Prof Makau Mutua questions the feasibility of human rights as an instrument for social transformation

Posted on February 14, 2018

The Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria hosted a public lecture by renowned legal scholar Professor Makau Mutua on 12 February 2018. Prof Mutua is a distinguished Professor at the Floyd H. and Hilda L. Hurst Faculty Scholar at the State University of New York Buffalo Law School. The public lecture raised the question whether the age of human rights is over. It was premised on the central argument that while human rights and the use of the ‘language of rights’ have been a phenomenal success, it has lost the ability to coalesce action against human rights atrocities. Unfortunately, no new discourses have emerged to take the place of human rights. What is needed is a new moral language to fill the vacuum left by human rights.

The lecture analysed the deficits and normative gaps of human rights texts, starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its impact on society. Prof Mutua held the opinion that the golden age of human rights is weakening, and is about to be extinguished. The remedy proposed is that society, and lawyers in particular, must rethink their understanding of human rights and appreciate the political nature and influences of politics on law.

Using the example of land reform and post-1994 developments in South Africa, Prof Mutua argued that a thorough rethinking of law as an instrument of social change is needed if human rights is to maintain its seductivity,and yield meaningful substantive outcomes for humanity. Africa in particular must reassess its appreciation of human rights and give heed to its peculiarities and realities rather than imitating predominantly Western discourses of human rights. Although human rights may not necessarily have come to an end, its feasibility as an instrument of social transformation, distinct from politics, may not be ideal to contemporary understanding of human rights and global politics.

The lecture was thought provoking and was followed by a lively question and answer session.The event attracted over seventy guests, including students studying on the Centre’s postgraduate programmes, members of the general public, and staff of the University of Pretoria.

- Author Centre for Human Rights
Last edited by Lourika Pienaar

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