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African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights

Remarks by the ACHPR Chairperson, Commissioner Solomon Dersso at the 35th Ordinary Session of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child on 31 August 2020


Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, children of Africa, all protocols observed

Good morning. Good afternoon.

I would like to star by expressing my gratitude to the ACERWC for the invitation extended to the ACHPR to be part of this opening ceremony. I also wish to bring to you the greetings of my colleagues the members of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

When you convened your session in Cairo, in which I had the privilege of participating, none of us saw how profoundly the world would change in 2020. There is nothing in recent memory that has affected the whole of humanity and that is a truly global phenomenon as the COVID19 pandemic.

Here we are today in a time that certainly makes our last gathering appear to be from a completely different era. Indeed, we are in a new era. This is an era this is sure to be most defining in changing the social, economic and political lives of societies across the world.

Much of the focus at the moment is in trying to contain the pandemic and limit the damage from the multidimensional consequences of the pandemic and the pandemic response measures.

This is therefore a time for interrogating and addressing the human rights issues arising from COVID19 and the multidimensional impacts of COVID19. This I suppose is also a major focus of this session of the Committee.

COVID19 in threatening the right to health and the right to life is endangering children. True that the threat it loses to children is not as grave as it does to adults. Yet, it is not also true that COVID19 does not endanger children’s health and life.

Perhaps the most serious consequences on children arise from not necessarily from COVID19 itself but from the COVID19 response measures. These response measures are designed without due regard to human rights standards and the needs of children. That is why the Commisison’s statement on these issues is critical to the right of children as well.

Beyond the lack of due regard to rights and needs of children, important to note that not all children are affected equally by COVID19 response measures and the way they are enforced. As a revealer of inequalities and vulnerabilities, COVID19 and its response measures affect much more disproportionately children from vulnerable members of society. Children from poor families, minorities, indigenous groups, IDPS, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in informal settlements and children from communities with no access to water and sanitation and living in congested homes and communities are affected the most. Even the most basic of COVID19 prevention measures such as hand washing or social distancing are a luxury for children and their families from these backgrounds.

At a general level, the very fact that COVID19 has changed the routine of children as a result of curfews, lockdowns and states of emergency or disaster is not without consequences. This has disrupted the opportunities for socialization and co-learning which is critical for the social and psychological development of children.

Confinement at home for a prolonged period of time is not also without its adverse effects. It exposes children to conditions of stress and even in many circumstances domestic abuse or violence.

There is also a difference between boys and girls. In a time of crisis, patriarchal gender roles lead to more serious challenges and human rights issues to young girls. These range from increase in domestic/household responsibilities to exposure to harmful cultural practices including FGM and early marriages to lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services leading to early and untimely pregnancies as witnessed in the 5000 pregnant girls reported in a province in Malawi or the 23,000 reported in Sierra Leone and in extreme cases to cases of sexual violence and rape.

The closure of schools can have serious consequences beyond and above deprivation of the right to education, one of the most fundamental rights. Clearly, while efforts have been made to take schooling into the online and electronic platforms, it is a fact that this shift will lead to deepening inequalities of educational opportunities between those with access to internet and electronic devices and those without access. For example, we have been informed by the Kenyan National Human Rights Commission that only 10 percent of public schools were able to provide online and electronic schooling, leaving the vast majority of children without access.

Closure of schools also leads to lack of access to school meals and hence many children who depend on schools meals face the grim challenge of hunger on a daily basis, more so in this time of socio-economic disruptions of the informal sector on which poor families depend for their survival.

There is also the challenge of millions of children unable to return to school, hence deprived of the life opportunities that comes with access to education. According to UNICEF some 30 million children, particularly from the economically weak parts of the world including Africa, may not return to schools.

This will certainly push these children into conditions that will lead to deprivation of their rights as girls are pushed into early marriage or children are pushed into exploitative and dangerous labour.

Additionally, this would result in major socioeconomic loss and social costs for society. According to the World Bank the long-term economic cost of lost schooling could be as much as $10 trillion in lost productive output.

