The relevance of Human Rights as an instrument for social transformation

Posted on February 16, 2018

The Centre for Human Rights hosted renowned legal scholar Professor Makau Mutua. In his thought-provoking public lecture, he raised the question of whether the age of human rights has passed and if the concept of human rights is about to be forgotten. He proposed that society, and lawyers in particular, must rethink their understanding of human rights and appreciate the political nature and influences of politics on law.

His central argument was that while awareness of human rights and the lexicon surrounding these rights have gained popularity, there has been very little action around human rights atrocities, and on this basis, the concept of human rights has failed.

Prof Mutua proposed that if human rights are no longer relevant, then a new moral language must be articulated to fill the vacuum they have left. He analysed the deficits and normative gaps of human rights texts, starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its impact on society since it was adopted by the United Nations in 1948. He noted that while human rights may not necessarily have come to an end, their feasibility as an instrument of social transformation, distinct from politics, may not be ideal in the context of a contemporary understanding of human rights and global politics. He said that Africa must reassess its appreciation of human rights and give heed to its peculiarities and realities rather than imitating predominantly Western discourses on human rights.

Using the example of land reform and post-1994 developments in South Africa, Prof Mutua argued that the rethinking of law as an instrument of social change is needed if human rights are to remain and yield meaningful substantive outcomes for humanity.



- Author Department of University Relations

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