By Alessandro Favilli

The Lomé Conventions were development cooperation agreements (1975-2000) between the European Economic Community (EEC) and a large group of developing countries from Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific (ACP). In 1975, the signatories of the first Lomé Convention named it one of the most innovative cooperative agreements between developed and developing countries. The agreements were based on the principles of equality among the partners and political neutrality, and covered areas such as industrial cooperation, trade, and development aid. Among these principles, the importance of political neutrality was pivotal: the EEC’s aid was free of any economic and political conditions. For this reason, the first Lomé Convention (1975), did not include any provisions regarding respect for human rights. The principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of the ACP countries was one of the pillars of the first Convention.

This early exclusion did not last for long. The notion of human rights was officially introduced to Lomé in 1984 and gained increased importance in the following years. One of the central passages of the Lomé human rights debate took place between 1988 and 1990 in the official periodical of the Convention, The Courier. As I will show, formulating a working definition of human rights was a long process involving passionate debates between EEC and ACP scholars. The Convention was one of the few institutional contexts where intellectuals and politicians from both developed and developing countries could debate the nature of human rights and their relation to development. Remarkably, it has received very little attention from international law scholars and intellectual historians. The debate displayed vital differences in the theoretical understandings of human rights advanced by EEC and ACP intellectuals. Hence, Lomé IV was likely one of the most consequential intellectual exchanges between developed and developing countries in the late 20th century.

The EEC tried to include the notion of human rights in the Convention already during Lomé II negotiations between 1977 and 1979. However, ACP intellectuals like Humphrey Assisi Asobie viewed these attempts as “a useful opportunity [for the EC States] to impose their conception of the relationship between the individual and the State.” ACP intellectuals, mainly from Africa, believed that the way in which Europeans conceptualized human rights was unsuited to the African reality, which prioritized commonality, socio-economic rights, and the right to development. The discussion continued in the 1980s: human rights were included in the preamble of Lomé III but excluded from the main text.

With the growing insistence of donors and increasing contributions of African intellectuals to human rights scholarship, the forthcoming negotiation of Lomé IV became one of the crucial settings for a heated theoretical debate between radically different conceptions of human rights. In his 1987 article “The African Context of Human Rights,” the Nigerian political scientist Claude Ake attempted to formulate an African human rights system based on collective rights. According to Ake, the “Western notion of human rights” ignored the complexity of social and political challenges that African countries faced. For this reason, he considered it necessary to “extend the idea of human rights to include collective human rights for corporate social groups such as the family, the lineage, the ethnic group.” Therefore, the rights of an individual should be placed within a larger framework that he called “communal human rights.” His article provided important theoretical arguments for ACP policymakers negotiating Lomé IV with their European counterparts.

The debate exploded in December 1988 in Brussels, where the ACP-EEC Cultural Foundation held a conference titled “Human Dignity and the ACP/EEC Convention.” Throughout the event, ACP and European intellectuals wrestled over the supposed universality of human rights. The seminar was opened by the ACP Ambassador Raymond Chasle, who stressed the right of ACP States to pursue independent policies, potentially different from those of European partners. He warned against the risk of “shutting oneself up […] in a universality that does not take account of specificities.” Chasle believed the ACP States needed to avoid adopting the European hierarchy of values, which he identified with a radical individualism unsuited to the social reality of the developing world. In a similar vein, Isaac Nguema, President of the African Commission on Human Rights and Peoples’ Rights, reflected on the contentious issue of Universality and Specificities of Human Rights:

And how could our ancestral communities be led to have confidence in the pre-established rights enshrined in declarations largely inspired by the Western view of things? […] In this Africa, the individual’s only value is as part of his ethnic group. Outside that group, he is seen, and sees himself, as a slave, a beast, a bird, or a thing. He has no legal personality. […] The concept of the human person in Western thinking is an abstract, mechanical, static, and materialistic thing. A person’s only value depends on the part he plays in the economic production apparatus. […] The world must not be a collection of individuals. […] Feelings of solidarity and brotherhood […] are only some aspects of the African specificity which may be an inspiration for the building of a new universality of human rights, one that is open, dynamic, and humane.

Nguema strongly criticized the European approach to human rights, which he viewed as overly centered on the individual and protecting his civil and political rights against the intrusion of the State. To that, he contrasted the African concept of Human Rights, based on the importance of the community and the priority of collective rights over individual rights, which he viewed as capable of building a true Universality. Nguema’s argument was further endorsed by the President of the ACP Council of Ministers, Carl Greenidge. Greenidge stressed that the concept of human rights of the ACP countries was “no longer restricted to concern with freedom in a political sense” but viewed as equally important the promotion of socio-economic well-being respecting ACP’s values, objectives, and priorities.

