review the relevant case law of the African Commission and in the second part of the paper I draw on ethnographic research conducted at the Commission’s secretariat and sessions in Banjul, as well as interviews with its various interlocutors (e.g. NGOs). Drawing on this data, I argue that there is not much to the African fingerprint and that disagreements about specific human rights issues (disagreements that would be couched in terms of cultural difference and relativism, following the Asian Values debate of the 1990s and much of the literature surrounding issues like FGM ) are framed not in terms of African values but in terms of procedural accuracy and fidelity.

This paper is part of the CGHR Research Group, a forum for graduate students and early-career researchers from any department and disciplinary background researching issues of governance and human rights in the global, regional, and national contexts.








Hultin Research Group