The relationship between the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Commission) and the United Nations (UN) has progressively grown over the past decade with various initiatives to nurture and strengthen the bond between the two. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has been the primary institution within the UN for liaising with the African Commission and for instigating the different initiatives. A pre-eminent milestone in this relationship was the establishment in 2002 of the OHCHR Regional Office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. One of the primary objectives of the Regional Office was to strengthen the relationship with the African Union and its human rights mechanisms, including the African Commission.
During the past 33 years, the African Commission has been transformed from a nascent regional institution restricted by political encumbrances into the primary regional institution for the promotion and protection of human rights in Africa that has asserted its independence and impartiality. Throughout its existence, the African Commission has faced a range of challenges. However, it has been able to draw on the strengths of its different partners, including the UN, to address some of those challenges.
In the 2005, the UN General Assembly adopted the World Summit Outcome Resolution (60/1) in which UN Member States agreed to the development and implementation of a 10-year plan for capacity-building with the African Union. The Declaration entitled “Enhancing UN-AU Cooperation: Framework for the Ten-Year Capacity-Building Programme for the African Union was signed on 16 November 2006 between the African Union Commission and the UN Secretary-General.
1. A mutually beneficial relationship?
UN human rights bodies and the African Commission have overlapping and complementary roles in the protection and promotion of human rights. Both the UN and a regional institution such as the African Commission have a role to play in addressing the serious human rights problems that face the continent. Concerted and joint action by both is required to bring about visible change in the plight facing African populations.
The UN has lengthy experience in the field of human rights, with developed policies, practices and institutions. It provides lessons upon which the African Commission can draw to enhance its own efficiency and effectiveness. On the other hand, the African Commission has developed considerable jurisprudence over the past 33 years that is pertinent for the human rights situations prevailing in African countries. It has established a strong relationship with civil society organisations and African national human rights institutions, and is thus considered as having better insight into human rights issues on the continent.
OHCHR has considerable technical expertise in the development of human rights standards and guidance and in investigating and reporting on human rights issues and country situations. It has shared this expertise with the African Commission through meetings, workshops and trainings.
At the same time the African Commission has played an incremental role in the implementation of human rights standards in the continent through its resolutions, consideration of complaints, and promulgation of human rights standards and in undertaking country visits. These efforts in making human rights a reality for Africans are complementary to and in support of initiatives by UN human rights bodies such as the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms, the Special Procedures and the Universal Periodic Review, treaty mechanisms such as the Human Rights Committee, and OHCHR.
2. Initiatives for collaboration
Discussions between the international and African human rights systems elaborated recommendations for strengthening cooperation as follows:
a. A system of cooperation/collaboration has been institutionalized or formalized between the two human rights systems, under the auspices of OHCHR on one hand, and the African Union Commission (AUC) and African Commission on the other, to facilitate such cooperation and interaction.
b. The complementarity between the Africa regional and the UN mechanisms in the promotion and protection of human rights norms at all levels, but especially at the national level, is recognized.
c. Regular meetings or fora for collaboration between the UN and African human rights mechanisms are organised, starting for instance with the attendance of the African human rights mechanisms in annual meetings of Special Procedures mandate-holders, and Chairpersons of Treaty Bodies, as well as at sessions of the Human Rights Council and vice versa.
d. An institutionalized system for exchange of information and documentation between the two systems have been developed. Information-sharing include:
i. Information on Special Procedures mechanisms and their methods of work and findings, including in relation to individual cases, country visits and follow-up, as well as research on thematic issues.
ii. Exchange of experiences and information of Treaty Bodies regarding rules of procedures, reporting procedures and guidelines for reporting, with a view to facilitate States parties’ fulfilment of reporting obligations.
iii. Sharing good practices related to follow up and the implementation of views, opinions and recommendations of international and African regional mechanisms by State parties as well as the disseminationof the conclusions and recommendations of these systems.
