Meaning of Human Rights

Although, the earliest origin of human rights can be traced to the “magna carta” (often referred to as a great charter) of 1215, which later led to series of declaration of rights in different parts of Europe and America. It was not until 1948 when the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights came up that precise legal cover to the promotion of basic rights or citizens all over the world was initiated.

Human rights can be defined as a global principle which refers to rights and freedom that all human beings are entitled to and enjoy as humans irrespective of the country of birth or residence. They are inalienable, fundamental, and not awarded by human power and cannot be surrendered, and are enforceable in national and international law courts. Some of the fundamental human rights of citizens are:

  1. Right to life and protection of property.
  2. Right to education (not necessarily formal education but the one that will make the individual to survive and be useful in the community he / she is born.
  3. Right to shelter.
  4. Right to association / movement.
  5. Freedom of reason, conscience and speech.
  6. Freedom from all kinds of discrimination: gender, sexual, religion, age, ethnicity.
  7. Political rights i.e. right to participate in public affairs especially to determine who governs them, and to be voted for in democratic settings.


Limitations of Human Rights

A renowned philosopher once said” men are born free, but everywhere I go, they are in chains”. This saying captures the various infringements and limitations of human rights nationally and globally at different times.

The following factors could lead to limitations of human rights.

  1. Coup d’etat: This is an unconstitutional means of taking over the control of government in a country. When this occurs, the constitution is suspended and replaced with decrees which stifle human rights. This was the situation in Nigeria between 1966 – 1979 and between 1984 – 1999.
  2. Wars (Armed Rebellion or Civil Insurrection): During wars, young boys and girls at times are made to join the army against their wish and fight a war they do not know its cause. Also, schools are closed down and turned at times into barracks. For example, during the Biafra war (1967 – 1970) this was the situation in Eastern Nigerian Region.
  3. State of Emergency: During periods of emergency occasioned by communal or religious uprisings or attack by other countries where innocents lives are lost, property destroyed, and anarchy is the order of the day, human rights may be limited as the government often times imposes dusk to dawn curfew( i.e no movement of people). For example, the United Nations recognizes that human rights can be limited or even pushed aside during times of national emergency but the emergency must be actual, affect the whole population and the threat must be to the very existence of the nation. It must also be a last resort and a temporary measure.
  4. Environmental Cleanliness: In Nigeria, the quest to make the country cleaner has led to most states enacting laws that restrict freedom of movement between certain hours of the day on the last Saturday of every month to enable people clean their environment during these hours.
  5. Conviction by a Constitutional Court: When an individual is found guilty under the constitution by the law courts, a judge could make valid pronouncement that the accused be put behind bars or reprimanded in prison custody or forfeit properties to the state.


Human Rights during Emergency Periods

Sometimes, nations are hit by events and forces which could endanger its security and the lives of its citizens. Such situations may require that individual rights be temporarily suspended in order to cope with the dangers confronting the nation. Emergency provisions are therefore included in any national constitutions permitting the suspension of guaranteed fundamental rights.

The 1999 constitution provides for a declaration of state of emergency. For example, president Olusegun Obasanjo invoked this section, when he declared state of emergency in Plateau state on 18th May, 2004. The Governor, Joshua Dariye was suspended from office and Major General Chris Alli was appointed Sole Administrator. Another example was the case of Ekiti State in Nigeria.

However, it is important to note that there are certain basic human rights which cannot be suspended during any kind of emergency, be it war, armed rebellion or civil insurrection. Examples of such rights are: right to life, freedom from torture and cruel treatment and the right to fair trial. These rights represents the core of essential human values and suspension of them will destroy the basis of any civilized state and the rule of law.

Unfortunately, many countries including Nigeria still engage in human rights abuses during emergency periods. In Nigeria for example, non-governmental organizations such as Committee for Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) and Amnesty International have helped to collect evidence and documentation of alleged human rights abuses. Some of which are:

  1. Genocide / extra-judicial killings of people: For example, the killings of the religious extremists (Boko Haram ) leaders in Yobe and Borno State early 2010 by security forces even when they voluntarily surrendered.
  2. Rape of women / girls by security agents as alleged by residents when security forces razed Odi town in Niger Delta after militias operating in the creek killed twelve policemen during President Obasanjo’s first term as civilian president.
  3. Destruction, arson and looting of properties by agents of the state.
  4. Restriction of freedom of movement by imposing curfew or restricted movement during certain hours of the day.
  5. Press gag or limited freedom of speech.
  6. Proscription of political parties and democratic institutions. For example, the suspension of Ekiti State House of Assembly from making laws by a Presidential declaration of emergency on 19th October, 2006.
  7. Rule by decree and non-adherence to the rule of law.
  8. Murder and torture of political opponents and opposition by agents of the state.

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