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  • Human Rights NGOs in East Africa: Political and Normative Tensions
  • Adam Branch (bio)
Human Rights NGOs in East Africa: Political and Normative Tensions (Makau Mutua ed., Univ. of Pennsylvania Press 2009) 390 pages, ISBN 9780812220490.

I. Introduction: Human Rights and Self-Determination

In the opening chapter of Human Rights NGOs in East Africa, Kenyan lawyer and scholar Makua Mutua, also the editor of the volume, decries the fact that "[t]he human rights movement in the region is a rump extension of the so-called international human rights movement, which originated and is headquartered in the industrial democracies of the West."1 Many authors in this important volume echo this same concern; they argue that the human rights discourse and practice dominant in Africa today fails to respond to the continent's particular social, political, economic, and historical situation. Instead of being specific to Africa, they argue, this dominant discourse and practice is primarily a Western import, often imposed on Africa by foreign donors.

The politically and normatively counterproductive consequences of the extraversion of human rights in Africa are convincingly charted by Human Rights NGOs in East Africa; as Mutua writes:

[T]he unhealthy reliance on external, donor funding from the West is the biggest threat to the NGO sector in East Africa. Not only does it encourage the most destructive pathologies on the part of the donor and donee alike, it also attacks the heart of one of the basic norms of the human rights corpus: self-determination.2

The exploration of this tension—that existing human rights, by failing to be specific to East Africa, can undermine the conditions for the realization of rights—is one of the strongest points of this volume. Many of the chapters challenge the Western dominance of human rights and the institutions and patterns to which dominance has given rise, calling for the Africanization of human rights, which must begin with freedom from dependence on donor funding. The most exciting chapters, such as Sylvia Tamale's chapter, work towards re-theorizing human rights with specific reference to Africa's current conjuncture and towards sketching out new political strategies based upon that re-theorization. Throughout the volume runs the argument that only a human rights discourse and practice specific to Africa can ground a democratic political project, and in this sense, the volume itself represents an act of intellectual, normative, and political self-determination.3

Indeed, the subject matter itself of Human Rights NGOs in East Africa, that is, the role of human rights within the struggle for democracy, represents a necessary corrective to what has become perhaps the most prevalent human rights discourse on Africa today, namely, the focus on atrocities within a criminal law or military framework, embodied in the ICC and the so-called "R2P," respectively. In this dominant discourse, Africa is presented as a terrain of permanent, [End Page 216] ubiquitous violence in which human rights promotion can only occur through external intervention, whether that be through criminal trials, "state building," or the use of force. Human Rights NGOs in East Africa, instead of starting with mass violence and generalizing from that violence (which can only lead to apologies for unaccountable Western intervention), focuses on and builds upon normal politics and the interaction between local accountability, human rights, and democracy. The book reveals that intervention, whether military or monetary, is a hindrance to human rights and democracy in East Africa and should not be celebrated as its supposedly necessary agent.

At times, however, Human Rights NGOs in East Africa evinces the tensions that characterize human rights in Africa, in particular when it leaves unquestioned some of the presuppositions of the dominant human rights discourse (such as the privileged place given to NGOs as vehicles for the realization of human rights). This does not detract from the value of the book, but rather highlights the obstacles facing human rights activism at present while also suggesting a course for future research.

II. Mandate, Advocacy, and Independence

Human Rights NGOs in East Africa focuses on the consequences of foreign intervention, as intervention has underpinned the most prominent institutionalization of human rights in East Africa, the NGO sector. Kenyan lawyer Connie Ngondi...


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