On Europe's influence on human rights and abortion in Africa

Europe's role on abortion in Africa

By ECLJ1685526524430

The West, with its liberal and democratic values, has exerted considerable influence on the conception of human rights in many countries around the world, including those in Africa. However, this influence has given rise to numerous debates questioning the relevance of Western principles to African realities. With its vision of human rights based on individual freedoms and progress, the West is confronted with an Africa that defends a more communitarian and conservative vision of these rights. The conflict between these two conceptions of human rights repeatedly manifests throughout a variety of topics, abortion being one of the most hotly debated.


Positive developments in the adoption of the liberal Western vision

Although controversy surrounds the Western influence on the conception of human rights in Africa, it is important to emphasize that the liberal vision has led to significant progress in civil and political rights. For example, South Africa benefited from substantial support from Western countries following the end of apartheid, facilitating its transition to democracy. This process helped establish a political system where civil rights, including the right to vote, are respected[1]. The case of Benin is another often-cited success story of liberal democratic transition. After a period of authoritarian military rule, Benin underwent a peaceful transition to democracy in 1990, largely supported by Western countries. Since then, the country has maintained a stable, democratic political system where political rights such as the right to vote are respected, even if Benin has recently been accused of autocratic drift[2]. Western support for electoral processes through organizations such as the European Union and the United Nations has also helped to improve political rights. Nigeria, for example, has benefited from significant electoral observation support, notably from the European Parliament[3], which has helped to improve the quality of its elections over time.


Criticism of Western influence

The influence of the Western vision of human rights is, however, the subject of criticism in Africa. Some academics and human rights activists accuse the West of neo-colonialism, Eurocentrism, and ignorance of local values and contexts. In their view, the emphasis on individual rights, a dominant feature of Western conceptions of human rights, ignores the communitarian nature of many African societies[4]. Some African observers also see the imposition of Western human rights standards as a form of neo-colonialism. They argue that the West uses the notion of human rights to exert influence and control over African countries. Professor Makau Mutua, an eminent Kenyan jurist, sees the universal discourse of human rights as a means by which the West maintains intellectual and cultural hegemony over the rest of the world[5].

Other critics point out the Eurocentrism of Western human rights standards. The idea that Western powers often define and control the universality of these rights is frequently employed in postcolonial critiques of human rights. Samuel Moyn, in his book "The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History" (2010), points out that Western ideas and values largely influence the contemporary discourse on human rights. He argues that this has led to Western domination of the definition and promotion of these rights.

Yet the universalism of human rights is debated within Europe itself. The concept has been severely criticized over the years and is currently in a fragmented state. The geopolitical reconfiguration of Europe after the Second World War, dividing the East from the West, significantly impacted the conception of fundamental rights. Both blocs claim to be on the side of human rights, but they interpret those rights very differently. These differences have accordingly shattered any universalist consensus that may have previously existed in Europe. While the West emphasized civil and political rights, the East focused on economic and social rights. 

The divide is also political, pitting the liberal conception of human rights against the conservative. The conservative perspective strongly emphasizes the importance of traditional values, social stability, and preserving the established order. From this perspective, human rights are not seen as unconditional absolutes but rather as a necessary balance between individual freedoms and collective well-being. In contrast, liberals tend to defend a broader interpretation of these rights, emphasizing individual freedoms.

In short, the post-war period in Europe has seen a profound questioning of the universalism of human rights, raising justified concerns about the gradual collapse of this concept.


Abortion rights: the limit of Western influence?

The tension between Western and African human rights standards is particularly evident in the debate over abortion rights. While the right to abortion is considered a fundamental human right by many Western countries and organizations, this view is far from universal in Africa. Generally, the principle governing abortion in Africa can be found in the "Maputo Protocol." This treaty stipulates that women have the right to safe, legal abortion in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the mother or child's health. However, a number of African states have expressed reservations about the treaty and have not transposed it into national law.

This is notably the case in Senegal, where abortion is illegal. Article 35 of Senegal's Code of Medical Ethics provides an exception if the abortion is necessary to save the mother's life[6]. However, the formality and rigor of the procedures required in this case make it virtually impossible to carry out. To initiate this so-called "therapeutic" abortion, the approval of three doctors is required, and the decision protocol must then be sent by registered mail to the President of the French Medical Association, provided that none of the doctors invokes his or her conscience clause. There have been attempts to relax Senegal's abortion law, including the creation of a "Task Force for Medical Abortion" to propose a bill, based on the Maputo Protocol, authorizing abortion in cases of rape or incest. These attempts have been met with widespread opposition[7]. Senegalese society remains deeply opposed to extending legal abortions, despite pressure from Western organizations for reform. In an interview with the newspaper "Jeune Afrique," Mame Mactar Guèye, spokesperson for the Islamic association Jamra, expressed an opinion that seems to be shared by most of the population when she said: "In our eyes, the killing of a child in the womb, which some modestly call 'medical abortion,' is a Western option[8]".

Mauritania is another example of an African country with stringent restrictions on abortion[9]. Having also made reservations to the Maputo Protocol[10], it is, in principle, illegal to perform an abortion in this country, on pain of a fine and a prison sentence of 6 months to 5 years. However, exceptions are tolerated in the case of therapeutic abortion to save a woman's life[11]. It is undeniable that Mauritania, like Senegal, is trying to resist Western influence on this subject. Other nations, such as Egypt and Sierra Leone, find themselves in similar situations of resisting the broad legalization of abortion but nevertheless having to create narrow exceptions.

