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African Human Rights Law Journal

On-line version ISSN 1996-2096
Print version ISSN 1609-073X


OKAFOR, Obiora C  and  DZAH, Godwin EK. The African human rights system as 'norm leader': Three case studies. Afr. hum. rights law j. [online]. 2021, vol.21, n.2, pp.669-698. ISSN 1996-2096.

Africa (including its human rights system) is rarely imagined or considered an originator, agent and purveyor of ideas, including in the human rights sphere. On this occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the adoption of the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights which founded the African human rights system, it is only fitting that its contributions or otherwise to global human rights praxis, over these four decades, be examined from this perspective. Utilising the theory of the norm life cycle, developed by scholars of international relations who work within 'strategic social constructivism', this article examines how the African human rights system has, or has not, functioned as a 'norm leader' with regard to certain important and increasingly widely-accepted human rights standards. To that extent, the article examines (as examples) certain human rights norms first elaborated and made into legally-binding forms in the African Charter, widely circulated and having achieved a considerable level of global dispersal and adoption, in part, as a result of the work of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights and the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights. Focusing on three important norms (the right to self-determination, the right to development and the right to the environment) and based on a study of academic and other literature, treaties or instruments, case law and records of international negotiations, the article attempts to respond systematically to this overarching question. The article argues that although the African human rights system clearly is not a state, the critical but globally under-appreciated roles it has played regarding the globalised socialisation of certain human rights ideas fits within, and helps in extending, social constructivist human rights theory and praxis. The article concludes with a reflection on some key limitations that are observable as to how far the system has been able to travel in the direction of norm leadership in human rights law.

Keywords : African human rights system; norm cycle theory; self-determination; right to development; right to the environment.

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