For children from poor families, the loss of household income and the socioeconomic disruptions resulting from the COVID19 measures mean that they face the grim challenges of losing from their already weak socioeconomic wellbeing, including being deprived of access to food and hence facing starvation and forced in to conditions of exploitative labour or dangerous life on streets.

Lock down and other restrictions of movement have led to disruption of access to health care, immunization and the care that newly born children need as pregnant women are unable to access pre natal and post natal care.

In a context in which we have witnessed unprecedented level of sexual and gender based violence, these are not without their direct impact on children whose mothers and guardians have become victims of SGBV.

As we have seen from the updates that we in the ACHPR received, this period has occasioned rise in transgression of human rights standards in the course of enforcing COVID19 regulations. These include among others excessive use of force which in a number of countries has led, among others, to the arbitrary deprivation of the right to life. Children were among those who lost their lives as a result of these violations of rights.

This clearly establishes that the rights and safety of children can find protection only in conditions where there is respect for and protection of human and peoples’ rights. That is why the work of our Commission and the particular efforts it is mobilizing for addressing the human rights issues arising from COVID19, including its statements of 28 February and 28 March as well as its 66th Ordinary Session with its focus on human and peoples’ rights in the context of COVID19 are the prerequisite for and create the conditions for the enjoyment of the rights of children.

Beyond and above the human rights issues arising from the nature of COVID19 response measures and the way these measures are enforced, for us at the African Commission we are deeply concerned about the socioeconomic-economic consequences of COVID19 19.

This is feared to lead to catastrophic human rights consequences as tens of millions of people are pushed to extreme poverty. Children will be among those feared to be affected the most from these dire consequences. Indeed, they face the grim prospect of a future with limited or no socio-economic opportunities. That is why my self and OHCHR issued a joint statement on this issue in May 2020.

This is also a time for introspection.

COVID19, in the way it laid bare the fallacies and falsehoods, to borrow from Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s 18 July 2020 Nelson Mandela Lecture, in the narrative of progress and development and brought to the fore the vulnerabilities and inequalities that pervade our societies and the deficiencies of our systems of governance and economic development paradigm, has also presented a serious challenge to the international and regional system of human rights.

It can be said that COVID-19 has revealed the shortfalls of the entire human rights field and represents an indictment of our human rights work.

The mainstream human rights work has generally focused on making its trademark feature of loud reaction to events rather than on proactive action for addressing structural issues.

Viewed through the prism of categories of rights, COVID19 has demonstrated the continuing marginalization and neglect of socio-economic rights. Despite the normative position of interdependence and indivisibility of rights, in practice civil and political rights continue to dominate much of the practice and discourse of human rights. With COVID19, it has become clear that water, sanitation, health care, housing and education are fundamental rights to which everyone should have access not only because these rights are pre-requisite to live a life of dignity as human being but also because access to these rights by all is a condition for the safety and health of all.

The choice in front of the human rights system is stark – continue in a business as usual fashion and face irrelevance in the effort to overcome the structural conditions of oppression affecting the vast majority of people in the world? Or Reprioritize its focus, its approach and sense of urgency to deal with the existing human rights issues which have, in the context of COVID19, become the defining human rights issues of our time: massive poverty, widening inequality, gender oppression, racism, the democratic governance crisis and the climate emergency.

This is also a time for making changes. In this respect, I wish to quote from the UN Secretary-General Antonio

The response to the pandemic, and to the widespread discontent that preceded it, must be based on a New Social Contract and a New Global Deal that create equal opportunities for all and respect the rights and freedoms of all.

This is also a change that entails bringing socio-economic rights into the centre of social and economic development policies. This would entail, once again to quote from Guterres, ‘Establishing minimum levels of social protection, and reversing chronic underinvestment in public services including education, healthcare, and internet access are essential.’

I also wish to add the necessity of rethinking the dominant development model with its emphasis on GDP Growth rather than human development drawing on Guterres’s conception of a ‘New Global Deal’, which is ‘based on a fair globalization, on the rights and dignity of every human being, on living in balance with nature, on taking account of the rights of future generations, and on success measured in human rather than economic terms.’

I thank you for your kind attention and wish you a productive session.