There has been a lot of brouhaha surrounding the dreadlocks matter, with Achimota School being trolled on social media.

I have seen one social media posting which suggests that Achimota School still adheres to some colonial narrative involving the denial of rights to certain classes of persons.

In the view of these persons, who side with the parent, the child, a Rastafarian, has a right to practice his religion and culture, and denying him admission on those grounds, is a violation of his human rights.

The matter is not as simple as it is made to appear, and as an Akora, and a law professor, I believe it to be important that I contribute to the debate.

There is a general public misconception about human rights.

Most persons believe that human rights are absolute and cannot be limited, and that once human rights are guaranteed in a constitutional document, or some international convention, then the protected persons must necessarily be given those rights.

Thus, if Rastafarianism is a recognised culture and religion, and the right to one’s religion and culture is guaranteed in a constitutional document or human rights convention, then a person who is a Rastafarian is entitled to practice his religion and culture. This is not necessarily the case.

Putting aside the issue of competing rights, there has always been a recognition of the need to first, balance the rights of the individual and the interests of society, and second, ensure that the pursuit of individual rights does not impede the achievement of important societal objectives.

Accordingly, human rights conventions and constitutional documents often contain limitations on guaranteed rights.

Examples of such limitations abound, including Articles 4 & 5 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Such limitation provisions typically provide that the rights and freedoms provided for in the document are subject to limitations as may be prescribed by law, and as are necessary, in a democratic society, to protect, public safety, morals, and the rights and freedom of others.

In our own 1992 Constitution, the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed in the constitution are made subject to the “respect for the rights and freedoms of others, and the public interest.”

Accordingly, the prospective student’s right to practice his Rastafarian religion, by keeping his dreadlocks, is subject to the rights and freedoms of others and the public interest.

I am unaware of any law that prohibits Achimota School from setting rules and regulations to govern the comportment of its students.

The only issue in this matter, then, is whether the requirement by Achimota School that the student cut his hair before being admitted to the school is an acceptable limitation of his human rights under Ghanaian law because, pursuant to our Constitution, wearing dreadlocks amounts to a disrespect or violation, of the rights and freedoms of others, and is not in the public interest.

First, on the face of it, it is difficult to see how wearing dreadlocks could be a disrespect or violation of the rights and freedoms of other persons.

However, in addition to the requirement that the wearing of dreadlocks must not violate the rights and freedoms of others, the Constitution makes it clear that it must also be in the public interest, and this is where, in my view, the Ghana Education Service’s initial directive to Achimota School was an error.

Much as I am against the denial of rights in general, in my opinion it is not in the public interest for the student to wear dreadlocks in school.

Generally, something is in the public interest if it promotes the common good, and it is generally acknowledged that the definition of public interest is circumstances dependent.

Thus, what may be in the public interest or promote the common good of a wider public, in a wider public setting, may not necessarily do so in another setting, such a high school.

In my judgement, having the student wear dreadlocks on the campus of Achimota School will not promote the common good of the students.

Let us not forget the context here: a high school, which has a dress code, standards of conformity, and discipline, to which all students are required to adhere.

I have seen arguments bandied about on social media to the effect that cutting one’s hair will not make one a better student.

That argument is a fallacy.

The issue is not about one student being asked to cut his or her hair, but about that one student being required to adhere to the same rules to which all students are subject, for the betterment or the common good of that community of students.

A student who seeks admission to Achimota School cannot pick and choose which rules of comportment he or she likes, otherwise, where would one draw the line?

The requirement of conformity has a number of beneficial objectives in the high school setting.

Most importantly, it is intended to inculcate discipline, and also minimise the impact of social and peer pressure, and juvenile competition that usually accompanies all manner of dressing and hair styles, so that students are able to focus on their prime objective, which is studying.

Decades of research into juvenile education show that where these social and peer pressures are minimised in an environment of conformity, students excel.

To become a student thus requires conformity with rules and standards that bind all students, for the betterment of everyone.

In my view, then, it will not promote the common good of the students of Achimota School for the Rastafarian student to keep his dreadlocks while in school.

Achimota School’s requirement that he cut his hair in order to be admitted is a reasonable limitation on his fundamental rights and freedoms. 

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The writer is a lecturer at the University of Professional Studies, Accra