A review of Ghana’s human rights record


Last two months, (November 2017), the current government submitted itself to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review for peer review of Ghana’s human rights records over the past four years.

The purpose of the peer reviews was to track progress on Ghana’s human rights obligations and commitments. Information from the UN office in Ghana indicated that the latest review was the third round of review for Ghana, following 2008 and 2012. Ghana’s delegation was led by the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Ms. Gloria Afua Akuffo.

The documents on which the reviews were include; (1) national report – information provided by the State under review; (2) information contained in the reports of independent human rights experts and groups, known as the Special Procedures, human rights treaty bodies, and other UN entities; (3) information provided by other stakeholders including national human rights institutions, regional organizations and civil society groups.

Among the issues raised in the above-mentioned documents are: the abolition of the death penalty; improving detention conditions; investigating and prosecuting police abuse; establishing a national preventive mechanism against torture; combatting child labour; guaranteeing free and accessible education; warranting freedom of information; protecting human rights and access to justice for all Ghanaians, eradicating the gender pay gap, among others. Curiously, the rights of gays and lesbians has not featured on the list of issues for review. Perhaps, when the momentum on the rights of gays and lesbian gathers steam anytime soon, Ghanaians will deal with it appropriately, as President Akufo Addo recently said in response to a question on the rights of gays and lesbians in London.

This UPR cycle is well timed to ensure that a human rights approach is taken in the national achievement of the Sustainable Development Agenda 2030, meeting the principle that “no one is left behind” in access to justice and ability to live in dignity.

In this article I will highlight on the concepts of human rights, linking human rights to human development and drawing a positive correlation between corruption and human rights abuses in Ghana. I will point out areas the people of Ghana, the government and its departments and agencies, as well as our development partners need improving to make Ghana a true reflection of human rights. To begin with, the government needs to be commended for offering Ghana to be reviewed, for its human rights record, even though it has barely been in power for one year.

Concepts of human rights

According to political philosophers, the concept of human rights developed from a wide variety of philosophical reason, legal, political and cultural and religious influences and debates. No matter our idiosyncrasies, one thing that is common to many cultural and religious traditions is the recognition of the need to protect human freedom and dignity.  The argument holds that human beings have been traditionally regarded as being endowed with certain specific rights by reason of their humanity. They are derived from ‘natural law’, and have the following;

  • Natural-existing by virtue of man’s humanity
  • Universal-In that all humanity should enjoy them.
  • Equal- applying them to all, regardless of status. Gender, ethnicity
  • Inalienability- they cannot be taken away or modified.

In the ‘Rights of Man’, (1791) Thomas Paine argued that ‘natural rights transcend any legal system to which an individual is subject. This view attracted popularity in the revolutionary fervor of the 18th Century, providing moral justification for overturning despotic regimes.

Categorisation of human rights

In 1970, Karel Vasak, the first Secretary General of the International Institute for Human Rights categorized the development of human rights as ‘generational.’ This approach, according Vasak can be seen in three types. First generation rights are civil and political rights; such as personal rights to liberty and freedom of thought, conscience and expression, the right to association with others, and to fair judicial  hearings. According to Vasak, these rights provide individuals with protection against governmental encroachment. If infringed, an individual should have recourse to a court of law.

Second generation rights are economic, social and cultural. These rights, according to Vasak tend towards the collective need for well-being of society; for everyone to have access to housing, education, healthcare, jobs and participation. Vasak argues that traditionally, these rights affirm government action as a lead development agent and the provision of an enabling environment  for the realization of the rights.

Third generation rights are recently recognised as the rights to self-determination, peace, security, access to health and sustainable environment (especially the enjoyment of environmental justice). Environmental justice in the context of Ghana specifically refers to human rights abuses in the mining communities, where farmlands have been destroyed, along with livelihoods  in search of gold.  In the 1970s and 80s, there were attempts by the Bretton Woods Institutions to roll back the powers of the state. However, after several attempts, the western powers conceded that the state will remain a relevant player in development, especially in the area of providing security and maintaining law and order. So, the onus remains on the state to promote and protect the human rights of its citizens and provide the necessary grounds for people to claim their entitlements and utilize their endowments.

Rights empower

Donnelly (2003), argues that for rights to work, they can been classified into ‘rectitude’ and entitlement.’ In the case of ‘rectitude’, we speak of the ‘right thing to do’, or ‘something being right’ or (wrong).’ In the narrower sense of ‘entitlement’, it typically refers to ‘someone having a right.’ It is worth noting that rights, empower those who hold them. In this regard, I will look at issues around our collective failure to combat child labour, child abuse and neglect, forced marriages, female genital mutilation and child prostitution. Of all abuses of children, child labour continues to be the dominant and worse form.  Children of all ages are into forced into labour of all types on cocoa farms, selling on the streets, prostitution brothels; while some are recently being recruited into ‘land guards.’  Land guards is a private militia which is financed by some influential people to harass and confiscate land belonging to poor and powerless people.  Recently, land grabbing has caused several forced evictions and dislocation of poor families from their legal homes, especially in the Accra-Tema area.

