Core Session: Agency / Realising Human Rights in African Cities


Most discussions on the origin of human rights refer to the global North, the formation of the UN in 1945 and the adoption of the first international human rights instrument – the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), three years later. Today, the UDHR remains one of the most influential human rights instruments across the world, having influenced the inclusion of human rights provisions in many national constitutions, and further human rights instruments. However, there is debate around viewing various elements of human rights as indigenous to many societies in the global South, including African societies, albeit articulated differently.


In recent years, there is increasing criticism of the exclusion of global South countries in the processes to develop the UDHR, which thereby excluded perspectives and iterations from these contexts. This has led to the tension between advocates for universalism and cultural relativists. This debate is a reminder of the need to reflect from an African centered lens about the origin of human rights. Doing this requires asking difficult and uncomfortable questions. Are human rights foreign to Africa? Did the fabric of pre-colonial African societies and cities have elements of human rights embedded in them? Was there observance of human rights which predated colonial Africa in our cities? Is it true that the historical evolution of human rights can be traced only to the North? What contribution has Africa made to the evolution and understanding of human rights in today’s cities and societies?


This session attempts to spotlight these questions through multiple lenses in today’s African cities. It brings on board advocates of varied voices in today’s African cities including women, children and persons with disabilities, to share different processes by which champions are enabling both differing and collective voice in urban development



La plupart des discussions sur l’origine des droits de l’homme font référence au Nord, à la création de l’ONU en 1945 et à l’adoption du premier instrument international des droits de l’homme – la Déclaration universelle des droits de l’homme (DUDH), trois ans plus tard. Aujourd’hui, la DUDH reste l’un des instruments des droits de l’homme les plus influents dans le monde, ayant influencé l’inclusion de dispositions relatives aux droits de l’homme dans de nombreuses constitutions nationales et d’autres instruments des droits de l’homme. Cependant, il existe un débat autour de la vision de divers éléments des droits de l’homme comme étant indigènes à de nombreuses sociétés du Sud, y compris les sociétés africaines, bien qu’articulés différemment.


Ces dernières années, les critiques se sont multipliées à l’encontre de l’exclusion des pays du Sud dans les processus d’élaboration de la DUDH, ce qui a exclu les perspectives et les itérations de ces contextes. Cela a conduit à une tension entre les défenseurs de l’universalisme et les relativistes culturels. Ce débat rappelle la nécessité de réfléchir à l’origine des droits de l’homme à partir d’un point de vue centré sur l’Afrique. Pour ce faire, il faut poser des questions difficiles et inconfortables. Les droits de l’homme sont-ils étrangers à l’Afrique ? Le tissu des sociétés et des villes africaines précoloniales contenait-il des éléments de droits de l’homme ? Les droits de l’homme antérieurs à l’Afrique coloniale étaient-ils respectés dans nos villes ? Est-il vrai que l’évolution historique des droits de l’homme ne peut être retracée que dans le Nord ? Quelle a été la contribution de l’Afrique à l’évolution et à la compréhension des droits de l’homme dans les villes et les sociétés d’aujourd’hui ?


Cette session tente de mettre en lumière ces questions à travers de multiples perspectives dans les villes africaines d’aujourd’hui. Elle réunit des défenseurs de diverses voix dans les villes africaines d’aujourd’hui, y compris des femmes, des enfants et des personnes handicapées, pour partager les différents processus par lesquels les défenseurs permettent une voix différente et collective dans le développement urbain.



Host: ICLEI Africa, Dullah Omar Institute, University of Western Cape & Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria

Dr. Elvis Fokala

 Manager of the Children’s Rights Unit, Center for Human Rights

Ms. Rim Menia

Pan African Feminist, Architect & Researcher

Prof Bonny Ibhawoh

McMaster University, Canada

Ms Joy Mboya

Founder Go Down Arts Centre

Christiana Asala

National Coordinator of White Ribbon Alliance Nigeria

Nora Anyidoho

Ghanaian writer, performance poet and spoken word artist

Gladys Mukundi-Mirugi

Researcher I Policy Analyst, Dullah Omar Institute

Dr. Funmi Adeniyi

Senior Professional Officer, ICLEI Africa

Tariq Toffa

Director, RE: think/design 

Session Summary

During the opening session of Day 2 of RISE Africa, Agency – Realising Human Rights in African Cities, host, Funmi Adeniyi, senior professional officer at ICLEI Africa, brought together speakers, creatives and an expert panel to discuss the development and current status of human rights on the African continent from vastly different perspectives.

After a thought provoking welcome by Funmi Adeniyi, Prof Bonny Ibhawoh, Director of the Centre for Human Rights and Restorative Justice at McMaster University, opened with a fascinating provocation on the history of the development of human rights in Africa. Joy Mboya, Founder Go Down Arts Centre followed with a heartfelt and captivating story of the formation of people’s right to a beautiful and people-centered Nairobi clawed back from its colonial history. Both provocations were steeped in African historical context, the one providing the historical facts and contextual understanding whilst the other allowing the audience to imagine a real context and a human understanding of the changing of an African city for the benefit of its people. Before the panel discussion, the creativity continued to flow with an emotionally driven poem of hardship, strength and triumph of women by Poet Nora Anyidoho.

The panel comprised four different expert perspectives on human rights. The discussion opened up ideas around the importance of children’s opinions and ideas in designing city spaces, the importance of women claiming power in urban space and form , the continuous lack of universal design for people with disability and how society has fostered a culture of exclusivity that needs to change to move Africa into a human rights based society. Bringing together different perspectives made it ever more clear that the goal of every speaker and presenter was the same, each using their extensive knowledge and experiences to fight for just and inclusive African cities.

All wisdom does not reside in one head – African Proverb presented by Joy Mboya.