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Political Science


Since the 1970s, many humanistically minded academics have become concerned with the comparative measurement and analysis of human rights. The new concern is partly a result of the introduction of human rights as a subject of United Nations debates and foreign policy deliberations, especially in the United States during the Carter Administration (1977–81). Frequently, on the intergovernmental and national levels, the debate is nothing more than a new means of rhetoric, with an additional patina of moral concern, for asserting a nation-state’s normal national security interests.

In the United Nations and other such fora, a favorite tactic of debate is to compare one’s own country’s human rights strengths with another country’s human rights weaknesses. Thus socialist countries criticize the lack of welfare security in capitalist countries, while the latter reply with an indictment of the lack of civil liberties in the former. Former imperialist powers criticize the human rights practices of their former colonies. Developed countries and underdeveloped countries are also compared, almost inevitably to the latters’ disadvantage. Finally, since no country has completely lived up to the United Nations ideal as embodied in the International Bill of Rights, it is fair game for adversaries to hold up that ideal as a mirror to reflect human rights abuses.

In this paper, I illustrate the problems of how implicit human rights comparisons affect one’s evaluations of human rights performance, by discussing the kinds of comparisons to which Africa is often subject. I refer for factual examples to a select group of sub-Saharan African countries, namely, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia—all (presently or formerly) English-speaking countries, colonized by the United Kingdom, which obtained their independence in the early 1960s. I illustrate below how one’s implicit evaluations of human rights in English-speaking sub-Saharan Africa can change, depending on the comparison one makes.


Copyright © 1984 The Johns Hopkins University Press. This article first appeared in Human Rights Quarterly 6.2 (1984), 160-179. Reprinted with permission by The Johns Hopkins University Press.