SALC’s Participation at the African Commission’s 51st Ordinary Session
April 25, 2012
SALC’s participation at the African Commission’s 51st Ordinary Session was both an enriching and fruitful experience. Diverse issues on human rights and democracy were discussed at both the NGO Forum and African Commission’s session. SALC was represented at the NGO Forum, at meetings on the side-lines and during the African Commission’s public session. The highlights of the session were SALC’s election as the SADC Focal point at the NGO Forum, organising an African Court meeting jointly with the African Court Coalition and submitting a statement on Malawi during the African Commission public session as well as supporting a joint statement relating to conditions of pre-trial detention.
The African Commission’s 51st ordinary session kicked off in Banjul, the Gambia on the 18th of April and ends on the 2nd of May 2012. The session took place at a time when there is turmoil in some African states. In Mali and Guinea Bissau, soldiers staged coup d’états in violation of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance as well as the Constitutive Act of the African Union. The internecine conflict between Sudan and Southern Sudan continues unabated. The spectre of terrorism still haunts the Republic of Nigeria as Malawi and Swaziland suppress popular participation by citizens.
In her opening speech, the Chairperson of the African Commission Honourable Commissioner Catherine Dupe Atoki, stated that in spite of the challenges and onslaught on democracy, Africa has also witnessed “a triumph for democracy and the rule of law, triumph for the principles of credible, free and fair elections; triumph for popular participation and above all triumph for the voice of the people” in the Republic of Senegal. The Chairperson called upon all stakeholders to support the green sprouts of democracy and human rights borne out of the Arab Spring and other struggles on the continent. She requested states parties to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, National Human Rights Institutions and representatives of civil society to collaborate with the African Commission in addressing the challenges that Africa’s citizens face so that we live up to our role as regional human rights defenders. She pointed out that the African Commission’s ordinary sessions have provided a forum where, collectively, stakeholders to the African Human Rights System appraise their progress in human rights protection, discuss strategies to prevent human rights violations and hold states and non-state actors accountable.
The ordinary session was preceded by the NGO Forum session which was held from 14 to 16 April 2012. The agenda of the NGO Forum was packed. The session was officially opened by the Executive Director of the African Centre on Democracy and Human Rights Studies, Mrs Hannah Forster. Chairpersons of the African Commission and the NGO Steering Committee made statements whilst the President of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), Ms Souhayr Belhassen, gave an overview of the situation of human rights and democracy in Africa. The first discussion centred on the state of human rights and democracy in Angola, Sudan and Mali. Angola and Sudan are submitting their state reports at the current session of the African Commission. There were interesting discussions on women’s rights to property, the project on drafting guidelines on state obligations relating to Women’s Reproductive Health and HIV/AIDS. This discussion was chaired by the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women, Commissioner Soyata Maiga and the key presenter was Karen Stefiszyn from the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. The Southern Africa Litigation Centre supports this initiative on the draft guidelines in respect of article 14 of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa.
The restrictions on freedom of expression and association and access to information remain a threat to the democratisation and governance agenda on the continent. This is what came out of a discussion facilitated by the Media Institute of Southern Africa, Article 19, AFRIMAP, Africa Freedom of Information Centre and the Federation of African Journalists.
On the second day of the NGO Forum session participants were divided into special interest groups covering 16 thematic human rights issues. Some of the special interest group discussions were chaired by commissioners from the African Commission. The Southern Africa Litigation Centre participated in the working group on prison conditions, torture and the death penalty which was chaired by the Special Rapporteur on Prisons and Conditions of Detention in Africa, S.K. Kaggwa. Police brutality, overcrowding and egregious conditions in prisons and detention centres were cited as the most pressing issues during discussions. The situation of prisons in Malawi and DRC were singled out as being particularly problematic. Other interest groups included freedom of association, economic, social and cultural rights, rights of older persons and people with disabilities, human rights defenders, indigenous populations and communities in Africa, children’s rights, women’s rights and sexual orientation and gender equality.
A number of side meetings were convened by a variety of civil society actors and commissioners of the African Commission. There were side meetings on the working group on communications, the use and conditions of police custody, prison remand and pre-trial detention in Africa, experiences of the shrinking civil society space in Ethiopia, Malawi, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Uganda, the launch of a manual on human rights training and torture prevention for the police, protection of economic, cultural and social rights and the launch of the study on the death penalty in Africa. The Coalition for an Effective African Court had an engaging discussion which focused on developments at the African Court, relationship between the Commission and the Court, role of civil society at the Court and the implications of the proposed protocol increasing the jurisdiction of the Court to deal with international crimes. Two judges of the African Court and 4 state representatives attended this meeting.
A total of 16 resolutions were adopted and two letters were written to the governments of Eritrea and Mauritania. It is hoped that the African Commission will adopt country resolutions on Angola, Eritrea, Guinea Bissau, Mauritania, Malawi and Swaziland. The African Commission has since adopted country resolutions on Mali, Nigeria and Senegal. Thematic resolutions on prison conditions, freedom of association and assembly and policing and human rights should be adopted by the African Commission. The African Commission will end its business by considering, during its private session, state reports by Angola and Sudan as well as the communications filed by a number of civil society organisations. To date 434 NGOs have been granted observer status by the African Commission.
Election of SALC as SADC Focal Point
Southern Africa NGOs met to discuss the human rights situation in their sub-region and to vote for the SADC Focal point on the NGO Forum Steering Committee. The meeting was attended by 40 civil society representatives. In elections held on 15 April 2012, representatives of SADC NGOs voted for the Southern Africa Litigation Centre to replace the Human Rights South Africa as the southern Africa focal point. The mandate of the focal point is to facilitate the effective participation of SADC NGOs at the NGO Forum and African Commission sessions. SALC was also nominated as a member of the NGO working group on communications. The other members include the Institute for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, Interights, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and the International Commission of Jurists-Kenya. The working group had a meeting with a representative of the newly established African Commission working group on communications, Commissioner Alapini Gansou, and will continue to engage with this special mechanism to improve the communications procedure.
Public Session of the African Commission
During the public session statements were made by representatives of AU states parties, national human rights institutions, NGOs and the Gambia’s Attorney-General and Minister of Justice. The quality of statements submitted has improved phenomenally and the Chairperson of the African Commission commended the work that had been done by all stakeholders and requested that all the statements be deposited with the Secretariat in Banjul. SALC submitted a statement on Malawi which focused on prison conditions, the justice delivery system and the situation of human rights defenders. The next session of the African Commission is likely to be held in Cote D’Ivoire after representatives of the latter made a commitment during the public session that they will host the 52nd ordinary session in Abidjan. Given the financial implications of hosting the African Commission’s ordinary session civil society, states parties and national human rights institutions can only wait for the fulfilment of Cote D’Ivoire’s commitment towards the end of October 2012.