African News

Ghana: Dawn of a Culture of Rights

4 April 2006 at 20:52 | 459 views

Kofi Akosah-Sarpong, in Accra, explores the growing “culture of rights” in Ghana’s development process.

By Kofi Akosa-Sarpong

Over the centuries and across Ghana, thousands of women have been victims of some form of Female Genital Mutilation and thousands more beaten, imprisoned and lynched because of certain aspects of the Ghanaian culture violating their rights such as accusations of witchcraft.

Nowadays, such violations are receiving attention both locally and internationally. With regards to the dehumanizing practices of “trokosi,” where teenage girls are enslaved to shrines/oracles for sins committed by their parents, both local and international campaigns by human rights organizations not only exposed these horrible ancient traditional practices but worked for their elimination.

Today, “trokosi,” despite being largely a practice in Ghana’s Volta Region, is used as a reality thresher to drum home how human rights can be used to refine certain aspects of the Ghanaian culture that violate rights - a sort of rationalizing the irrational via human rights values. However, for cultural and historical reasons, each region in Ghana largely has its own peculiar human rights troubles that stem from its culture in relation to nation-wide rights issues such as tribalism, labour, and disability.

From diverse conferences on human rights to mass media outlets to human rights capacity building ventures for various professionals country-wide, Ghana is progressively building a “culture of rights” in her development process with assistance from both local and international bodies. Sometimes, the assistance may come not only in the form of resources but unwavering criticisms from such prominent global rights watch-dogs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International on issues like police corruption and impunity. Such analyses are normally broadcast widely in the Ghanaian mass media and used as policy making resource by the government, academia and the private sector.

Recently, a major two-week human rights seminar for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), drawn from West and Central Africa, was organized jointly by the Accra-based media monitoring outlet Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) and the New York-based Columbia University’s Centre for the Study of Human Rights.

The MFWA-Columbia University workshop for human rights NGOs, the first of its kind in Ghana and West Africa, had as its theme “Human Rights and Development.” It was a flash point in Ghana’s emerging confidence as a human rights centre and how human rights customs are being nurtured in a country which progress, as her elites say, aims at fertilizing an entrenching a “culture of rights” and democracy in the soil of the democratization of communications.

Confident of her emerging human rights and democracy image abroad, Ghana has allowed the Toronto, Canada-based Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), which aims to develop the human rights reporting capacity skills of journalists, to train her journalists.

JHR, which has established Ghana school chapters in association with local institutions, says “in Ghana, our largest African project, we have increased human rights coverage in the media by over 65%, leading to a quantifiable reduction in human rights abuses.”

JHR has not gone to other African states because of the unpalatable human rights and democracy climate there but found it conducive to operate in Ghana because it is convinced that Ghanaians “enjoy a relative freedom of expression” and their media organizations enjoy an appreciable level of freedom and awareness about human rights easily comparable with other African states.

Under Ghana’s Coat of Arms is the inscription “Freedom and Justice,” an indication that Ghana was established on human rights struggles drawn not only from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also from the core indigenous values of the 56 ethnic groups that make up Ghana.

Still, human rights might largely be seen as a Western value; actually it is also extremely a Ghanaian/African value too. Though not as refined and exposed as in the West for obvious historical and political reasons, all the over 2000 African ethnic groups have inherent human rights values that have sustained them over time. Like the Greeks and Romans, African ethnic groups have a culture of human rights and traces of libertarian beliefs appear in African cosmology in the form of moral principles and in the sayings of sages such as Ghana’s Okomfo Anokye.

African moral standards that have governed Africans behaviour since time immemorial, like all peoples in the world, are “objectively derived from the nature of being a human.” In this sense, the reason why universal human rights values are developing fast in Ghana is that it is naturally reacting to Ghana’s ethnic groups’ hidden human rights values that were for long suppressed not only by colonialism, but also the long-running one-party autocratic regimes and military juntas that Ghana experienced. Latent or not, the fertilizer for a growing “culture of rights” is democracy and freedoms, of which Ghana has since 1992 being experiencing and reaping the dividends in a region with fragile human rights and democracy culture.

Since 1957 to her present democratic dispensation, Ghana has been signatory to almost all known human rights treaties and agreements in the world. Despite this, the human rights graph of the country is not consistent, fluctuating instead, driven by regime changes over the years.

Even with the seeming decline of human rights abuses over the past ten years, the United States’ Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour’s Ghana Country Report on Human Rights Practices (2005) says though Accra respected Ghanaians’ rights, however, “there were problems in several areas, including a sharp increase in incidents of vigilante justice.”

Also, a National Reconciliation Commission set up to look at right violations by Ghanaians against Ghanaians, especially Ghanaian governments against Ghanaians, since the birth of Ghana in 1957, concluded that for most part of their nationhood Ghanaians have been systematically abused by the very governments which are to protect them, most times with the complicity of the media, which appear manipulable in the face of harassment, intimidation, coercion and threats.

