Human Rights Watch (HRW) respectfully submits this brief in contribution to the African Union’s efforts to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms on the continent. The submission draws on lessons learned from HRW research and the work of the African Commission for Human and People's Rights (ACHPR) to promote the African Charter for Human and People's Rights.
Human Rights Challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa
Amid the global Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 has been a turbulent year for Africa. More than a dozen countries held general elections, many of them marred by violence. Civilians have borne the human toll of the humanitarian and human rights crises across the continent, including the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Armed conflicts and communal violence continue across much of the sub-continent, in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan. Non-state armed groups and government forces were implicated in massacres, targeted killings, rapes, the burning and looting of villages. As well as kidnappings, forced recruitment, attacks on students and teachers, and the illegal occupation of schools.
Some government forces have also been implicated in serious human rights abuses while carrying out counterterrorism operations, including the targeting of ethnic minorities and stifling the rights to free expression, association, and peaceful assembly in the name of national security.
HRW research shows how recruitment by armed Islamist groups is largely
aided by grievances, and is nurtured by rampant human rights abuses as well as a lack of accountability for mass executions committed by state security forces. The United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy reaffirms the inextricable links between human rights and security. It places respect for the rule of law and human rights at the core of national and international counter-terrorism efforts.
Progress in ensuring justice for serious crimes is also crucial for building respect for the rule of law, human rights, and democratic institutions. Yet the African countries, who were at the forefront of accusing the ICC of “bias” against African leaders, despite most of its cases being referrals from African Union member states, have failed to provide either domestic or mixed criminal justice alternatives. In keeping with its long-standing call for “African solutions to African problems”, the AU should promote and implement concrete African led judicial mechanisms to advance accountability for serious crimes and violations of international law and ensure access to credible justice for victims.
In this respect, the AU should urge Guinea to move ahead with the long-awaited trial of perpetrators of the country's 2009 stadium massacre trial. Sudan should cooperate with the ICC in its investigation and prosecution of Darfur crimes pursuant to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1593. South Sudan should establish the hybrid court and the Democratic Republic of Congo should strengthen domestic capacity to try serious crimes committed in the country over the past several decades.
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, many African governments introduced severe restrictions on movement and the freedom of assembly. In some cases, implementing full lockdowns. While these measures may have helped curb the spread of the virus in some contexts, they have had a disproportionate impact on people living in poverty. Many governments did not provide adequate assistance to cushion the impact of the economic downturn, which has exacerbated existing poverty and inequality across Africa.
There is little transparency around how many governments are spending
funds donated to support the Covid-19 responses, triggering allegations of corruption. The pandemic has also exposed serious gaps in health services and social safety nets, bringing attention to the need for African governments to make meaningful investments to improve access to quality healthcare, water, and sanitation. With extended lockdowns, physical distancing, and a widespread disruption in social services, the pandemic has ushered in a looming mental health crisis, exacerbating the risk to people with psychosocial disabilities (mental health conditions) who are often shackled in homes or locked up in overcrowded institutions. Some governments also used the Covid-19 emergency measures as a pretext to restrict civil and political rights, such as in Guinea, Uganda and Tanzania where authorities weaponized the pandemic to quell popular protests and to harass opposition politicians and their supporters, journalists and activists.
It is worth noting that the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) 449 Resolution on Human and Peoples’ Rights reaffirms human rights as a central pillar in states’ efforts to address and recover from the social, economic, and political impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Top Recommendations to the African Union Leadership
It is against this background that we encourage the AU to prioritize and act on five critical areas: Regional and Military Engagements, Justice and Accountability, Human Rights and Governance as well as strengthening Rights Focused Multilateral Institutions and Rights Driven Covid-19 Strategies.
1. Regional Human Rights Scrutiny and Military Engagement
- Support and enforce a joint AU-UN Framework on Human Rights and Accountability by fully implementing the OHCHR Human Rights Due Diligence Policy in countries where the AU is conducting peace support and counterterrorism operations and establish a dedicated AU human rights unit within the Peace and Security Department tasked with providing technical assistance to those operations.
- Promote rights respecting counterterrorism strategies by openly condemning security force abuses and sanctioning rights violators. Urge African governments to ensure that all security forces deployed on counterterrorism operations are subject to scrutiny, and as has been established with AMISOM, enforce the operationalization of mobile courts for each African contingent engaged in peace and counterterrorism operations.
- In collaboration with the ACHPR, increase the presence of human rights officers in Africa-led counterterrorism missions and ensure that cooperation agreements on counterterrorism operations include specific clauses setting out human rights standards such as the UN Human Rights Due Diligence Policy.
- In collaboration with regional and international partners, support meaningful and effective security sector reform efforts, and take concrete measures to improve security forces compliance with international law. This includes supporting the establishment of civilian oversight bodies and vetting mechanisms to remove members of security forces implicated in serious human rights abuses from the security and intelligence services. This also means improving Demobilization, Disarmament, and Reintegration (DDR) programs and strategies for dealing with armed groups, with long-term, holistic support to deter former fighters from returning to armed groups.
