• Press Release

Regional human rights bodies struggle to uphold rights amid political headwinds in Africa

Civilian holds sign that says
AKUOT CHOL/AFP via Getty Images
For a second consecutive year, Amnesty International has documented how African governments are grossly undermining regional human rights bodies by failing to comply with their decisions, ignoring their urgent appeals, neglecting to report to them on national human rights situations and starving them of resources they desperately need for operations. Governments also neglected the rights of people with disabilities and older persons by failing to ratify treaties relating to their protection.

In the second edition of The State of African Regional Human Rights Bodies and Mechanisms 2019-2020released on the African Human Rights Day, Amnesty International said the mechanisms established to safeguard human rights across the continent are facing enormous challenges, and at least one is facing an existential threat. 

“Given the magnitude of gross human rights violations across the continent, regional human rights bodies play a critical role in providing justice and accountability,” said Netsanet Belay, Amnesty International’s Director for Research and Advocacy.

“These mechanisms must be protected and fully supported. They serve as vital alternative channels for people to seek justice and effective remedies when national systems are compromised or inadequate.” 

Amnesty International’s report reviews and analyses the performance of Africa’s human rights treaty bodies:  the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Commission); the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (African Children’s Committee); and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Court).

Existential crisis for African human rights court 

The report raises alarm that future of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights is in jeopardy following decisions by three governments – Benin, Côte d’Ivoire and Tanzania – to withdraw the right of individuals and NGOs to directly file cases before the court. Rwanda withdrew this right in 2016 bringing to four the number of countries that are now restricting access to this vital pathway to justice.

Amnesty International found that Benin, Côte d’Ivoire and Tanzania withdrew this right in response to decisions they perceived as unfavorable, and amid rising intolerance towards human rights defenders and a general deterioration of human rights conditions nationally.

Tanzania withdrew the right in November 2019, misleadingly claiming that the court had entertained matters that should have been handled by national courts. Benin and Côte d’Ivoire withdrew in March and April 2020, respectively. Benin disagreed with the court’s order to suspend seizure of an applicant’s property in a dispute with a bank, claiming the order undermined the country’s economic interests and political stability. Côte d’Ivoire was riled by the court’s decision to suspend an international arrest warrant against former Prime Minister, Guillaume Soro, and to release on bail 19 detained opposition politicians, claiming the court infringed on its sovereignty.

“The decision by these countries to hit back at the court for decisions they disagreed with is extremely worrying. African states must refrain from using political muscle against institutions whose very purpose is to ensure justice is available to everyone, regardless of their government’s politics,” said Netsanet Belay. 

To date, the African human rights court has issued by far the most judgements against Tanzania. The country also has the highest number of cases pending against it, most of which relate to the right to fair trial.  

Burkina Faso is the only country that has fully complied with the judgments of the African Court. Tanzania has complied partially while Côte d’Ivoire has submitted an implementation report to the court. Benin, Kenya, Libya, and Rwanda, against which judgments have been issued, have not complied at all, some brazenly declaring they would not comply with the court’s orders and judgments.

Dismal compliance and cooperation

Amnesty International rated the overall compliance of African countries to their reporting obligations to the African Commission of Human and Peoples’ Rights as dismal. As of June 30, 2020, only six countries had submitted periodic reports, as required under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Six countries – Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Sao Tome and Principe, Somalia and South Sudan, have never submitted a single report. 

Governments responded to only four out of 14 urgent appeals on allegations of human rights violations issued by the African Commission. Most of the urgent appeals issued (57%) were interventions on behalf of human rights defenders. It is however unclear whether the four responses substantively addressed the allegations, or merely acknowledged receipt of the Commission’s communications.

Amnesty International’s report notes that many African governments have imposed a range of measures to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, most of which were implemented with the use of excessive force, arbitrary arrests or detention, restrictions on civic space, and blanket denial of the right to seek asylum. 

“The disruptive effects of COVID-19 have exacerbated problems for Africa’s three human rights bodies, which were already starved of finances and resources. Despite this, the bodies demonstrated some progress and innovation in some areas of their work, which sharply contrasted with stagnation and retrogression in other areas,” said Netsanet Belay. 

People with disabilities and older persons

Shockingly, Amnesty International found that not a single member state of the African Union has yet ratified the Protocol on Persons with Disabilities in Africa, two years after the treaty was adopted. Likewise, almost five years since the Protocol on Older Persons was adopted in January 2016, only two countries – Benin and Lesotho – have ratified it. 

“The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights will be 40 years old in 2021. It is disappointing that so many governments are yet to turn their rhetoric into concrete action in support of regional human rights bodies and instruments. It is high time for African Union member states to practically live out their stated commitments to human rights, including by expediting ratification, domestication and implementation of all regional human rights instruments”, said Netsanet Belay.