The European side argued for adopting a notion of Human Rights based on political and economic democracy, as well as prioritizing civil and political rights of the individual over collective rights. During the conference, the French professor of International Relations Pierre Weiss insisted on the superiority of parliamentary democracy modeled after Europe, which he presented as the political system most conducive to the respect of human rights. In a similar vein, the Belgian financial advisor Bernard Snoy argued that adopting a free-market economy was inseparable from respecting human rights and democracy. The position of European scholars was aptly summarized by the Director General for Development at the EEC Commission, Dieter Frisch, whose final speech emphasized the importance of respecting the “personality and freedom of the individual and of groups.”

The disagreement between African and European scholars largely stemmed from the fear of the former that Lomé may be used to impose the European socio-political model on the ACP Countries. This concern had characterized debates about Lomé from the outset in the late 1970s. In a retrospective analysis of the Lomé IV debate, the Ugandan political scientist J. Barya accused the EEC countries and other Western donors of exercising a form of “moral colonialism” on developing countries. According to Barya and many other African intellectuals, the human rights discourse turned out to be an imperialistic tool whose true objective was the eradication of socialism and the imposition of neo-liberal economic policies. Authors like Samir Amin and Issa Shivji, in the same vein as Nguema, insisted on considering African specificities and called for the creation of an African concept of democracy, more suited to local reality and based on more authentic participation of the people.

The controversy around the definition of human rights profoundly affected the negotiations of the Lomé IV Convention. Following the end of the Cold War, the EEC was able to take advantage of the changing international system and exert significant pressure on the ACP States. Simultaneously, the EEC could not push the human rights issue too far, as the ACP countries opposed any form of political conditionality. Lastly, the European Community did not wish to jeopardize Lomé, which it considered a significant accomplishment in its external policy towards developing countries.

At the signing of the Lomé IV Convention in December 1989, the parties reached a compromise between the differing conceptions of human rights among EEC and ACP intellectuals. Human rights were finally included in the main text of the Convention, with Article 5 dedicated exclusively to them. Article 5 established that development must be centered on man, which necessarily entailed “respect for and promotion of all human rights.” Simultaneously, human rights were considered indivisible and interrelated, comprising both individual and collective rights, and became a prerequisite for development as well as one of the essential elements of the Convention.

Article 5 gave equal importance to individual and collective rights and, for the first time explicitly, mentioned the right to development as a priority for the ACP States. Another success for the ACP Countries was the absence of any reference to democracy from Lomé IV, which they would have perceived as an attempt to “westernize” their political systems. As a result, many ACP intellectuals welcomed Article 5 as a viable compromise between the priorities of the EEC and the ACP Countries. For instance, the Senegalese jurist Keba Mbaye believed Lomé IV provisions regarding human rights were a crucial passage in the coupling of development and human rights:

We can say that Lomé IV postulates that development requires respect for human rights. […] Human dignity and human rights are posed as an aspiration for both individuals and peoples. This formula shows that the ACP countries and the EC do not distinguish between Human Rights and People’s Rights. […] It also seems important to me to emphasize once again that the Lomé IV Convention poses, for the first time in a treaty of this type, the problem of the right to development.

Ironically, the Lomé IV debate over human rights opened the path for a progressive erosion of the ACP negotiating power in the Lomé context. In the following years, European officials began advancing a universal scale of values of Human Dignity, which considered human rights independent from culture or religion. In 1993, after a prolonged discussion, the ACP-EEC Joint Assembly, the parliamentary body of Lomé, adopted a report and a resolution on Human Rights and Democracy in the ACP States. Despite acknowledging the Lomé IV compromise on the definition of Human Rights, the resolution formally included the notion of a “multi-party democracy” in cooperation between the ACP and the EEC, which took the political systems of Western Europe as a model for the ACP Countries. Further, the resolution considered civil and political rights as independent from the level of economic development, thus prioritizing them over social and economic rights.

From a theoretical point of view, Article 5 was a successful compromise between two contrasting views on human rights and development. During the Lomé IV debate, scholars from Africa and Europe discussed issues previously considered political taboo. As a result, they reached a novel, creative conclusion accommodating non-Western values and norms into a binding international agreement, creating an exception to what African scholars in the early 1990s called European ethnocentrism. Thus, the years between 1988 and 1991 represent a unique example of a compromise between developed and developing countries regarding a viable and practical understanding of human rights. Further, Article 5 of Lomé IV anticipated the compromise reached at the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights between Western and developing countries when the right to development was included and equal importance was given to the various categories of rights.

The Lomé IV debate touched upon some of the most critical political issues of the late 20th century. What began as a disagreement regarding the nature of human rights resulted in a stimulating example of cooperation between intellectuals from developed and developing countries. As a result, studying Lomé provides crucial insights into our present understanding of key terms of international politics: such as human rights, development, or political conditionality. The Lomé IV debate proves that the theoretical contributions of African scholars to international law are permanent – and can still be inspiring today.

Alessandro Favilli is a Ph.D. student in Global History of Empires at the University of Turin, specializing in human rights in development cooperation policies. He obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Pisa in 2020 and 2022. His research project at the University of Turin focuses on the role human rights played in shaping the political and intellectual evolution of the Lomé Convention between the European Community and the ACP States.

Edited by Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: The signing of the Second Lomé Convention. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.