Opening statement of H.E. Mrs Julia Dolly Joiner, Commissioner for Political Affairs of the African Union

Statement by
Her Excellency Mrs. Julia Dolly Joiner
Commissioner for Political Affairs
of the African Union Commission
at the 49th Ordinary Session
of the African Commission in Human and Peoples' Rights
Banjul, The Gambia
28 April 2011

Honourable Edward Gomez, Attorney General and Minister of Justice of the Republic of The Gambia,
Madam Reine Alapini Gansou, Chairperson of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights,
Deputy Chairperson and Members of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights,
Distinguished Representative of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights,
Honourable Ministers of the government of The Gambia,
Distinguished Delegates of States Parties to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights,
Members of the Diplomatic and Consular Corps,
Representatives of National Human rights Institutions and Civil Society Organizations,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today, the entire African Continent’s and indeed the world’s eyes are fixed on North Africa and the Middle East with demands for change coming from within, with people calling for greater civil liberties, economic opportunities and a stake in the governance of their societies. The unfolding popular uprisings that we stand witness to indeed mirror a universal yearning for dignity and respect and serve to underscore once more the inextricable linkages between human rights, democracy and development. Freedom of expression, whether exercised in the public square, through the media or on the internet has again demonstrated what a force for democracy, access to opportunity, participation and the open exchange of ideas can be.

The holding of this Session is, therefore in my view, very instrumental in reaffirming our dedication and commitment towards attaining the African Union vision on universal access to human and peoples rights that was so eloquently enunciated in the adopted African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 1981. Beyond expressions of appreciation to the Chairperson and Members of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights for the invitation accorded to me, allow me also to reiterate our gratitude to the Government and Peoples of The Gambia for hosting the African Commission and for the kind hospitality that it continues to demonstrate to all who visit and participate in events in and around its Sessions.

As we celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the African Charter, it is fitting to state that it is in the exercise of our human rights mandate that we are able to appreciate the most valuable role that the African Commission plays and the significant responsibilities entrusted on each of its elected Commissioners. I will hence begin by expressing the appreciation of the African Union Commission (AUC) to you, Madam Reine Alapini Gansou, Chairperson and all Commissioners for your dedication and commitment to the cause of human rights in Africa and for the exemplary leadership in steering the affairs of the African Commission. Thirty years in the life of an organization is no small feat. The journey, no doubt, may have been long and arduous but it is in due recognition of the individual and collective efforts of all the valiant men and women of Africa who have been associated with its establishment that we can proudly celebrate the many milestone that have been achieved thus far.

Madam Chairperson, Commissioners,
Excellencies, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,

Although, our Continent still continues to grapple with multifaceted challenges as we seek to build a more consolidated human rights path into the future, it is imperative at this stage in our journey that we build on that which we have succeeded in putting in place, the most significant among which are, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the numerous human rights instruments setting out the normative framework for their work. Our Member States have been mindful of the significance of these institutions and the importance of ensuring that they are able to act with impartiality and integrity.

Thirty years after the adoption of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Why should we care? What would be the judgment of future generations on the progress that we would have achieved in terms of ameliorating the conditions of the peoples of this Continent? In the context of the recent events unfolding in Africa and elsewhere, we cannot but express sadness and concern that even though we have over the years, established various instruments and instruments to facilitate actions to assist the exercise on human rights, we have at times been found wanting in averting situations that result in the loss of lives in the struggle to secure these very rights through peaceful means.

The most disastrous consequences would occur, in my opinion, if we remain pessimist, and stop trying. Human rights are not peripheral to the survival of people or development of states. Our collective pursuit of human rights is part of a broad effort towards creating a continent in which human beings can live in peace, freedom, and with their basic needs adequately met, in short, a better Africa and a decent life for her peoples. The need for robust mechanisms for collective action on human rights is so real, so undeniable and so essential to the quality of all our lives. Thirty years since its adoption and in the face of the complex and numerous challenges we confront, there is a natural impulse to indict the effectiveness of the Charter. Although universal in its aspiration, the African Charter is truly African in its content and context, it enjoys both regional and global legitimacy and it is today still relevant to the central concerns of citizens from Cape to Cairo to and from Djibouti to Dakar.

The central message I convey to you at this Session coinciding with the thirtieth anniversary of its adoption therefore is an ardent call for a reaffirmation of faith in the Charter: faith that indeed the Charter remains our best opportunity for collective responses to human rights promotion and protection in the Continent; faith that the Charter –the Contract among all African governments and African Peoples –will stand strong and tall, long after other less-effective contracts have faded away; faith that the Charter provides the basis to construct an African identity that will not be judged by poverty, deprivation and backwardness but by our collective commitment to human and peoples’ rights and faith that the Charter will provide us with the requisite content guidance to cope with the realities of this rapidly transforming world.

In our celebrations and as we reflect on the impact of the African Charter, we must remind ourselves of the fact that collectivism is no substitute for the sovereign responsibility of states. Regional organizations must not arrogate to themselves the prerogative to export or impose values and practices. Thus, even as there is an emerging consensus on the principle of the Responsibility to Protect as embodied in Article 4 (h) of the Constitutive Act of the African Union, the principle should not be perceived as opening the floodgates for "humanitarian intervention", which ultimately ends up in violence, hostilities and military intervention. The Responsibility to Protect, from an African perspective is about effective preventive action, based on the principle of "sovereignty as a responsibility ". The African Court of Justice and Human Rights and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, alongside the Peace and Security Council provide opportunities for partnership, dialogue and consultations on this issue. As such the formal recognition by the African Union Assembly, of the African Governance Architecture should be seen as providing a further opportunity to engage and develop appropriate capacity and responses to Africa’s looming governance challenges.