- In collaboration with international partners, urge member States to provide prompt and adequate redress for civilian victims of laws-of-war violations by setting up a system for condolence payments for civilian casualties and property damage. In addition to monetary payments, options could include public acknowledgement, apologies, and livelihood assistance, reflecting the circumstances and needs of affected civilians. Those responsible for war crimes should be prosecuted.
- Following the new “General Comment on article 22” from the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child regarding children in situations of conflict, adopt an explicit ban on the use of schools in counter-operations. Prioritize the adoption of such an explicit ban in time for the Fourth International Safe Schools Conference to be hosted by Nigeria in October 2021.
2. Human Rights and Governance
- Prioritize a rights driven agenda by strengthening the independence of the mandate of African human rights institutions and ensuring that member states do not interfere in the functioning of all regional human rights institutions.
- In collaboration with sub-regional economic blocs, support the speedy ratification of the AU Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance by all 55 member states.
- In collaboration with the ACHPR, openly press governments to ensure respect and protection of rights. This includes holding regular, free, fair, and credible elections, as well as the right to expression, peaceful protest, and assembly.
- Increase diplomatic pressure and publicly urge member states to take prompt, credible, and impartial steps to investigate the allegations of election-related killings, beatings, and assaults by security forces, and to hold those responsible accountable.
- In accordance with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, ACHPR Guidelines for the policing of assemblies by law enforcement officials in Africa as well as the “AU “silence the guns” initiative, press African government institutions to review and re-assess their military and security institutions to ensure these institutions fully respect and promote human rights and do not undermine freedom of expression and association. As well as the ability of political parties and civil society organizations to operate freely and independently.
3. Justice and Accountability
- Support efforts to ensure accountability through fair, credible trials for those most responsible for mass atrocities and other serious human rights abuses, including through implementation of specialized accountability mechanisms such as the Hybrid Court for South Sudan. Others include Guinea moving ahead with the trial of alleged perpetrators of the country's 2009 stadium massacre and the Democratic Republic of Congo strengthening its domestic capacity to try serious crimes committed in the country.
- In collaboration with the ACHPR, support cooperation with the International Criminal Court on relevant cases, investigations, and indictments pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 1593. Notably for the investigation and prosecution of atrocities committed in Darfur, Sudan.
- With the support of international partners, support the establishment of an African led sanctions regime that includes travel bans and asset freezes against those responsible for ongoing serious human rights abuses.
- Support the full operationalization of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights by encouraging all State Parties to the Protocol to make the declaration recognizing the competence of the Court to receive cases from NGOs and individuals.
4. Rights Focused Multilateral Engagements
- Expand and support the AU - UN Addis Ababa road map to strengthen collaboration between regional accountability mechanisms like the UN Human Rights Council and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
- Support an overarching human rights agenda within the AU’s peace and security architecture by investing in the development of strong tools for conflict management, prevention, and rights-focused responses to emerging crises.
- Promote and sustain stronger cooperation between AU human rights institutions and international human rights institutions such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Inter-American Human Rights institutions.
- Promote stronger human rights dialogues between sub-regional economic blocs and sub-regional human rights organizations. Publicly promote AU support for national human rights institutions and civil society organizations.
- Urge national governments to ban the chaining of people with mental health conditions and develop adequate, quality, and voluntary community-based support mental health services.
5. Rights driven Covid-19 Strategies
- Promote access to healthcare for all by encouraging AU member states to commit 15% of their national budgets to health in accordance with the Abuja Declaration.
- Ensure that national and local Covid-19 response plans address the impact of the pandemic on women and girls. Develop appropriate responses in consultation with women and girls’ rights organizations and allocate necessary resources.
- Ensure that national and local Covid-19 response plans address the impact of the pandemic on people with disabilities, including children with disabilities, as well as older people, given the impacts of Covid-19 on these groups. Develop appropriate responses in consultation with organizations of persons with disabilities and organizations of older people and allocate necessary resources.
- The AU and member States should take concrete steps to ensure equity, transparency and fairness around the manufacturing and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. This should include all funding for Covid-19 vaccine research, development, manufacturing, or distribution requiring technology transfer. This would ensure the sharing of all intellectual property, data, and other “know-how” to enable mass manufacturing of successful vaccine candidates.
- Encourage all AU member states to endorse and implement the WHO's COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), a common shared pool of rights to technologies, data, and “know-how” that everyone around the world could use to manufacture any medical products needed to tackle Covid-19, including vaccines. The C-TAP requires global, open, and non-exclusive licensing of intellectual property to maximize the benefits of scientific research.
- Call on states to provide targeted financial support to families whose children would otherwise not return to school because of economic hardship. Ensure primary and secondary schools are tuition-free and free of indirect costs, particularly those tied to needs arising due to covid-19 measures when they re-open. In countries where girls’ enrollment or completion of secondary school is lower than boys’, governments should consider launching or continuing financial incentives to ensure parents enable girls return to school as soon as it is safe.