Between 1981,when member states of the Organisation of Africa Unity (now African Union) adopted the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and 2011, Africa has experienced scores of human rights catastrophes of extreme proportions: the scourge of poverty, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the Darfur crisis, and civil wars in Somalia, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia. Is there then any reason to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Charter?
The answer is: Yes. The African Charter helped to steer Africa from the age of human wrongs into a new age of human rights. It opened up Africa to supra-national accountability. The Charter sets standards and establishes the groundwork for the promotion and protection of human rights in Africa. Since its adoption 30 years ago, the Charter has formed the basis for individuals to claim rights in an international forum. The Charter also dealt a blow to state sovereignty by emphasising that human rights violations could no longer be swept under the carpet of ‘internal affairs’.
The Charter established the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to promote, protect and interpret the rights enshrined under the Charter. The jurisprudence of this Commission has been a robust resource for national jurisdictions, NGOs and other regional systems. The state reporting mechanism established under the Charter has provided an opportunity for constructive dialogue and review. It has also helped member states to keep stock of their human rights achievements and challenges. The establishment of the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights with powers to render legally binding decisions has further tightened the noose on human rights violators in Africa.While the Court is gradually establishing itself, the provisional order against Libya has demonstrated the potential for cooperation among the human rights institutions in Africa.
One can only imagine what the continent would have been without the Charter. In view of these, Africa certainly has good reason to celebrate the African Charter. In the spirit of this celebration, it is crucial also to reflect on the past achievements, present endeavours and future challenges in realising the rights set out in the Charter.