Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Is the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights worth the paper it’s written on?

The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, an official normative charter of the African Union, recalls the Charter of the Organisation of African Unity which stipulates that “freedom, equality, justice and dignity are essential objectives for the achievement of the legitimate aspirations of the African peoples”.  The Human Rights Charter’s preamble states that signatories to this Charter – members of the African Union – are “firmly convinced of their duty to promote and protect human and people’s rights and freedoms, taking into account the importance traditionally attached to these rights and freedoms in Africa”. 

Article 4 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights states “Human beings are inviolable.  Every human being shall be entitled to respect for his (sic) life and the integrity of his (sic) person.  No one may be arbitrarily deprived of this right.”

Article 5 states that “all forms of exploitation and degradation, particularly slavery, slave trade, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment and treatment shall be prohibited”.

“Every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his (sic) opinions within the law”, stipulates Article 9.

The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), based in Banjul, in The Gambia, recently issued a strong statement on the human rights situation in North Africa, condemning “the violence and use of force against civilians and suppression of peaceful demonstrators” and calling upon the “Government of the Great Socialist Peoples’ Libyan Arab Jamahiriya to immediately end the violence against its citizens and take necessary steps to ensure that the human rights of its citizens and all its inhabitants are respected”.  It further calls on the Libyan regime “to uphold the right to freedom of expression, assembly, the right to peaceful protest and ensure the security of its citizens, as provided by the African Charter.”

While the ACHPR is to be credited for this call, one cannot help but wonder about its efficacy given the ongoing – daily - abuse of human rights on the African continent (despite the self-righteous statement about “the importance traditionally attached to these rights and freedoms in Africa” embedded in the preamble of the Charter).  Article 62 of the Human Rights Charter requires each State Party to submit – every two years – a report on the legislative or other measures taken with a view to giving effect to the rights and freedoms recognised and guaranteed by the Charter.  Yet, some countries such as Comoros, Cote D’Ivoire, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea Bissau, Liberia and Malawi have never submitted reports.

The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights entered into force on 21 October 1986 (and has been marked by 21 October being set aside as “African Human Rights Day”), with 53 African countries having ratified the Charter.  Technically, since 1986, and in terms of Article 62, State Parties to the Charter should have submitted 12 reports, yet the most reports submitted to date by any country have been four by Rwanda.  Seventeen countries have submitted only one report, 15 have submitted 2 reports, seven have submitted three and only one has submitted four reports, while 13 have not submitted any reports on the measures they have taken to promote and protect human rights.

In the last week, reports have been received of a Zimbabwean theatre company who are due to appear in the Mutare Magistrate’s Court on 17 March, after having been detained for two nights on 5 January.  They are being charged with “intentionally and unlawfully making noise or disturbance and beating drums in a public place, performing drama reminiscent of political disturbances of the June 2008 elections. The drama incited the affected members of the public to revive their differences".

The play – Rituals – was ironically seen by Zimbabwe’s Organ on National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration, was approved by the censorship board and was nominated for the National Arts Merits Awards in 2010 as an outstanding theatrical production.  It was written by Stephen Chifunyise, recently appointed by the EU and UNESCO to its group of 30 cultural experts to assist governments with developing cultural policies, and was performed by the Rooftop Zimbabwe Theatre under the direction of Daves Guzha.

Last week, Human Rights Watch issued a media release accusing the Angolan government of carrying out “an intimidation campaign in connection with an announced anti-government demonstration that was inspired by events in Egypt and Tunisia.”

According to the release, the Angolan government “warned in the weeks leading up to the protest, which was announced for March 7 2011, that anyone who joined would be punished for inciting violence and attempting to return the country to civil war. Police arrested several demonstrators and journalists the night before the event. The announced demonstration did not take place.”

Journalists have been heavily harrassed and some have received death threats with Human Rights Watch further indicating that a group of 17 rap musicians were arrested while reading poems and distributing pamphlets and were released the following day without explanation.
The point is that human rights are under severe threat in Africa, and African institutions appear to be generally powerless – or unwilling, but at least hopelessly ineffectual – in promoting and protecting the human rights and freedoms of African people.  The right to freedom of expression is the premise for artistic creation and distribution, and is a fundamental principle enshrined in UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions as well as the African Union’s Plan of Action on Cultural Industries.

Clearly, on their recent and contemporary records, African governments – and multilateral African institutions such as the African Union and the bodies they establish such as the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights as well as the policy instruments that they create or subscribe to – simply cannot be trusted to advance and protect the human rights and freedoms of Africans.

If the revolutions in North Africa show anything, it is that democracy and human rights are best advanced by the people themselves, rather than their governments.  It is imperative therefore that civil society organisations be empowered with the organisational, infrastructural, leadership and financial resources in order to advance and defend the rights of citizens, and to hold accountable their governments for their failures to abide by the Human Rights Charter and the institutions that they have created.

For the African arts sector, it is time to institute an African Arts Watch programme, among other things, to monitor the suppression of freedom of creative expression in all African countries, and to alert fellow Africans, and the international community in order to bring appropriate pressure to bear on the relevant regimes, and to act in solidarity with artists working in repressive conditions.

Mike van Graan is the Secretary General of Arterial Network, a continent-wide network of artists, activists and creative enterprises active in the African creative sector and its contribution to development, human rights and democracy on the continent.  He is also the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute (AFAI), a South African NGO based in Cape Town that harnesses local expertise, resources and markets in the service of Africa’s creative sector.  He is considered to be one of his country’s leading contemporary playwrights.


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