Ghana’s growing human rights culture is heavily reflected in her 1992 Constitution, which laid the basis for the on-going multi-party democratic rule after most parts of her corporate life were stuck in rights violating one-party autocratic regimes and brutal military juntas.

To help deepen human rights, Chapter 5 of Ghana’s 1992 Constitution is the longest. It is the Star of the Constitution and a testimony to the long, protracted struggles of Ghanaian journalism, civil society and Ghanaians’ indigenous values for democracy and human rights.

To buttress how human rights is very, very dear to the heart of Ghana’s progress, the Accra-based The Ghanaian Chronicle, during Ghana’s 49th Independence Day celebration on March 6 editorialized that “The Constitution of 1992 is the ultimate law of Ghana, and is the principal legal text protecting our rights and freedoms. Chapter 5 of the Constitution entitled, ‘Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms,’ is an entrenched section of the Constitution. All the laws of Ghana conform to Chapter 5, and thus must respect the rights and freedoms protected by the Constitution.”

The mass media, freed from years of suppression, and convinced beyond all reasonable doubt that an entrenched “culture of rights” is the best formula for Ghana’s advancement, is in the forefront of growing human rights mores.

Enhanced by the swelling democratization of communications, the mass media is ever more becoming aware that human rights and journalism are intrinsically entwined and brutally inseparable - that each drives the other. This conviction has seen an expanding trend of human rights coverage in the Ghanaian media, led by such prominent media houses like Ghana News Agency (GNA), Joy FM, the Ghanaian Times, Peace FM, Choice FM, The Ghanaian Chronicle, Public Agenda and the Daily Graphic. Ghana’s leading independent private newspaper, The Ghanaian Chronicle, in collaboration with Journalists for Human Rights, features human rights reports every Wednesday on its page 3 entitled “Social Justice.”

Still, the Accra-based leading mass circulation the Daily Graphic, as part of its rights coverage policy, is best known nationally for its devotion to comprehensive women’s rights issues. Its “Women’s World” page, featured every Thursday, has the nationally acclaimed human rights activist, the lawyer Nana Oye Lithur, of the Accra-based African Office of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, as a columnist who has been particularly tackling complicated gender issues.

The Public Agenda, perhaps Ghana’s best known development-oriented newspaper, covers broad human rights concerns in its bi-weekly edition. Added to this is the Ghana News Agency, which is in the forefront of covering in detail cultural values that violate the rights of Ghanaians. All the media houses cover a broad range of diverse human rights topics that were not covered years ago and almost all their human rights reportages are done purely from facts, without any speculations, but resonate with an emotional tone that calls for resolution.

The vocation of the mass media is made easier not only by the growing number of human rights NGOs as resource outlets but also quasi-state human rights institutions such as the Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), which complement the media’s human rights advocacy task. As human rights enlarge, some elites have been advising the government to expand CHRAJ’s investigation of human rights violations to include prosecutorial obligations to tackle the burning issue of corruption. As apart of the on-going media-NGOs exchanges on human rights issues, recently officials of HelpAge Ghana briefed Journalists for Human Rights volunteers, among others, about the rights problems Ghanaian older persons face. Emanating from certain strange beliefs in the culture, older Ghanaian women are often made scapegoats of social problems. Older women are “accused of using witchcraft to cause illnesses and almost always subjected to various forms of abuse that includes “physical attacks, humiliation in public, destruction of property and ostracisation,” HelpAge said.

Though yet to include human rights components into all national policy making as is the case in Canada, the Ghanaian government is openly responding to human rights issues that infringe on progress. Among a long list, in response to national outcry about escalating rape and defilement of teenage girls, Ghana’s Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs declared 2006 “A Year of Action on Defilement” and said it is to “develop an action plan to address” violations “against children, focusing on awareness, community response and prevention.” Of equal prominence is Ghana’s Vice President, Aliu Mahama, a brilliant symbol of the country’s progress, convinced that certain aspects of Ghanaian culture entangle progress by violating Ghanaians rights. Mahama has stated that even Ghana’s 1992 Constitution mandates the government to look at “All customary practices which dehumanize or are injurious to the physical and moral well-being” of Ghanaians “are prohibited.”

The Ghanaian Chronicle adds in the national culture-progress-human rights talks that in upholding Ghanaians’ rights while respecting traditional practices, "the Constitution does not see tradition or custom as an excuse for violating fundamental rights and freedoms. There are no legal excuses for violating fundamental human rights or freedoms.”

The upward growth of “culture of rights” in Ghana, after years of darkness on the human rights fronts, reveals that progress is on the ascendancy, up from out of the shadow of oppression and harassment and suppression and intimidations and fear and gloom and threats and superstition and malevolence and unreason. In this sense, “Freedom and Justice,” a Ghana birth mark, is truly driving her progress.

Photo: President John Kufuor of Ghana.

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