iv. Information-sharing on the different processes of the respective mechanisms, including by providing information prior to the consideration of reports and preparation of visits. An electronic database is yet to be created to share information, including on State parties’ reports, conclusions, recommendations, individual complaints, views, reports and opinions of UN human rights mechanisms and regional mechanisms, which would be available and accessible through various tools, including CD-ROMs.
e. Cooperation among mandates with similar thematic focus:
i. Thematic areas for mutual cooperation between special procedures mandate holders that have a similar mandate, have been identified. The UN and African Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights Defenders have conducted joint missions and issued joint press releases, which led to greater visibility and gave more weight to their recommendations.
ii. The complementarities between the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women have been identified and explored, in terms of both their reporting and complaints procedures.
iii. The two systems have cooperated in strengthening the participation of national human rights institutions (NHRIs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in regional and international human rights mechanisms.
f. Both bodies have initiated the joint undertaking of promotional, sensitization, and protection activities, including joint fact-finding missions, joint communications and urgent appeals, and joint thematic research. They have disseminated, publicized and popularized jurisprudence, mechanisms and procedures, in collaboration with relevant partners.
g. Collaboration between the two institutions have seen the harmonizationof calendars for reporting activities, including the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process of the HRC and the future comprehensive reporting calendar of the Treaty Bodies.
3. Relationship with the Human Rights Council
In September 2007, the HRC commenced a process for closer collaboration with regional mechanisms for the promotion and protection of human rights. In its resolution, the HRC requested OHCHR to convene in 2008 a workshop “for an exchange of good practices, added value and challenges” for regional arrangements for the promotion and protection of human rights. The workshop included the participation of “representatives of the relevant regional and sub-regional arrangements from different regions, experts as well as all interested United Nations Member States, observers, national human rights institutions and representatives of non-governmental organizations”.
OHCHR convened the first workshop of regional human rights mechanisms in November 2008 and reported to the HRC in April 2009.The workshop examined a range of issues including the mandates of regional mechanisms, independence, relationship with national human rights institutions and non-governmental organizations and compliance by Member States with decisions of regional mechanisms. Regrettably, the African Commission was unable to attend this workshop due to a conflicting scheduling of hearings.
In October 2009, the HRC adopted a resolution requesting OHCHR to “hold a workshop on regional arrangements for the protection and promotion of human rights” during that year “to allow further sharing of information and concrete proposals on ways and means to strengthen cooperation between the United Nations and regional arrangements in the field of human rights and the identification of strategies to overcome obstacles to the promotion and protection of human rights at regional and international levels”.
In pursuance of this resolution, OHCHR convened preparatory Regional Consultations, including one for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in December 2009. Participants at this meeting were drawn from different regional human rights mechanisms such as the African Commission, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Court), the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Court of Justice, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice. The meeting concluded with recommendations on strengthening cooperation between the African and international human rights systems.
The main theme of the workshop convened by OHCHR in Geneva, Switzerland, in May 2010 was on enhancing cooperation between international and regional mechanisms for the promotion and protection of human rights. The workshop made recommendations regarding cooperation arrangements between international and regional human rights mechanisms, instruments that will facilitate smooth cooperation, sharing of information, joint activities and cooperation with national human rights institutions and non-governmental organizations. Participants at the workshop from African regional human rights mechanisms represented the African Commission, the African Court, the SADC Court and the ECOWAS Court. The report of the workshop was presented to the HRC in August 2010.
The next workshop that will bring together international and regional mechanisms was held in December 2012. In its resolution, adopted in September 2011, the HRC requested OHCHR to arrange a workshop “to take stock of developments since the workshop in 2010, including a thematic discussion based on the concrete and practical experience of regional mechanisms, in order to share information on best practices, lessons learned and new possible forms of cooperation”.