Madagascar, for its part, tolerates no exceptions to the abortion ban. In May 2022, the President of the Permanent Commission of the National Assembly rejected a bill to decriminalize abortion. In a telling gesture of political resistance to the issue, the proposal was not even put to a vote in the National Assembly. The spokesman for the Standing Committee said the bill was deemed "incompatible with Malagasy culture and values." The proposed law aimed to decriminalize abortion in cases where the pregnancy poses a risk to the life of the pregnant woman, in cases of serious malformation of the fetus, or cases of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest[12].

Beyond these examples, the vast majority of African countries apply the Maputo Protocol strictly. When social stigma, lack of access to health institutions, and economic challenges are added to the equation, abortion becomes unfeasible in practice. African states seem content with this virtual "right" to abortion, allowing traditionally conservative African values to remain within society while demonstrating an apparent rapprochement with the Western conception of human rights.


Using European diplomacy to promote abortion

Most African states are developing and urgently need international allies to help them finance and develop. The European Union takes advantage of this need to try to impose its conception of human rights by conditioning its partnership and financial aid on the adoption of the European vision of human rights.

The most striking example of this phenomenon is the "GAP III[13]" initiative launched in 2020. The GAP III initiative is an action plan for the EU aimed at prioritizing gender equality and women's empowerment in all the European Union's external actions. Although the initiative does not explicitly support the "right" to abortion, the European Parliament understands it as such[14]. This action plan aims to ensure that "85% of all new actions undertaken in the framework of external relations will contribute to gender equality and women's empowerment (including the right to abortion) by 2025". Against this backdrop, the 2021 Samoa Agreement, also known as the Post-Cotonou Agreement, was signed. This agreement is intended to replace the previous Cotonou Agreement, which primarily focused on economic cooperation between African states and the European Union. Although it has been signed, it has still not entered into force, partly because of its provisions on sexual health. The new agreement stipulates that in order to do business, both parties must work towards "the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programs." The question then is how far the concept of "reproductive health" extends and whether signatory states can have less restrictive abortion provisions imposed on them[15]. Surprisingly, the treaty's ratification is being blocked not by African countries but by European ones, notably Poland and Hungary. Africa seems to have superficially accepted the provisions on sexual rights. But as mentioned above, most African states have succeeded in creating a formal right to abortion that is ineffectual in practice, making this right almost virtual. Their position on abortion seems unchanging. Social and political considerations continue to suggest that the situation will not change in the years to come.


Using European subsidies to promote abortion

Diplomacy is not the European Union's only tool to force change. In 2012, European Dignity Watch published a report entitled "The Funding of Abortion through EU Development Aid." According to this report, the EU has given millions of euros to two NGOs: the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and Marie Stopes International (MSI), whose activities include the promotion of abortion in developing countries, particularly in Africa. In 2006, for example, the International Planned Parenthood Federation set up the Safe Abortion Action Fund (SAAF), whose sole aim is to fund local organizations that promote abortion through advocacy, awareness-raising, and even service provision[16]. These organizations, present in Third World countries where abortion is illegal, apply a similar procedure known as "menstrual regulation[17]". This method, which involves using a vacuum cleaner to empty the uterus regardless of the presence of an embryo, is de facto abortion. However, the different wording and precise technical aspects of the menstrual regulation method allow this practice to navigate around legal restrictions. It can also circumvent the social and economic factors that constitute obstacles to abortion in Africa.

Since the report presented by European Dignity Watch, NGOs that promote abortion continue to receive funding from the European Commission, despite several attempts by MEPs to stop these subsidies. As recently as 2021, the European Commission was one of IPPF's main donors.

The reaction of African governments to European abortion funding has been mixed. Some governments, such as South Africa, have adopted liberal abortion laws and welcome this support. Others, such as Kenya, have more restrictive laws and sometimes challenge the perceived interference of European-funded NGOs in their domestic abortion policy[18].

Reactions from civil society are just as varied. Feminist and progressive organizations generally welcome European funding. However, we are witnessing an increase in resistance to abortion on the part of pro-life advocates. Organizations such as the African Coalition Against Abortion and Human Life International are working across the continent to restrict abortion laws and procedures. The social stigmatization of a predominantly religious population also implies strong opposition from civil society.

A common vision of human rights between the West and Africa no longer seems conceivable in the near future for one clear reason: the relentless progressivism (or rather "wokeism") promoted by Western countries. This ideology degrades the West’s image and the trust that Africa places in the Western definition of human rights. The self-righteousness and vehemence with which Westerners promote new human rights that go against life, the family, and traditions undermine their credibility. "They're disgusting!" exclaims Uganda's current president Musseveni. This illustrates a widespread rejection of the Western definition of human rights in Africa. Only economic dependence forces some African countries to make concessions on their values.


[1] "The End of Apartheid". Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State,

[2] Authoritarian slide taints West Africa’s ‘model democracy’ as Benin heads to polls, France 24.

[3] "The European Union’s Election Observation Missions in Africa". European Parliament. 2015.

[4] Wiredu, Kwasi. "An African perspective on human rights." Human rights quarterly 9.1 (1987).

[5] Mutua, M. "Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights". Harvard International Law Journal. 2001.





[10] ,




[14] European Parliament resolution of 9 June 2022 on global threats to abortion rights: the possible overturning of abortion rights in the US by the Supreme Court.





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