Human Rights Watch has asked the sleepy African Union to grow a spine, develop some courage, and uphold human rights and democracy in Africa including in Ethiopia. The archaic and ineffective organization is often in the background when African crises are being solved.
More specifically, the human rights organization urged the African Union to tackle the deepening human rights and democratic crises affecting the continent at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) session beginning November 15, 2021. They should also pledge their support for the Commission.
The Commission’s 69th ordinary session, the last for this year, comes at a critical time. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed glaring economic inequalities as well as African governments’ weak social protection systems and failure to fulfill the rights to social security and an adequate standard of living. Meanwhile, many other preexisting humanitarian and human rights challenges have persisted. All these issues are compounded by AU member states’ prioritization of politics over human rights in its engagement with the ACHPR.
“The growing gap between the AU political organs and African human rights institutions is threatening to undo decades of developments in African human rights law,” said Carine Kaneza Nantulya, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The AU and its member states should instead align themselves with and implement the African Commission’s country-focused recommendations under a people-centered human rights agenda.”
In Ethiopia, in the face of intensifying and a widening field of fighting, with attendant abuses and impact beyond the Tigray region, it is especially important for the AU to demonstrate a commitment to enforcing member states’ obligations under its strong human rights standards and norms. In this regard, the AU Peace and Security Council’s decision to finally call on the AU chairperson to provide periodic updates on the crisis – while belated – offers an opportunity for the AU chairperson to publicly report on regional efforts to avert further atrocities and hold those responsible accountable.
In line with Articles 9 and 10 of the Peace and Security Protocol, the Council should hold emergency and regular meetings regarding potential and actual conflicts. However, despite more than a year of crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region amid rising tensions, a sweeping nationwide state of emergency, and an unlawful humanitarian blockade by Ethiopian authorities, the Council waited until November 8 to raise the alarm and request the AU chairperson provide periodic updates on the crisis.
The Peace and Security Council should also in this regard continue to support the work of the ACHPR Commission of Inquiry and call on the commissioners to brief the council upon completion of the investigation.
The Ethiopian government, an AU member state, criticized the ACHPR for setting up a commission of inquiry on abuses committed in the Tigray conflict and instead requested a joint investigation with Ethiopia’s national human rights commission (EHRC). The ACHPR rejected this request, citing concerns that a joint probe with a state institution in a conflict in which the government is a party would alter and dilute the commission of inquiry’s independence.
The AU Constitutive Act and the Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance contain several provisions that can be cited to condemn unconstitutional regime changes and controversial constitution amendments that may infringe on the principles of democratic change of government. These AU instruments are extremely relevant in mitigating the resurgence of military coups and their adverse impact on democracy and human rights across Africa.
Unfortunately, the AU has inconsistently applied both legal instruments. This year, the AU promptly suspended Sudan after the October 25 military coup but did not take similar action after the Chadian military takeover in late April. The ACHPR condemned Chadian security forces for using excessive force against peaceful protesters demanding a return to civilian rule and called for prompt, credible investigations, and accountability.
The Peace and Security Council call in 2014 for “zero tolerance to policies and actions that have the potential to lead to unconstitutional means of overthrowing oppressive systems” has not had much effect. In practice, AU political organs are often silent on governments’ human rights abuses, including those abuses leading to corruption, inequality, and infringements on the rule of law and good governance principles.
To help prevent unconstitutional takeovers, the AU should actively address the human rights problems at the root of these actions, such as entrenched impunity and weak governance, rule of law, and justice institutions. This will yield long-term benefits across the continent, Human Rights Watch said.
AU member states can improve rights by abiding by the applicable AU legal instruments, such as the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. Member states should also prioritize and implement ACHPR decisions on justice and accountability for historical and ongoing abuses by government forces and nonstate armed groups in the context of conflicts and counterterrorism.
The authorities across Africa should take urgent steps to tackle other challenges to human rights on the continent such as unresolved cases of enforced disappearances and unlawful killings of government critics, government crackdowns on freedom of expression and association, state-sponsored election-related violence, discrimination against women and girls, and state violence and discrimination against gender and sexual minority groups.
Despite the difficult political environment in which the ACHPR operates with significant budgetary constraints, it continues to develop landmark legal innovations to protect human rights across Africa. In the past year, the Commission issued a General Comment on the right to property during separation, divorce, or annulment of marriage; guidelines on the right to water in Africa; statements condemning and making recommendations regarding humanitarian and human rights crises; and multiple resolutions on rights-based responses to the pandemic.
During the 69th ordinary session and beyond, AU member states should ensure that their positions and statements consistently align with African human rights laws and standards. The ACHPR and AU member states and policy organs should collaborate with and coordinate on human rights-focused responses, including on the military coups and Tigray conflict.
AU member states should utilize the applicable AU legal instruments at their disposal to center people, human rights, and democracy on the continent. Member states should also raise human rights situations, including conflicts, at Peace and Security Council meetings and openly advocate for and support African-led human rights investigations, such as commissions of inquiry created by the ACHPR.
“As the year draws to a close, AU member states should strengthen their support for the mandate and jurisdiction of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights,” Kaneza Nantulya said. “In a context of intensifying crises, with wide-ranging regional human rights and humanitarian repercussions, AU member states should stop choosing politics over human rights and instead rally behind African-led conflict prevention and investigation mechanisms.”