Today marks the annual commemoration of the founding of the African Union.
Amongst the objectives of the AU's leading institutions is a commitment to promoting and protecting human rights in accordance with the African Charter and other relevant human rights instruments. And this Africa Day sees cause for celebration with Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda, Lesotho and the Seychelles having recently ratified all eight of the main human rights conventions. We are seeing increased attention and commitment to improving disability rights across the continent. Great strides are being made to reduce maternal mortality. On the surface it would seem that the commitment of the AU and its members to human rights is to be applauded. However, running parallel to the human rights rhetoric of the AU is an entrenched failure to hold the governments of its members accountable for failures to uphold promises made under this human rights agenda.
On a day that commemorates the founding of a union, we look to the values that we share. The clear answer to the question of what the members of the AU have in common is poverty. Therefore the need for the fundamental rights enshrined in the UDHR is paramount. Access to education, work, healthcare, the right to vote, and religious freedom are basic rights that are often guaranteed in theory, but not evidenced in practice. We need only look next door to our West African neighbours to see examples. Severe repression of journalists and demonstrations continues in The Gambia, a country that paradoxically provides the base for the AU's key human rights body – the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights. Extra-judicial killings continue in Cameroon. Even on our own doorstep forced evictions continue to occur. And what response do we see to these abuses? Accountability rests neither with law enforcement agencies, local or central authorities, nor with the government. An example of the most grave human rights abuses in recent times, the murder of over one thousand Kenyans in post-election violence in 2007/2008, saw not the Kenyan government step in to hold the perpetrators accountable, nor the AU, but the international community through the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The AU declares its commitment to international justice to ensure the accountability for gross violations of human rights. But this quest for accountability frequently acquiesces to the notion of 'regional solidarity' and the multifarious political agendas that exist between its members. The initial response of the AU and its members to the issuance of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's arrest warrant for war crimes and crimes against humanity provides a disquieting example. Several members chose to ignore the warrant and some actively invited Bashir to visit their countries. The AU itself sought suspension of the proceedings against Bashir from the UN Security Council and stated that they would not co-operate in with the ICC in his arrest. This response contradicted the commitments made by the AU to uphold human rights and constituted an absolute failure to respect and protects the rights of the victims of these crimes and their families.
Accountability for these human rights abuses needs to be based on legal commitments that AU member governments have made to meet these obligations. Mechanisms must exist by which these governments can be held to account, and when they are found to have failed to respect the rights if their citizens, remedies must be available. There is a real opportunity here for the AU to lead by example. However, as long as this politicisation is tolerated in the context of human rights abuses, it will continue to act as an obstacle to pursuing the rights agenda that the AU itself espouses.
Challenging politicisation in the context of the AU's commitment to accountability for human rights abuses is of utmost importance. This is because the rights enshrined in the UDHR and associated treaties have global applicability. They are common to all people respective of cultural or economic differences. It is a poor excuse to hide behind the idea of cultural relativism when it comes to rights such as access to education or healthcare. And it is important to note that these rights are not stand-alone. Take the example of last year's ruling in the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice in Abuja on the right to education. The judgment stated that Nigerians have a legally enforceable right to education, dismissing the government's assertion that education is 'a mere directive policy of the government and not a legal entitlement of the citizens'. This was a laudable statement. However, this right cannot be realised in a country where a child's right to secure home is not respected and children cannot travel to school safely. The AU needs to work with its members to shift towards a reality where all rights are respected collectively, rather than parceled off on a piecemeal basis.
Any union is only successful if it respects the values that bind it together. What good is it for a man to sit on a committee against domestic violence and then go home and beat his wife? The power in a union is a commitment to shared values, and practicing what you preach.
On Africa Unity day we call for the AU to practice what they preach and use this union for good. We petition them to connect better across the physical and political borders of its members and act in solidarity to fulfil the human rights commitment it has made to Africans across the continent.
Human Rights Advocacy
CHRI Africa (Commonwealth and Human Rights Initiative)