The recent International Commission of Inquiry on Libya, established by the HRC, recognised the role the African Commission could play in the implementation of its recommendations. The Commission of Inquiry in its report to the HRC in March 2012, called upon the African Commission “to establish a mechanism to monitor the implementation of the above recommendations, in particular measures taken to ensure longer term respect for human rights”This provides the African Commission with an opportunity to play a critical role in the implementation of the recommendations of a UN commission of inquiry.
4. Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council
The experience of the HRC in the establishment of special procedures and the appointment of independent experts to enquire into and report on thematic human rights issues or country situations has been emulated by the African Commission, which currently has 12 thematic mechanisms in the form of special rapporteurs, working groups or committees.
In advancing the recommendations for greater collaboration between the African and international human rights systems and, in particular, to reinforce cooperation between the independent experts from the two systems, OHCHR convened a dialogue between Special Procedures Mandate-Holders of the HRC and the African Commission in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in January 2012. Nine special procedures mandate-holders of the HRC and seven special procedures mandate holders of the African Commission attended the dialogue. The meeting adopted a road map of recommendations and proposals to enhance collaboration between special procedures mandate-holders in the discharge of their mandates. The main recommendations included the establishment of modalities for sharing of information between the mandate-holders of the two mechanisms and the establishment of a joint working group to develop joint action and ensure systematic information sharing.
5. Relationship with UN Treaty Bodies
Similar to the dialogue with special procedures mandate-holders, OHCHR arranged a dialogue between the Chairpersons of UN human rights treaty bodies and African human rights mechanisms in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in June 2012. Participants at this meeting included the 10 chairpersons of the UN human rights treaty bodies and the relevant treaty bodies of the African Union and the Regional Economic Communities, including 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, the African Peer Review Mechanism, the ECOWAS Court and the East African Court. Ambassadors to the African Union and representatives of UN agencies and institutions and NGOs also participated in the meeting.
The meeting recognised the complementarity between the UN human rights treaty body system and the African human rights mechanisms in the promotion and protection of human rights, especially with regard to implementation at the national level. The meeting adopted recommendations to enhance the collaboration between UN treaty bodies and the African mechanisms in respect of exchange of information, awareness-raising, consideration of State parties’ reports and individual communications, relationship with civil society organizations and national human rights institutions and promotion of the implementation of treaties. The meeting also recommended that OHCHR, in consultation with UN Agencies, the African Union Commission and other stakeholders, supports and coordinates the implementation of the outcome of the dialogue.
Subsequent exchanges between OHCHR and African human rights institutions took place in Geneva in September 2012. As an immediate follow-up to the June 2012 Dialogue in Addis Ababa, the President of the African Court requested OHCHR to facilitate a further dialogue and exchange of experience between the two systems. The President of the Court and a legal officer of the Court were invited to attend one of the sessions of the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, to meet with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and senior OHCHR staff, the President of the HRC, Permanent Representatives of African States to the UN and civil society organizations in Geneva. The Geneva meeting encouraged the exchange of staff between the African Court and OHCHR as well as the sharing of jurisprudence and best practices. The Chairperson of the African Commission undertook a similar visit in March 2012.
6. Relationship with OHCHR
In February 2010, a Memorandum of Understanding between OHCHR and the African Union was established, aimed at furthering cooperation between the two entities. The Memorandum provides greater opportunities for bilateral discussions between OHCHR and organs of the African Union, including the African Commission. It also provides the two systems the opportunity to attend and participate formerly in key strategic discussions of the two institutions. With this institutional arrangement, regular bilateral meetings between senior representatives of OHCHR and the African Commission have been held during the African Union Summits to identify support needs and response strategies.
