“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.