Opening Speech by Ambassador Salamata Sawadogo, Chairperson of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights

 Opening Speech by Ambassador Salamata Sawadogo, Chairperson of the African Commission
on Human and Peoples’ Rights delivered at the Opening Ceremony of the 40th
Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights
held in Banjul, The Gambia,
from 15-29 November, 2006.


Excellency, Dr. Henry Carroll, Acting Solicitor General and Legal Secretary of the Republic of the Gambia. representing the Government of the Republic of the Gambia,
Honourable members of the Government of the Republic of The Gambia,
Excellencies, Members of the Diplomatic and Consular Corps,
Excellency, Representative of the African Union Commission,
Distinguished representatives of the State Parties to the ACHR Charter,
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,
All Protocol observed

From the outset allow me to express our gratitude to the Attorney General and Secretary of State for Justice of the Republic of the Gambia and all other dignitaries for attending the opening ceremony of the 40th Ordinary Session of the ACHPR. I would also, on behalf of the African Commission thank the Gambian Authorities and the Gambian People for having hosted a number of our meetings in the past .

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The last intersession was particularly busy, in all senses of the word:

  • Literally speaking, many activities were held and we would have had a record number had it not been for the perpetual lack of funds and resources which led to the postponement of some activities.
  • Figuratively speaking, the relevant period was marred with uncertainty and stress due to the reduced staffing levels despite the hopes raised at the brainstorming session with the AU Commission last May. 
  • Of course we are now witnessing the arrival of new colleagues within the Secretariat but compared with the number of departures, we are far from achieving the minimum number established at the brainstorming session.

The organization of this session was particularly difficult in view of the existing resource constraints. Uncertainty surrounding the venue of our meeting and other circumstances beyond the control of the ACHPR and its Secretariat led to delays in the dispatching of invitations. We wish to apologise for the latter. We do hope that for forthcoming meetings, the Government of the Gambia will continue to afford us its full support, as usual, to ensure the success of our deliberations.

That said, we are pleased to be holding this session and congratulate our distinguished guests for responding en masse to our invitation.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Barely five months ago, right here in Banjul, The Gambia, we celebrated the 25 th Anniversary of the adoption of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and last month, October 21, we commemorated African Human rights Day and celebrated the 20 th anniversary of the entry into force of the African Charter. In July 2007, we would be celebrating the 20 th anniversary of the establishment of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.

The African Commission is thus completing its second decade of operation. Twenty years in the life of an institution is quite long and provides sufficient justification for appraisal. That is why I propose to tailor my opening remarks during this 40th Ordinary Session around the theme “Time for Stock Taking”.

I propose to speak on this theme because I believe that after two decades of existence, the Commission should have a record to show to the African people. It should be able to show a balance sheet of its successes, failures, challenges and the way forward. It is, in my opinion, the appropriate time for us to be able to ask what the African Commission has done during this period to improve the lives of the African People.

In this present phase of the history of the continent, where the African people are faced with several challenges, in this transitional phase where the principal organs of the African Union are working towards the improvement of the welfare of the African people, in this phase of a new dispensation where democracy, equality, the rule of law, development and respect for human rights have become the watch words, it is all the more important to take stock of the contribution of the African Commission during the period of its existence. This will enable us to measure achievements, strategise and put in place appropriate measures to make human rights a central theme in the transformation and integration processes.

Your Excellencies,
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,

As the Commission takes stock of its challenges, successes and failures over the past two decades, we must also pause and ask ourselves what we have done to enhance the enjoyment of human rights on the continent and in particular, to support the African Commission discharge its mandate. This is our collective challenge, by this I mean, State Parties, National Human Rights Institutions, NGOs and individuals.

As a State Party to the Charter for instance, what have you done to fulfil your obligations under the Charter? Has the State for example put in place legislative and other measures to give effect to the Charter as required by Article 1; or has the State submitted its periodic report as provided for under Article 62? Has the State allowed for promotion or protection missions of the Commission to the country or better still has the State complied with any of the Commission’s recommendations? These and many more, are questions that States should be asking themselves to determine their commitment to human rights generally and support to the African Commission in particular. It is not enough to ratify the Charter, it is not enough to attend all the sessions of the Commission, State’s commitment to human rights must not only be on paper but must be reflected in their policies, programmes, and above all, in the lives of their citizens.

As a National Human Rights Organisation, you need to ask yourself what you have done, can or will do with and for the African Commission to enhance the promotion and protection of human rights in your country. Have you for example, initiated programmes to sensitise people about their rights? Have you put in place mechanisms to provide redress for human rights violations or are you Paris Principle compliant?

As an NGO, have you submitted your activity report to the Commission? Have you gone out to the field to sensitise vulnerable citizens about their human rights? Have you cooperated with the Commission in any of its activities or have you facilitated the mission of the African Commission to your country?

And as an individual, what contribution have I made? Have I put my academic advantage and human rights experience to the service of those vulnerable and downtrodden Africans who do not even know about the African Commission? What steps have I taken to empower those around me about their rights?

These and many more are questions that we need to ask ourselves to determine what contribution we’ve made to human rights on the continent.

Your Excellencies,

I say the protection of human rights is our collective responsibility because we must not only seek to enjoy our own rights but must also ensure that the rights of our neighbours are equally protected. It is for this reason that we all share in the successes and failures of the African Commission or the African human rights regime. It is for this reason that the stock taking must not be only about the performance of the African Commission but also an assessment of what we have done collectively and individually to enhance the enjoyment of human rights since the adoption of the African Charter.