OHCHR supported the African Union Commission in the development of a Human Rights Strategy for Africa. The Strategy is “a guiding framework for collective action by the AU, RECs and Member States aimed at strengthening the African human rights system. The Strategy seeks to address the current challenges of the African human rights system in order to ensure effective promotion and protection of human rights on the continent”. The support provided by OHCHR included conducting the mapping exercise for consultations on the framework for a human rights strategy, convening consultations with stakeholders for greater input on the content of the strategy, coordination of the wider UN contribution and participation in the elaboration of the plan for the dissemination of the Strategy once adopted. The Strategy incorporated an Action Plan for the period 2012 – 2016 and has been integrated as part of the African Union Commission Governance Architecture.
The African Commission has recognised the important role that national human rights institutions (NHRIs) play in enhancing its effectiveness by granting such institutions affiliate status. NHRIs can and do play a role in strengthening the work of the African Commission, especially by following up on implementation of the recommendations of the African Commission at the national level. OHCHR has therefore encouraged closer collaboration between the African Commission and NHRIs. This has been done through providing support to the Network of African National Human Rights Institutions. In this regard, OHCHR West African Regional Office has extensively contributed through guidance and advice to the establishment of the current Network of the West African National Human Rights Institutions. In April 2012, a Workshop for African NHRIs on reporting processes to the African regional human rights mechanisms was held in Banjul, The Gambia. The main objective of the workshop was to enhance the institutional capacity of African NHRIs on reporting processes of African regional human rights mechanisms, as well as to explore areas and strategies for greater involvement and engagement of African NHRIs in African mechanisms and on their possible participation in African regional human rights mechanisms’ activities, including deliberations and submission of proposals. Participants included NHRIs from West, Central and North Africa.
OHCHR organized a regional consultation for Africa on enhancing cooperation between the UN and regional human rights mechanisms on prevention of torture and the protection of victims of torture, especially people deprived of their liberty. The consultation, which was held in February 2012 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, brought together members of the UN Committee Against Torture and the UN Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture, the African Commission’s Special Rapporteur on Prisons and Conditions of Detention in Africa, representatives of the Secretariat of the African Commission, a judge of the African Court and representatives of National Preventative Mechanisms (NPMs) and National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs). Participants discussed and developed recommendations and proposals on information sharing, possible joint activities, follow-up to recommendations, role of NPMs and role of NGOs.
OHCHR also organized a Commemorative Seminar on the 10th Anniversary of the Robben Island Guidelines Enhancing Torture Prevention in Africa, which was held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in August 2012, in collaboration with the African Commission’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture in Africa, the South African Human Rights Commission and the Association for the Prevention of Torture. The Seminar was attended by 56 participants from 22 countries representing Member States, NPMs, NHRIs and civil society. This initiative bore evidence of the implementation of one of the recommendations of the regional consultation in February 2012 in Addis Ababa.
OHCHR has supported the African Commission in capacity building and other initiatives. In September 2003, OHCHR facilitated a retreat for members of the African Commission in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In addition to members of the African Commission, the other participants at the meeting represented the African Committee on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, The African Coordinating Committee of National Institutions (a precursor to the Network of African National Human Rights Institutions), UN special mechanisms and treaty bodies, OHCHR, the African Union Commission and donors. The meeting discussed and adopted recommendations on consideration of state reports and handling of complaints by the African Commission, relationship between the African Commission and African Union, relationship between the African Commission and other bodies in the African human rights system, and relationship between the African Commission and other partners.
From 2005 to 2006 OHCHR supported the newly established mandate of the African Commission’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa with provision of resources to the African Commission’s Secretariat to recruit a legal officer to assist the mandate. In July 2011, OHCHR provided training to staff of the Secretariat of the African Commission on human rights investigations to strengthen its capacity to undertake credible investigations into human rights situations.
OHCHR has also undertaken initiatives to strengthen the role of civil society organizations (CSOs) in the work of the African Commission. Throughout its existence, CSOs have played an important and influential role in the work of the African Commission, and OHCHR is intent upon ensuring that this relationship continues and is enhanced. Therefore, OHCHR has been supporting NGO participation in the NGO Forum that precedes each of the African Commission’s session and during its formal meetings. In this regard, the training OHCHR provided to NGOs on Regional and International Human Rights Mechanisms (14-18 October 2011) prior to the 50th Ordinary Session of the African Commission led to the creation among participating NGOs of a network named R+ (Recommendation+), an initiative aimed at strengthening the capacity of other civil society organisations to better engage with the African Commission.
