AU rights leader warns of human rights disaster

“The first worry that I have is that the socioeconomic and humanitarian fallout from the Covid-19 response measures may descend into a human rights catastrophe as millions of peoples lose jobs or have their livelihoods in the informal sectors wiped out, and are pushed into extreme poverty; and as millions of others face hunger and starvation,” said Solomon Dersso, the chair of the African Union Commission on Human and People’s Rights, in an interview with the Mail & Guardian.

As the pandemic drags on, so its economic effect becomes clearer: this week, the International Monetary Fund estimated that sub-Saharan Africa’s gross domestic product will contract by 3.2% this year, putting between 26-million and 39-million Africans at risk of falling into extreme poverty.

“The fear is that we will undo some gains that have been made over the years,” Dersso said, citing trends in maternal mortality rates, child marriage and the enrolment of the girl child in school as areas which he is particularly worried about.

At the same time, Africa’s demographics — an overwhelmingly youthful population, and projected to become even more so — may count against it as economic opportunities diminish. “It gives you a very explosive combination that can be a recipe for political instability. You can imagine the kind of scenarios, where the youth will have increasing incidences of protest actions in many parts of the continent,” he said, pointing to the ongoing anti-government protests in Mali as a potential sign of things to come.

The Commission on Human and People’s Rights, although an institution of the African Union, is not always popular with continental leaders, given its responsibility to call out human rights violations. “It’s one of the institutions that is not regarded with a lot of fondness,” said Dersso. “I don’t know of any other body that receives such a lot of pushback, a lot of complaints. We have a difficult and tense interface with member states.”


That’s despite the fact that the commission’s bark is worse than its bite. 

“We don’t have a means of enforcing compliance with the standards of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Ours is that of being a voice of reason and being a mirror that shows member states where they are failing and need to do better. We call for accountability, for investigation and for reforms,” Dersso said.

In an opinion piece for the M&G last month, Dersso called out states that resorted to police brutality to enforce Covid-19 restrictions, including Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. In the long term, he is worried about those same restrictions becoming permanent fixtures — much like emergency anti-terrorism legislation has a habit of remaining on the books even once the threat has passed, and is used to censor free speech, media and human rights activists. 

“We have been consistent in saying that whatever emergency rules and measures have been put in place in response to Covid-19 have to be temporary, absolutely temporary. There is a danger of these things being institutionalised, thereby putting undue restrictions on rights.”

But it’s not all bad news. 

“I am comforted by the ever increasing awareness and consciousness of members of the public about their rights. I am encouraged by the rise in the willingness and ability of young people to demand respect for and protection of their rights. I feel hopeful about the sense of ownership of the human rights agenda on the continent with national institutions, civil society organisations and the media increasingly working on rights issues or approaching the governance and socioeconomic ills afflicting our societies from a human rights perspective,” Dersso said.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Africa Editor for @MailandGuardian. Also @ISSAfrica.

Related stories

Wheeling and dealing for a Covid-19 vaccine

A Covid-19 jab could cost hundreds of rands. Or not. It’s anyone’s guess. Could another pandemic almost a century ago hold clues for handling the coronavirus today?

Johannesburg cannot police its future

South Africa’s biggest city is ground zero for debates about the long-term effectiveness and constitutionality of militarised urban policing and how we imagine the post-Covid city

WSU suspends classes and exams to avoid the spread of Covid-19

The university says it has to take the precautionary measures because 26 students have tested positive on its East London campus

Entrepreneurs strike Covid gold

Some enterprising people found ways for their ventures to survive the strictest lockdown levels

No mention of Africa when it comes to US foreign policy

During pre-election debates in the United States, very little has been said on how they view one of the world’s largest markets — which, in turn, is determined to come into its own

Q&A Sessions: ‘My north star is the patient’

Rhulani Nhlaniki is Pfizer’s cluster lead for sub-Saharan Africa. As Pfizer starts phase III of the clinical trial of their Covid-19 vaccine candidate, he tells Malaikah Bophela that if it is successful, the company will ensure the vaccine will be available to everyone who needs it
Advertising

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Why anti-corruption campaigns are bad for democracy

Such campaigns can draw attention to the widespread presence of the very behaviour they are trying to stamp out — and subconsciously encourage people to view it as appropriate

Tax, wage bill, debt, pandemic: Mboweni’s tightrope budget policy statement

The finance minister has to close the jaws of the hippo and he’s likely to do this by tightening the country’s belt, again.

SA justice delays extradition of paedophile to UK

Efforts to bring Lee Nigel Tucker to justice have spanned 16 years and his alleged victims have waited for 30 years

Former state security minister Bongo back in court

Bongo and his co-accused will appear in the Nelspruit magistrate’s court in Mpumalanga over charges of fraud, corruption and theft
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday