Protecting human rights in Africa

Delegates call for the kidnapped girls in Nigeria to be returned unharmed, during a dialogue on the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance on May 20 this year. (Supplied)

Delegates call for the kidnapped girls in Nigeria to be returned unharmed, during a dialogue on the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance on May 20 this year. (Supplied)

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights helped to steer Africa into a new age of human rights. Since its adoption 30 years ago, the Charter has formed the basis for individuals to claim rights in an international forum. 

The Charter also dealt a blow to state sovereignty by emphasising that human rights violations could no longer be swept under the carpet of “internal affairs”.

Despite this, human rights abuses in Africa dominate the headlines. Fair trial violations in Somalia, gang attacks in Kenya, telecom and internet surveillance in Ethiopia and forced child begging in Senegal are just some of the recent issues at play. Even South Africa is not exempt from this scourge.

Tiseke Kasambala, Southern Africa director of the Africa division at Human Rights Watch, says the country’s international record on human rights is faltering.

“While the country is a strong supporter of combating racism and poverty, it is unwilling to hold other countries to account for their own human rights violations.”

She cites the country’s voting record on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) as cause for concern. “South Africa is a strong supporter of the council’s engagement on issues such as racism and also a strong supporter of its action on the Occupied Palestinian Territories. However, its voting record on country-specific situations and some rights issues has been considerably disappointing,” says Kasambala.

For example, at the March session, South Africa sought to weaken a resolution on the right to free protest, in line with Russia, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and China, and took negative stances on other rights issues. It also abstained from voting on all country situations, including on North Korea, Syria, Sri Lanka and Iran.

“South Africa has justified its actions by arguing that it does not support the council’s work on country-specific situations because they are highly politicised and divisive. Yet country-specific resolutions play a key role in shedding light on abuses and giving a stronger voice to victims. 

As the country knows from its own history, sustained and intense pressure is crucial to improving human rights conditions and encouraging reforms,” says Kasambala.

History of  the Charter

The idea of drafting a document establishing a human rights protection mechanism in Africa was first conceived in the early 1960s. At the first Congress of African Jurists, held in Nigeria in 1961, the Congress adopted a declaration, referred to as the “Law of Lagos”, calling on African governments to adopt an African convention on human rights with a court and a commission. 

However, at the time African governments did not make serious efforts to promote this concept.

The Charter establishing the Organisation of Africa Unity (OAU) imposed no explicit obligation on member states for the protection of human rights. The OAU founding Charter only required state parties to have due regard for human rights as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in their international relations.

At the first Conference of Francophone African Jurists held in Dakar, Senegal, in 1967, participants again revived the idea of the Law of Lagos on the need for a regional protection of human rights in Africa. 

In the Dakar Declaration, adopted after the Conference, the participants asked the International Commission of Jurists to consider in consultation with other relevant African organisations the possibility of creating a regional human rights mechanism in Africa.

The United Nations (UN) also facilitated a series of seminars and conferences in a number of African countries. The UN Human Rights Commission set up an ad hoc working group and adopted a resolution calling on the UN Secretary General to provide necessary assistance for the creation of a regional human rights system in Africa. These initiatives of the UN with a view to getting African states to consent to the adoption of a regional human rights convention failed.

In 1979, the Assembly of Heads of States and Government of the OAU meeting in Monrovia, Liberia, unanimously requested the Secretary General of the OAU to convene a committee of experts to draft a regional human rights instrument for Africa, similar to the European and Inter-American human rights conventions.

As a result of the hostility of certain African governments to regional human rights protection in Africa, a conference of plenipotentiaries scheduled for Ethiopia to adopt the draft charter could not take place.

The president of The Gambia convened two Ministerial Conferences in Banjul where the draft Charter was adopted and subsequently submitted to the OAU Assembly. It is for this historic role of The Gambia that the African Charter is also referred to as the “Banjul Charter”. The Banjul Charter was finally adopted by the OAU Assembly on June 28 1981, in Kenya. After ratifications by the absolute majority of member states of the OAU, the Charter came into force on October 21 1986. By 1999, the African Charter had been ratified by all the member states of the OAU.

About the Charter

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (also known as the Banjul Charter) is an international human rights instrument that is intended to promote and protect human rights and basic freedoms in the African continent.

Oversight and interpretation of the Charter is the task of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which was set up in 1987 and is now headquartered in Banjul, Gambia.

A protocol to the Charter was subsequently adopted in 1998 whereby an African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights was to be created. The protocol came into effect on January 25 2005. Out of the 54 African states, only South Sudan has not signed and ratified the Charter.

The contents of this article were supplied and signed off by the Southern Africa Trust.