In collaboration with the African Commission and the Community Law Centre of the University of the Western Cape, OHCHR organised a workshop for CSOs in October 2012 during the NGO Forum, which precedes the African Commission’s session in Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire. The workshop discussed the role of CSOs in promoting cooperation between the UN and the AU human rights system, with a specific focus on the special mechanisms of the HRC and the African Commission.
7. Involvement of African Commission experts in other UN human rights initiatives
Other human rights initiatives of the HRC have recognized the expertise of individual members of the African Commission. In 2011, the then Chairperson of the African Commission, Ms Reine Alpini-Gansou, was appointed by the President of the HRC as a member of the International Commission of Inquiry on Côte d’Ivoire. While the expertise of the member of the African Commission was beneficial to the Commission of Inquiry, the African Commission also benefitted from one of its members being part of an international investigation. Investigation methodology that has been developed from many years of experience of the UN in conducting human rights enquiries could assist the African Commission in undertaking its own investigations into human rights situations on the continent.
Previously, Mr Atsu-KoffiAmega, a member of the African Commission from 1993 – 1999, was appointed as Chairperson of the UN Commission of Experts for Rwanda in 1994 to investigate the massacres in that country. He also headed the UN Secretary-General’s fact-finding mission to Nigeria in 1996 to investigate the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and others, and the Secretary-General’s investigative team in 1997 to enquire into human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
8. Other Initiatives
A range of future initiatives was planned by OHCHR in close collaboration with the African Commission and other institutions in the African human rights system. Asecond international workshop on enhancing cooperation between the UN and regional human rights mechanisms took place from 12 – 14 December 2018 in Geneva. OHCHR organised the first meeting of focal points of regional human rights mechanisms to outline a work plan on enhancing cooperation between the UN and regional mechanisms. An additional initiative was a meeting of regional human rights mechanisms’ focal points on cooperation, including the African Commission, which took place immediately after the workshop on 14 December 2013. It allowed focal points to outline a work plan on enhancing cooperation between UN and regional mechanisms which identified objectives, activities, timelines and the responsibilities of each mechanism.
OHCHR continues to highlight the need for greater complementarity between the UN human rights system and the African human rights mechanisms in the implementation of human rights standards. OHCHR is also prioritising the importance and utility of strengthening cooperation among international, regional and sub-regional human rights mechanisms through peer-to-peer learning. OHCHR continuesto emphasise the relationship through implementation of the various recommendations that were adopted in 2012. OHCHR is also promoting and supporting joint undertakings between the African Commission special mechanisms and the UN special mechanisms, especially in carrying out joint missions and country visits.
It should be noted further, that OHCHR, which provided financial and substantive support for the elaboration of the Human Rights Strategy for Africa, is currently working with other UN agencies to elaborate specific strategy for all AU organs including the African Commission and Regional Economic Communities involved in the implementation of this strategy.
The relationship between the UN and the African commission has evolved over the past decade and the past two years have witnessed a strengthening of this relationship, in particular with OHCHR. This relationship has many benefits for all the entities concerned, and can only reinforce the primary objective of improving protection and promotion of human rights in Africa. The current level of engagement highlights the need to recognise the complementarity between the UN human rights system and the African human rights mechanisms in the promotion and protection of human rights, especially with regard to implementation of human rights standards at the national level.
Both institutions have to continue to recognize the importance and utility of strengthening cooperation among international, regional and sub-regional human rights mechanisms, and the value of peer-to-peer learning as a tool in the framework of enhanced collaboration and building synergies that the two systems are seeking to establish.