Civil society groups participating in the 41st session of the African Commission on Human and People's Rights (ACHPR), which began on Wednesday May 16, are fuming over President John Agyekum Kufuor's failure to grace the opening ceremony.
President Kufuor, who is the current Chairman of the AU and host president of the commission's 41st ordinary session, was billed to personally welcome the ACHPR Commissioners in Accra, but he failed to show up.
Instead, the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Mr. Joe Ghartey opened the meeting.
But the Public Agenda in a report on Monday said the commissioners and activists regard Mr. Ghartey as a low-key official considering the status of the commission in the AU.
“The activists unanimously say the president's failure to accord the opening session a 'presidential status' spoke volumes about the AD chairman's commitment to the work of the commission and perhaps, his will¬ingness to uphold the civil liberties and the rights of their citizens,” according to the paper, which quotes a Zimbabwean activist as saying that President Kufuor was running away from com¬mitting himself on the political crisis in Zimbabwe.
The Project Manager of the Centre for Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), Ms. Birte Scholz, described the president's failure to turn up for the opening ceremony as "a slap in the face" of the commission.
President Kufuor is currently on a four-na¬tion tour of Belgium, Ethiopia, Egypt and Nigeria and is expected to return on May 30.
"It was a bit of disrespect and really disappointing that he couldn't take the time to appear," Ms. Scholz said.
Also of particular concern to the activists was the status given to yet another lowly minister from Zimbabwe, a country that is swept up in controversy over its high-handedness against opposition groups to address the commissioners on behalf of the heads of state and governments of Af¬rica.
The paper said not only are the activists angry at the high profile accorded Zimbabwe, they are also incensed that the Zimbabwean Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, who addressed the session on the authority of the AU member states, took the opportunity to pour venom and vituperations on them and accused them of being agents of imperial powers, parading as human rights fighters.
Chinamasa said in his speech that the activists collect money from foreign governments to "tell fictitious lies" and accused non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in the country of working for regime change.
A Zimbabwean activist who did not want his name mention described president Kufuor's absence as an "utter disrespect," according to the Public Agenda.
On Chinamasa's comments, he said: "As for the minister's comments, that is complete nonsense. What else do you expect him to say when every critical person back home is regarded a traitor by Robert Mugabe's government?" he queried.
The human rights activists immediately issued a joint statement saying they no longer felt safe to address the continental rights watchdog in the wake of Chinamasa's threatening comments made before the ACPHR itself.
"The remarks by the Minister placed accredited NGOs from Zimbabwe in a position where they cannot publicly address this Commission, as is their obligation in updating the Commission on the current situation prevailing in Zimbabwe," the joint statement said.
Among the NGOs that declined to address the ACHPR are the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Zimbabwe), Human Rights Trust of Southern Africa (SAHRIT) and the Zimba¬bwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR).
The groups said they would only address the ACHPR if the Commission's Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders took "all precautionary measures to ensure that all those who enjoy observer status and have participated in this session will not be subjected to harassment on account of their participation, whether here in Ghana, or upon their return to Zimbabwe."
Mugabe's government is accused of gross human rights violations as it increasingly uses brutal force to keep in check public discontent in the face of an economic meltdown described by the World Bank as the worst in the world outside a war zone.
In a related development, the Executive Director of the African Centre for Human Rights Studies, a Gambia-based NGO, Hanna Foster, informed delegates that African NGOs had expressed concern over the ever deteriorating human rights situation in Zimbabwe. She stated that the Forum continued to receive complaints over issues of arbitrary arrests, detention and torture of opposition leaders, lawyers and journalists.
"The Forum renews its plea to the African Commission for Hu¬man and Peoples' Rights to plead with the African Union to ensure that Zimbabwe implements the recommendations of the ACHPR fact finding mission to Zimbabwe in 2002," she said.
Established by the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights which came into force on 21 October 1986 after its adoption in Nairobi (Kenya) in 1981 by the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights is charged with ensuring the promotion and protection of Human and Peoples' Rights throughout the African Continent. Ironically, the Commission has its headquarters in Banjul, The Gambia, where Yahya Jammeh has all, but stifled freedom of the press and free expression.
Credit: Public Agenda