Human Rights Violations: The Wrong Narrative

Human Rigths Day 2015 posterEvery human has the right to exist and to exercise their ability to live a productive and positive life (as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Unfortunately, many people in the “developing” and “developed” world suffer from human rights violations (HRV) on a daily basis.

Human rights activists, scholars and advocates often address such violations on a case by case basis addressing the actual violation in relationship to the violators. While this is an effective strategy to expose the single or multiple acts of human rights violations, it can paint the picture that these violations are merely a result of internal conflict and disconnected from one another.

I contend that human rights violations around the world are very much connected and must be viewed in this manner in order for real change to occur. Imperialism, a derivative of capitalism and structural classism, is at the root of human rights violations and must be explored as the fundamental contradiction when having debates about HRV.

To be fair most human rights activists, scholars and advocates are not blatantly ignoring the connection between imperialism and human rights violations. They are operating from an ideology which does not view imperialism as a major contradiction. The academy teaches us to view the world in compartments and disconnected from the major economic system. This approach is what drives our analysis.

In order to fully understand the issue of human rights violations, however, we must examine the issue in relationship to the current economic system of capitalism and – by extension – imperialism. Imperialism is generally defined as the act of extending the rule or authority of an empire or nation over external or foreign nations and/or having those nations be economically/politically dependent.

Ultimately, we must answer the question, How is imperialism connected to human rights violations? When we dissect the devastating effects of imperialism, we see the clear connection between HRV and imperialism.

Human Rights and Imperialism

Nations that are besieged with economic strangulation from the effects of imperialism often also suffer from a lack of food security, shaky infrastructure, high levels of unemployment and/or underemployment, lack of quality health care services and educational opportunities. These deficiencies in basic human needs increase the amount of resource conflict. This conflict is generally based on the lack of sustainable resources available to the masses of people, diminishing their opportunity to live positive and productive lives.

Ethnic and religious differences are often attributed to conflicts that result in the violation of human rights. While, in some cases, these differences do exist, it is too simplistic to use ethnic or religious differences as the crux of the issues at hand.

Economics and the lack of access to basic human rights (which I define as food, shelter, education, employment, access to resources and the ability to manage ones one affairs) are the primary, but often ignored, issues at hand. The ethnic or religious differences become the focal point as a means of not addressing imperialism, led by the western world, at the root of these human rights violations.

Imperialism and neo-colonialism* take root through bi-lateral material and immaterial support, loans from international finance corporations, private investments, natural resource exporting (at ridiculously low prices), importing processed resources (including food), and an overall lack of political and economic control of the government. Initiatives like Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP) heavily contribute to increasing the amount of human rights violations.

Lotsmart Fonjong from the University of Buea (Cameroon) has conducted research that draws a connection between SAP, structural classism in the extreme, and human rights violations in West Africa. He argues, “Most of these abuses, as the literature confirms, were as a result of resistance by the population to SAP and the consequences of the failure of SAP to improve welfare, livelihood, poverty or opportunities.” (2014, P. 107).

Repression in any form is egregious at best. But it is outright criminal to exercise repressive measures against your people in order to implement a foreign economic measure and to secure foreign loans to improve development. The question that must be raised is who is criminally responsible for the human rights violations that occur as a result of western or foreign intervention in Africa?

The Human Face of Imperialism and HRV

Human Rights Violations GenericTwenty (20) years after Apartheid was officially abolished there is a clear class divide in South Africa with most of the wealth in the hands of Europeans and western corporations. For example, the De Beers Group is one of a very select group of mining companies that control the mining industry in South Africa. But what percentage of the profits from the extraction and sale of diamonds in South Africa actually goes to the people of South Africa? Let’s look at South Africa as an example of where human rights violations are a direct result of imperialism.

Recent “xenophobic” attacks are a great example of imperialism being at the root of human rights violations. Azania, South Africa, gained independence in 1994 after a serious liberation struggle waged against many human rights violations, including imprisoning Nelson Mandela and many of his comrades for over 30 years. South Africa currently has a 25% (or higher) unemployment rate – with many people part of the informal sector who are not counted as the officially unemployed. The stress and frustration that economic challenges bring is often reflected against migrant workers instead of the imperialists who ultimately control the neo-colonial government.

Lastly, in 2012 we are all aware of the Marikana Mine Massacre that occurred as a result of workers demanding a minimum/living wage. By all accounts, the workers were striking peacefully and were shot at by security forces resulting in 34 people being killed. Many suggested there was a strong connection between class, imperialism and human rights violations in Africa and beyond.

Moving forward we must challenge the field to have a holistic discussion of human rights violations and its relationship to imperialism. Without discussing human rights violations in relationship to the larger economic and political struggles, one will simply being putting a band aid on cancer. It may behoove those in academia and elsewhere to move forward with a two-pronged approach: Attack the actual violation and the immediate needs of the people, and on the macro level address the overall contradiction of imperialism and its inherent issues, including the classism, to ultimately eradicate human rights violations.


Fonjong, Lotsmart (2014) Rethinking the Impact of Structural Adjustment Programs on human rights violations in West Africa. Perspectives00000 on Global Development and Technology 13. Brill p. 87-110.

Facts on diamond mining:

*A new form of colonialism – indirect rule from afar, primarily economic and political control


Leave a Reply