It is not gainsaying that the adoption of the African Charter brought a seismic shift and established a momentum in the workings and orientation of African regional responses to human rights issues. To maintain this momentum, there is need to expand the purview of our interventions and adopt a more preventive approach guided by one clear principle i.e. respect for international humanitarian law. The strength and legitimacy of our intervention must not only be dictated by its universal relevance and application, but should also enhance the capacity of local institutions to deliver on the developmental needs of our peoples.

Of the many human rights violations today, those in economic, social and cultural areas are particularly widespread across Africa. In fact weaker sections of society suffer the most from such failures, which is at the root of serious social and economic problems faced by our societies. The effective way to solve such problems and ensure civilized existence of our people is to guarantee human rights of the weaker sections of society in full measure especially in cases of humanitarian crises.

Disasters, both natural and man-made, endanger the lives of our people and their human rights. Future generations will judge us by our responses to these disasters. The Human Development Report 2000 very aptly recognized protection against calamities as important human rights. Eleven years after the release of the Report, it is important that the scope of our interventions should be expanded to include issues of man-made and natural disasters. The AU Convention for the Protection and Assistance of internally Displaced Persons adopted in a special Summit of the African Union in 2009 provides an immense opportunity.

Excellencies, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,

During the Sixteenth African Union Summit of Heads of State and Government in January 2011, our leaders in deliberating on the theme of "Shared Values", have again acknowledged that even though we have regional particularities, many of the values in governance, democracy and human rights are globally shared values. With such acknowledgement and global embrace, African Union Member States correctly affirmed that finding accommodation for differences and contextual particularities in a globalised world will and must continue to be a core strategy in the work of all regional and global organizations.

To this end, allow me also to state that the African Union and its Commission are now more than ever determined to ensure that we have a constituency of voice in the global for a and that Africa’s approach and strategy for the promotion and protection of human rights are clearly articulated. As part of this process, the African Union Commission organized a meeting here in Banjul on 26-27 April 2011 for the AU Organs and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs), among other stakeholders to adopt the Human Rights Strategy for Africa. This Strategy is centrally focused on how Africa can optimize the available human rights instruments and institutions to positively impact the lives of our peoples and the overall exercise of human rights at both continental and global levels. The Human Rights Strategy places a strong and central prominence on achieving harmonized and coordinated action from relevant regional and national institutions that are part of the tapestry of the African Human Rights System. I remain most confident that, this adopted Strategy will become a central platform for engagements in Africa and for a deeper engagement with the challenges confronted.

Furthermore, I am also pleased to announce to this body that the Executive Council of the African Union at its Eighteenth Ordinary Session last January, approved the establishment of an African Governance Platform. This decision is most significant as the Platform would not only provide a basis for strengthening the African Governance Architecture, but would be a central vehicle to facilitate dialogue and complementarities between all AU structures – the Organs, Institutions and Regional Economic Communities involved in Governance and Human Rights.

As we welcome these steps forward in our efforts, allow me to indicate that without the most positive support and cooperation from all AU organs and institutions, Regional Economic Communities and the partner community especially the relevant UN agencies and the African Civil Society Organizations, we would not have made the progress that we have registered in elaborating a Human Rights Strategy for Africa.

Madam Chairperson and Members of the African Commission,
Excellencies, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,

In reiterating our support for the work of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, it is important that we also recognize the efforts of all who are active in the terrain of Human Rights in Africa. We should seize this moment to urge Member States to ratify all human rights instruments and encourage all the governmental and non-governmental organizations charged with the duty of safeguarding human rights to embrace a more positive attitude and work in harmony with the other stakeholders. We should equally express our appreciation to African Civil Society Organizations and our Partners and encourage them to continue to ensure that this support duly reflects itself in all areas of human rights promotion and protection.

The promotion and protection of human rights in Africa is a collective effort. Whilst we have a propensity to emphasize the role and responsibilities of States Parties, we cannot and should not forget to remind ourselves that our success hinges on building wider ownership and ensuring that the burden of responsibility and actions is shared across all sectors of our societies. In as much as Member States were central to the development of the African Charter, African Civil Society remains the most viable medium for monitoring implementation. The NGO Forum that preceded this Session is a clear contribution to that effort of the African Civil Society Organizations geared towards building the culture of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law in accordance with the Constitutive Act of the African Union.

Building a culture of human rights and establishing the respect for human rights as a natural element of people-to-people engagements, requires that the human rights we all talk about be internalized by each individual. It is after all, most often, at the level of individual interactions that rights are infringed upon. Since humanism is best reflected in our interactions with others, our exercise of rights must also be predicated on our respect for the rights of others. This could go a long way in building the rights culture all our instruments and mechanisms are seeking to establish.

Madam Chairperson and Members of the African Commission,
Excellencies, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,

In concluding this statement of support, allow me to build upon my word of optimism by indicating that there is much that suggests that we are moving to a higher level of success in our human rights promotion and protection efforts. Whilst in the past we struggled with the basics of establishing frameworks and institutions, we are now comfortably able to talk about fighting for higher order socio-economic rights and are, with confidence, able to engage other regions of the world on differences we might have and on asserting African perspectives on global positions.

As we take forward our efforts at consolidating actions and in establishing a more focused orientation to human rights in Africa, I am certain that we are on a positive trajectory in our preparations for 2012, the Year of Shared Values, with all the opportunities that it affords each and every one of us.

On a final note, allow me to recognize that whilst the burden of responsibility for this august body is wide, we are all reassured of a brighter future by the quality of the Commissioners that we have in place and the ever positive strides that have been made by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. We all remain most appreciative of the efforts, wish the Commission well with its deliberations and look forward to the successful conclusion of this Session.



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