African Union Building (Source: Quartz)
Amid the global Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 has been a turbulent year for Africa. During this time of crisis and uncertainty there has been over a dozen countries that have held general elections, many of which have been married with violence. The toll of the crisis has had a ripple effect on the human rights crises across the continent, including the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. According to Human Rights Watch, areas such as Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria,
Somalia, and South Sudan armed conflicts persists.
Unfortunately, non-state armed groups and government forces were implicated in massacres, targeted killings, rapes, the burning and looting of villages. As well as kidnappings, forced recruitment, attacks on students and teachers, and the illegal occupation of schools. If regard is given for the sort of Human rights violations exhibited it’s time to place the African Union into a spotlight to determine whether the correct framework is in place to protect the plight the African people.
The Transition From OAU To AU
The transformation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) into the African Union (AU) in 2001 was placed in to central focus. The need to endow continental structures with the powers to make binding rules and regulations for the enhancement of Africa’s integrative efforts. The AU has 53 member states of which this supranational aspiration is espoused through the legal and institutional framework of the organisation. Of which two important developments extended and deepened Africa’s commitment to human rights, democracy, governance and development as cited in the Claiming Human Rights website.
The first was the adoption of the African Union’s Constitutive Act, which endows the AU with the powers to coordinate the activities of the regional economic communities, intervene in member states, and determine and monitor the implementation of common policies, it reaffirms Africa’s commitment to promote and protect human rights. It solemnises a promise made by African leaders to uphold unity, solidarity, cohesion and co-operation among the people of Africa. The second was the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), which also places human rights at the centre of development of which both frameworks are to provide an opportunity to put human rights firmly on the African agenda.
Notwithstanding, the strong central drive towards the promulgation of human rights, African countries still lack a degree of transparency which is easily demonstrated through the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, many African
governments introduced severe restrictions on movement and the freedom of assembly. In some cases, implementing full lockdowns. On the one hand these measures helped curb the spread of the virus in some contexts. On the other hand people were disproportionately impacted, particularly those that live in poverty. Many governments did not provide adequate assistance to cushion the impact of the economic downturn, which has exacerbated existing poverty and inequality across Africa. Furthermore there was little transparency around how government funds were being spent, to support the Covid-19 responses, triggering allegations of corruption. The pandemic has also exposed serious systemic gaps in health care services and social safety nets, thereby drawing attention to the need for African governments to make meaningful investments to improve access to quality healthcare, water, and sanitation. Bearing this in mind it brings to question how basic human needs have not been catered and how this has had an effect on the right to human dignity.
Co-Ordinating Common Purpose
The AU offers a broad dynamism through the use of non-indifference which includes the right of the AU to intervene in any member state’s affairs particularly around the recognition of human rights and the Promotion of social, economic and cultural development through the use of human rights instruments such as the; African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, the Protocol on the Establishment of the African Court on Human and People’s Rights, and the Charter on Democracy, Governance and Election. To enforce these instruments, bodies were established and were provided with an express human rights mandate such as the African Commission on the Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Commission), the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC), and the African Court.
Bience Gawanas cites the AU as utilising a more interventionist approach to end war crimes and crimes against humanity, human rights violations, and unconstitutional changes of government, through the mechanism of employing sanctions. It represents a higher form of unity and integration for the African continent. It has also continued to develop legal frameworks and establish relevant institutions and in so doing, it has paved the way towards creating a culture of non-indifference towards war crimes and crimes against humanity in Africa.