The UN Declaration on Human Rights (1948) has been at the heart of the development of international human rights. UNDHR incorporates the principle that human rights apply to all organs of society which include public bodies and business organisations. It supported by two other UN conventions, which provide detailed framework. The first is the is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which covers the right to life, liberty, thought, conscience, peaceful assembly and privacy. It prohibits, slavery, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, arbitrary arrests and discrimination.

The second is the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights  (ICESCR), which  covers human rights, in areas such as education, food, food, healthcare, right to work and right to conducive working environment. Though some of the human rights are supposed to be ‘aspirational’ (being included in statements of intent by government); they should not be mere slogans. In fact it takes a committed and good government to turn statements of intents into action. While it is evident that a particular government cannot provide all rights in their ideal forms, it is an obligation on the state (government) to provide the framework to realizing some, if not all of them. For this reason, I  will encourage our government, its agencies and departments, as well as other duty bearers to discharge these obligations creditably as part of their social contract with the electorate. After that is all good governance is all about.

Universal basic education

Particularly relevant in the context of Ghana’s development is the provision of universal and compulsory basic education. For the Akufo Addo Administration to turn its statement of intent on free-SHS to a public policy after year one into office, indicates the higher level of its political commitment.  In fact the free SHS policy is a timely intervention that will cause the realization of the human right to education by all children, irrespective of their backgrounds. It has the power to bridge the development gap between the rich and the poor over time. It is worth noting that every country that has made rapid, and significant progress has placed education at the heart of its development.

No doubt, inclusive, affordable and quality education is central to child protection. We can have the best strategies on child protection, hold all the conferences on child protection and ratify all international conventions on the rights of the child, but if we fail to ensure every child attains an appreciable level of education and skills training for job market or self-employment, we have failed indeed.


Corruption and human rights

Transparency International, the United Nations and the World Bank are unanimous in linking corruption to human rights abuse. Specifically the UN Global Compact draws the link between corruption and human rights on the grounds that wherever corruption occurs, there’s always the inclination or opportunity to breach someone’s human rights. Over the last four years, Ghana witnessed some of the worse forms of corruption, which amounted to nothing, but a denial of some of essential services; such  as water, health, basic education and jobs.

Evidently, corruption has the potential of undermining the enjoyment of human rights in all areas, be they economic, social, cultural, civil, or political. In fact, the fight against corruption is central to the struggle for human rights (Terracino, 2008). Of interest is how corruption reinforces and perpetuate existing gender inequalities. Though the situation has improved in recent times, women’s lack of access to political and economic power continues to exclude them from networks and access to decision makers.

Besides, corruption has been proved to have a disproportionate impact on people that belong to groups that expose them to risks (eg minorities, indigenous people, migrant workers). The International Convention on Human and People’s Rights (ICHPR) points out that it is the vulnerable and marginalized –women and children who often suffer the harshest effects of corruption.    The role of state institutions in corruption makes it even more difficult to combat. State institutions and public officials that divert public resources from essential services eventually deny all of us the ‘public goods.’

In general, states possess three types of human rights obligations. States must respect, protect and fulfil all human rights. The obligation to respect requires states to refrain from interfering directly or indirectly with the enjoyment of human rights, and also prevent third parties from interfering in any way with the enjoyment of human rights (Terracino, 2008). There is a violation of a human right when an act or omission of a state (government) is not in conformity with the obligation to respect, fulfill and protect the rights of persons under its jurisdiction. States have duty not only to protect us from human rights violations by the public sector, but the private sector. The issues of unfair trial, illegal arrests and detentions, forced evictions, forced marriages, FGM, child labour etc are remains issues Ghana needs to improve.


Right to information

One other obligation the state owes us, is the right to information. Though Ghana is relatively open, regarding the right to freedom of expression and association, a lot remains to be achieved in the area of right to information. In its ideal formulation, access to information should guarantee the right of all citizens to request and obtain public information without being required to justify the request. This is the surest way of promoting participation and combating corruption. Unfortunately, government after government since 1992 have shied away from passing the Right to Information Law.’ The Akufo Addo Administration has also joined in promising that it would pass the RTI law in 2018. We can only wait and see.

Any government seeking to promote human rights and good governance should be encouraged to take a human rights approach. As stated earlier, human rights standards established in the international conventions and domestic legislation impose obligations on states to strengthen policy dimensions. No doubt, without the promotion of human rights, Ghana cannot inch towards the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda 2030, which are basically human rights provisions, encapsulating the right to development.



T.1. (2009) Corruption and Human Rights: Making the Connection.  International Council on Human Rights Policy.


Terracino, J.B. (2008) “Corruption as a Violation of Human Rights” International Council on Human Rights policy.


UN Declaration on Human Rights (1948). UN


(***The writer is a Development and Communications Management Specialist, and a Social Justice Advocate.  All views expressed in this article are my personal views and do not represent those of any organization(s). (Email: [email protected]. Mobiles: 0202642504/ 0243327586/0264327586) 

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