Your Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

African leaders have taken steps to align the existing human rights protection mechanism in line with international standards. Starting with the decision to establish a Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, a protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, the commitments made in the Grand Bay and Kigali Declarations and culminating in the establishment of an African Human Rights Court, African leaders are saying to the larger world community and to the African peoples themselves that it can no longer be business as usual. They are signalling their intention to make human rights cardinal to the transformation and integration process on the continent.

Since independence, African States have ratified several instruments aimed at the promotion and protection of human rights on the continent – both at sub-regional, regional and international level. On paper, the commitment of some African states to the protection of human rights is unmatched even by some western countries. However, the reality is different.

The problem with human rights on the continent is therefore not the number of conventions, declarations or policies in place but rather the practical application of commitments made. To echo the UN Secretary General, “it is not enough for States simply to give their consent to be bound by treaties or to take action only to give an appearance of compliance”.

Lack of commitment to fully implement the human rights obligations has resulted in the continent facing continuous human rights challenges – the Commission continues to receive reports of human rights violations ranging from restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, association, freedom from torture, violation of the right to life, arbitrary detention, etc.

Poverty remains a serious menace to human rights and conflicts occasioned by perceived or real violations of human rights continue to generate refugee and IDPs flows. The rights of women, children and the aged continue to be trampled upon with impunity. These and many other human rights challenges remain of concern to the African Commission and should be of concern to all of us.

The political vision for Africa envisaged by the founding fathers of the OAU found concrete expression in Lome, Togo, in 2000 when African leaders decided to adopt the Constitutive Act of the African Union. The adoption of this Act draws closer to a long journey of a quest for “ African integration” that started well before the OAU was formed.

The establishment of the African Union “coincides” with the adoption of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development - NEPAD, an ambitious economic programme aimed at taking Africa out of her economic doldrums. This quest for political and economic change in the adoption of the Constitutive Act in 2001 brought with it several opportunities for the protection of human rights on the continent, but at the same time exposed the Commission to several challenges. The Constitutive Act expressly recognises the intrinsic relationship between human rights, democracy and development. It also recognises that equality, respect for the rule of law and non- discrimination are essential tenets for an open society, the type of society required for political and economic integration.

The Constitutive Act is governed by several progressive and broad objectives and principles, most of which embody basic human rights values. These broad principles and objectives appear to present a holistic perspective of the way the new breed of African leaders perceive and intend to approach issues of human rights on the continent. The Constitutive Act also provides for the establishment of several institutions most, if not all, of which seek to promote the welfare of the African people and hold immense potential for significantly impacting on the human rights landscape on the continent.

Amid all these challenges, the Commission believes there is light at the end of the tunnel. The establishment of several other organs of the AU with mandate to deal with human rights means the African Union has recognised the centrality of human rights and seeks to mainstream same in its policies and programmes.

Being the pioneer human rights body and one with the longest experience dealing with human rights on the continent, the African Commission has a chance to re-orientate its modus operandi to fully exploit the opportunities offered by the new political dispensation.

To quote the Commissioner for political affairs, HE Julia Joiner “the African Commission has to seize the opportunity provided by this conducive environment to be proactive and initiate ground breaking policies and take decisions that would shape the course of human rights in Africa….the opportunities offered …must be fully exploited and effectively utilised if we are to establish a genuine human rights culture and make human rights central to the work of the African Union and all its organs”

But how can the African Commission seize the opportunity offered to it when it is not given the means to do so? How can the Commission exploit the space created by the new political dispensation when the major stakeholders cannot offer it the basic support? How can the Commission effectively discharge its mandate and make the “ground-breaking policies and decisions” when it is not even recognised as a principal player in the transformation and integration process?

These and many more are questions we need to ask ourselves when we sit to take stock of what the Commission has done over the past years. We must not only look at the successes and failures of the Commission but we must, and this is more important, look at where things went wrong – why has the Commission, for instance, not been able to meet the expectations of the African people? Who is to blame? And how can this be remedied?

Your Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

This process of stock taking and assessment of the role of the African Commission started in May 2006 when for the first time since its establishment, a brainstorming session was organised by the African Union Commission to reflect on the activities of the African Commission and see how to enhance its effectiveness. On 27 – 28 November 2006, a follow-up and more focused brainstorming will be held, this time between the African Commission and the PRC to exploit ways and means to implement the recommendations of the first brainstorming. We hope this meeting will produce a framework to enable the Commission make a meaningful contribution to the integration process.

Before concluding, I would like on behalf of my colleagues, members of the ACHPR and on my own behalf to commend the Secretariat for the sheer volume of work done during the intersession, especially Messrs Omari Holaki, Robert Kotchani, Mrs. Annie Rashidi- Malumba, Ms. Fiona Adolu. We salute their professionalism and dedication to duty which have greatly contributed to the development of our Commission. Speaking to, Mrs Dorica Tiny KGwadi, the new Finance and Administrative Officer, Messrs Chafi Bakari and Feyi Ogunade, the members of the Commission join me in welcoming you and have no doubt that you will give fresh impetus to the Secretariat and to the activities of the Commissioners. I am not forgetting the members of the Secretariat who have stayed on, I mean the “old hands” and thank them for their commitment and dedication to duty.

In conclusion, I call on all players in the field of Human Rights to always ask themselves this question “what have I done and what can I do for Human Rights in Africa?”

I wish you a successful session.

Thank you for your kind attention.


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