Legislative Mechanisms To Pursue Human Rights
The Africa renewal magazine states that the pursuit of African human rights requires and enabling environment to pursue the promotion and protection of such rights. The Pan-African Parliament (PAP), Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC), the Peace and Security Council (PSC), the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) and the African Court are all structures and legislative frameworks to ensure that such rights are upheld for all.1
The Role Of The African Court
The African court (hereinafter- the court) was established by the 1998 protocol in respect of the Africa Charter on Human and Peoples rights which endows many African governments, acting nationally and also collectively through the AU, are serious about solidification and protection of human rights. In the Journal of Administration and article written by Antigegn G.K. avers that the jurisdiction of the court extends from the determination of disputes related to the interpretation and application of the Charter, the Protocol and other instruments ratified by state parties, to provide an advisory opinion to the AU or any African organization recognized by the AU on legal matters. For many a key judicial issue, lies between the question of an independent judicial system and the question of impunity. The court can put pressure on states to lessen their hold on the courts, which they use to massively violate human rights throughout the region as cited in the Journal of Public administration.
Courts Response To Human Right Violations
According to UNESCO Director-General’s Report on the Safety of Journalists and the Danger of Impunity between 2006 to 2020, 174 journalists have been killed in Africa, and unfortunately only 10.3% of the cases that were reported have been judicially resolved. The above paints a grim picture albeit there are a few landmark decisions made
by the court on Human and Peoples’ Rights directly contributed to strengthening freedom of expression and to fight impunity for crimes committed against journalists on the African continent.
End Impunity: Promote Free Speech
In the case of Norbert Zongo, the Court has undoubtedly made a direct contribution to ending impunity for crimes against journalists wherein the Court found that the delay in prosecuting the assassination in 1998 of investigative
journalist Norbert Zongo and his companions constituted a violation of their rights to a fair trial, namely to have their cause heard within a reasonable time. In what is known to be one of its overall landmark judgment on the merits, the Court found that the Respondent, the State, failed to uphold its duty to due diligence as no trial was conducted in more than 15 years in a case where Zongo was allegedly about to release a report on investigations involving officials including the brother to the then President of Burkina Faso.
In its judgment on reparations, the Court also awarded a quantum of 1 million USD compensation to the beneficiaries for material and moral damages suffered as a consequence of the violations established.
Similarly, in the case of Lohe Issa Konate exemplifies the contribution of the Court to the protection of journalists in Africa. The issues at hand were strongly focused on the freedom of expression rather than an attempt to the applicant’s life. In its ruling on the merits, the Court found that the one-year imprisonment against Konaté for publishing newspaper articles that were critical to the prosecutor constituted a breach of his freedom of expression as it was disproportionate.
Further to this the Court held that authorities who discharge public functions should be prone to a higher level of criticism and prison sentences would therefore deter journalists from performing the very critical duty of exposing shortfalls in public governance. As a result of the violations found, the Court ordered the Respondent, the State, to amend its laws accordingly and reinstate the Applicant’s banned newspapers, and pay compensation.
Finally, it is worth referring to the judgment rendered by the Court in the matter of Ingabire Victoire Umuhoza regarding freedom of speech in a political setting. The matter relates to statements made by opposition leader Umuhoza which were found by domestic courts to constitute denial of the Tutsi genocide. The findings of the court were that the remarks made by the Applicant did not constitute minimisation of the genocide against the Tutsi and therefore found her conviction to violate her freedom of expression. Although the case did not involve a journalist, it provides an interpretative position to understanding limitations to freedom of expression in instances such as genocide where states may use the restriction to silence critics, including media professionals. In the Umuhoza case, the Court ordered the Respondent State to restore the Applicant’s rights and pay her compensation for material and moral loss suffered by herself and her family members.
Therefore, the effect of such outcomes is the greatly wedged against the domestic systems of each country involved and must be evaluated from a normative, regulatory and judicial perspectives. Human rights are not just a construct based on ideals. They have deep roots in the traditions of all peoples. The primary focus for the promotion and protection of human rights is at the national level, an African level and an international level, it is the primary responsibility of Africa and all its people to ensure that human rights are promoted, protected and fulfilled.
“Our experience over the last 20 years has shown that indeed people must themselves become their own liberators. You cannot wait for somebody else to come and rescue you.” Thabo Mbeki
Written by: Dr. Kim Lamont-Mbawuli
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