Updated: February 27, 2021
South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa should use his new leadership of the African Union to promote human rights and justice for violations across the continent, Human Rights Watch said today. Ramaphosa was elected chairperson of the African Union for 2020 on February 9 at the opening of the 33rd Ordinary Session of the African Union Assembly of Heads of State and Government. He succeeds President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, the 2019 chairperson.
As chairperson of the AU Assembly, the Union’s highest policy and decision-making body, Ramaphosa has the authority to influence decisions, in accordance with the African Charter, to improve respect for and protection of human rights in the region. Ramaphosa has said that his team would work with political parties on the ground to achieve the African Union’s theme for this year “Silencing the Guns.” It has been described as an initiative to prevent violent conflict and promote human rights in Africa.
“Ramaphosa’s leadership of the AU will be more meaningful if he uses the opportunity to focus the African foreign policy agenda for his own country on promoting human rights,” said Carine Kaneza Nantulya, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Many of the continent’s conflicts have been triggered by widespread atrocities, coupled with impunity for the violators.”
Ramaphosa assumes this office at a critical time for human rights and security in Africa. Armed extremist groups have expanded their strongholds in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, which threaten to spill over into neighboring countries previously untouched by violent extremism. The AU will have to step up its efforts to protect civilians from abuses by all sides to the violence.
In Burundi, Guinea, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, and elsewhere, government agents violently crack down on civic protests and carry out reprisals against civil society critics and human rights defenders. These tactics have had damaging effects on freedom of expression and assembly.
This is the second time South Africa has assumed leadership of the AU Assembly. In 2002, after the Organization of African States was disbanded, Thabo Mbeki, then South Africa’s president, was elected the inaugural chairperson of the newly formed African Union at the first session of its Assembly.
During Mbeki’s term, the AU created the Peace and Security Council to prevent, manage, and resolve conflicts and to promote peace and stability in Africa. Eighteen years later, Ramaphosa has the chance to build on this legacy with a human rights and justice centered approach to preventing conflict and building peace.
In a November 2019 visit to South Africa, the AU Commission chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, said he hoped that Ramaphosa’s leadership will “take us a step further in the implementation of our programs.” He said that: “It’s also true that we can’t silence the guns without good governance, without justice, and without equality.”
“‘Silencing the guns,’ also known as Vision 2020, is an important statement on the AU’s commitment to ending conflicts on the African continent,” Kaneza Nantulya said. “However, without paying due attention to the abuses and injustices that drive conflicts and violence, the AU’s vision may remain an unactualized dream for years to come.”
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