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African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights


Like other human rights systems, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights establishes the absolute prohibition of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Article 5 of the Charter provides that “every individual shall have the right to the respect of the dignity inherent in a human being and to the recognition of his legal status. All forms of exploitation and degradation of man, particularly slavery, slave trade, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment and treatment shall be prohibited.”

The Charter also establishes a regional human rights body, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, with the mandate to promote respect for the Charter, ensure the protection of the rights and fundamental freedoms contained therein, and make recommendations for its application.

To fulfill its mission, the African Commission works with different partners, which include the authorities of States party to the African Charter, national human rights institutions and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It is in this context of cooperation that the Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT) – an international NGO with Observer Status at the African Commission - suggested, during the African Commission’s 28th ordinary session held in Cotonou, Benin, in October 2000, that a joint workshop be organised to draw up concrete measures for implementation of the provisions of Article 5 of the Charter and other international instruments aimed at preventing torture.

The workshop was held from 12 to 14 February 2002 on Robben Island, hence the name “Robben Island Guidelines (RIG).” Robben Island is a deeply symbolical place for Africa, since it was there that President Nelson Mandela was detained for several years, together with other opponents of the South African apartheid regime. This prison, built by men in the middle of the ocean with the purpose of humiliating, isolating and breaking the spirit of other men, is today a symbol of the victory of freedom over oppression, a beacon of hope and a reminder of our shared humanity.

The workshop brought together African and international experts from different professional backgrounds dealing with the issue of torture from its various angles. These joint efforts culminated in the drafting of a set of guidelines and measures for the prohibition and prevention of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment in Africa, now known as the “Robben Island Guidelines.”

These are contained in a document of fifty articles comprising three main parts: the prohibition of torture, the prevention of torture, and rehabilitation of victims. The Robben Island Guidelines were formally adopted by a resolution of the African Commission during its 32nd ordinary session in October 20021 and approved by the Conference of Heads of State and Government of the African Union held in Maputo, Mozambique, in July 2003.

During its 35th session held in Banjul, Gambia, from 21 May to 4 June 2004, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights established a Follow-up Committee to promote the implementation of the Robben Island Guidelines and help the African Commission deal effectively with the question of torture in Africa. Due to the difficulty national, regional and international stakeholders and partners had in associating the name Robben Island Guidelines Committee with its torture prevention mandate, the African Commission decided during its 46 th Ordinary Session held in Banjul, the Gambia, by resolution ACHPR/Res158(XLVI)09, to change the name of the mechanism to the Committee for the Prevention of Torture in Africa (CPTA). The CPTA is assigned the following mandate:

  • To organise, with the support of interested partners, seminars to disseminate the Robben Island Guidelines to national and regional stakeholders;
  • To develop and propose to the African Commission strategies to promote and implement the Robben Island Guidelines at the national and regional levels;
  • To promote and facilitate the implementation of the Robben Island Guidelines within member states and;
  • To make a progress report to the African Commission at each ordinary session

The African Union's Guidelines and Measures for the Prohibition and Prevention of Torture, Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in Africa (The Robben Island Guidelines or RIG) are an unprecedented instrument to fight against torture and ill treatment in Africa. The RIG is an essential tool for States in fulfilling their national, regional and international obligations to strengthen and implement the prohibition and prevention of torture. The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights and NGOs can also use them as a basis for reminding States and other stakeholders of what actions they should take to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment.

The Robben Island Guidelines are divided into three parts:

The first part 'Prohibition of Torture' calls on States on the one hand to ratify existing legal instruments and integrate them into domestic legislation. In particular, the act of torture must be 'criminalized' and prosecuted. On the other hand, it invites States to cooperate with regional and international human rights mechanisms.

The second part 'Prevention of Torture' presents a range of preventive measures, covering the different stages of criminal law procedure in which there is a real risk of torture occurring. It details the safeguards that should be provided, in particular, during arrest, custody, temporary detention, trial and imprisonment in general. The Guidelines also highlight the need to establish mechanisms of oversight, for example a system for regular visits to places of detention and independent bodies empowered to receive complaints. They further advocate for the setting up of educational and awareness-raising programmes for the public as well as human rights training, in particular for law enforcement officials.

The third part 'Responding to the Needs of Victims' looks at ways of responding to the needs of such victims. Indeed, assisting the victims is also a duty of States, which should take measures to treat, support and provide reparation and rehabilitation for the victims.