The Power of Defining

If you follow some of the major international news media such as The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Economist and even BBC, you will find that when Rwanda is written about, it is usually portrayed in a Janus-faced light: the country is both the model for Africa and has an impending crisis.

If you follow some of the major international news media such as The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Economist and even BBC, you will find that when Rwanda is written about, it is usually portrayed in a Janus-faced light: the country is both the model for Africa and has an impending crisis.

The latter is especially amplified when it comes to issues of Human Rights. I wish to suggest a perspective on what else might be going on.

When portrayed positively, writers in these publications usually agree that the government is doing a good job in terms of addressing the socioeconomic problems facing the country.

Many cite the fact that the economy has been growing at close to 10% per year for at least the past decade. They also note the improved socioeconomic conditions of the people by citing the per capita income of over $450, doubling that prior to 1994.

Most impressive, according to these reports, is the Health sector, where a recent piece from the New York Times cites a close to 95% coverage.

The fact that women are given a prominent role in governance is also indicated as a positive development: the majority of parliamentarians are women.

In other words, when these achievements are combined, the government has done well.

Now, let’s deal with the question of Human Rights. Why would a country that is so obsessed with improving the socio economic conditions of its people also want to mistreat  them?  Apparently, the government provides its citizens with human security needs in one hand while taking it in the other.

This doesn’t make sense.
The way I see it, both the government of Rwanda and the international Human Rights groups – and Western media – are interested in improving the living conditions of Rwandans, human rights inclusive.

The former, however, has the primary responsibility in this matter. It would not make much sense that Westerners would have more concern for the dignity of Rwandans than their (Rwandans) government. (Urusha nyina w’umwana imbabazi aba ashaka kumurya).

With this in mind, I think that the problem is really about (mis) communication. Specifically, the real issue is about the context of Human Rights. International NGO groups don’t want to hear that the idea of Human Rights should have context.

On the other hand, the government of Rwanda argues for the significance of context.Clearly, this problem of communication is about culture. Human Rights groups and the government of Rwanda don’t understand where each other is ‘coming from.’ The former accuses the latter of using context to abuse its citizens; the Rwandan government rebuts that Human Rights groups are just another form of European cultural hegemony.

Of course the historically damaging interaction (colonization) between Europe and Africa supports Rwanda’s case for the importance of context that is found in the country’s history and experience. European countries of France and Belgium know very well about this history and there is no need for reminders.

Put another way, the Rwandan government is arguing Rwanda is not a tabula rasa on which Human Rights can be applied as if the country has no history that shapes its behavior.

Significantly, these organizations represent something that is much larger than themselves. They represent a European ideational monopoly: The power to define.

Accordingly, by making the argument for context in the application of Human Rights, Rwandans are not just challenging these groups; they are also calling into question European cultural domination. They are asserting their right to define. But this is not an easy exercise.

To successfully do this, Rwandans have to articulate their alternative definition and be prepared to intellectually defend it.

Lonzen Rugira comments on sociopolitical issues of development
Lonzenr@yahoo.com

 

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