African Commission's 25th birthday

As African human rights practitioners gather in Yamoussoukro to mark the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), it is critical that they frankly and honestly discuss the track record of this supranational body in promoting and protecting human rights on the continent.

Despite its many challenges and numerous critics, the significance of the role played by the African Commission in the protection of human rights – particularly through its interpretation and enforcement of the African Charter – cannot be denied.

Richard Lee's picture

Author

Strategic communications for WWF

October 9th, 2012

As African human rights practitioners gather in Yamoussoukro to mark the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), it is critical that they frankly and honestly discuss the track record of this supranational body in promoting and protecting human rights on the continent.

Despite its many challenges and numerous critics, the significance of the role played by the African Commission in the protection of human rights – particularly through its interpretation and enforcement of the African Charter – cannot be denied.

It is indisputable that the African Commission remains the main and most relevant human rights oversight body on the continent – and the only one that provides direct access to individuals and NGOs from across the continent (with the exception of Morocco) after they have exhausted all local legal remedies. So far the African Court only has direct jurisdiction over five countries – as opposed to the African Commission’s 53.

While in Yamoussoukro, the participants will debate a range of issues, including the:

  • Process for selecting and appointing Commissioners;
  • Independence of the Commissioner;
  • Number of Commissioners given the increasing amount of work that must be handled and concerns about whether the Commission is sufficiently equipped to competently discharge its responsibilities;
  • Relationship between the Commission and the African Court since the Commission will have the additional task of preparing cases for submission to the Court's jurisdiction;
  • Relocation of the Commission’s headquarters from the Gambia since more and more voices are questioning the wisdom of keeping the Commission in Banjul given the country’s appalling human rights (including the recent executions and the government’s defiance of Commission recommendations) and because of its geographical inaccessibility; and,
  • Mechanism used by the Commission to monitor the compliance of States with their African Charter obligations through the State reporting procedure as most countries have outstanding reports (for example, Malawi has 20 outstanding reports since 1989).

Considering all these major issues, it is easy to conclude that the African Commission has not been all that influential. And let’s be honest – the reason why most African States are not ratifying the Protocol on the African Court and allowing direct access by individuals and NGOs is because they believe that the court will not adopt the same, non-confrontational approach as the African Commission. Indeed, this is the weakest aspect of the Commission system – the fact that countries can get away without engaging seriously or by ignoring the system altogether without any consequences.

In southern Africa, the situation is exacerbated by the absence of a regional court – after the unlawful destruction of the SADC Tribunal by the region’s leaders. This is also another example of why Africa needs to build a more rigorous system that will compel member States to adhere to the minimum human rights standards established by the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights – and this system must start with a stronger Commission.

A more robust approach to its mandate and the way it operates would change the perception that the African Commission is an irrelevant oversight body. But a more robust approach requires some key changes. In particular, there is a need to speed up the decision-making process by beefing up the secretariat and increasing the number of Commissioners. In addition, the Commissioners should become permanent and the number of Commission sessions increased, which will help to overcome the delaying tactics employed by many governments, which deliberately seek to undermine the system.

With these changes and greater involvement from civil society across the continent and particularly from southern Africa, the Commission would start to grow more powerful and more influential – and more able to promote and protect human rights in Africa.

Contacts

  • 1 Hood Avenue/148 Jan Smuts; Rosebank, GP 2196; South Africa
  • T. +27 (0)11 587 5000
  • F. +27 (0)11 587 5099