Challenges and Prospects for the African Human Rights System in the Twenty First Century: (Recent Developments and their Implications (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Cote d’ Ivoire, Sudan, Kenya etc)*

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The quest for human rights and democracy in Africa informed the struggle against colonialism and the formation of the Organization of African Unity following the adoption of the OAU Charter in 1963[1]. While the OAU Charter made specific reference to the principles of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights as being a foundation for peace and cooperation amongst African States, the focus on the anti-colonial struggles in many parts of the continent and the brutality of despots like Idi Amin of Uganda and Mobutu of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), necessitated the establishment of a regional human rights system in order to address numerous human rights challenges in the African continent.

While some progress was made in the advancement of human rights in the African continent following the adoption of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (1981)[2] and its main implementing and monitoring institution, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights; African people continue to face massive human rights challenges in a continent that has been characterized by poverty, underdevelopment, marginalization of women and children, armed conflict, crime, corruption, bad and undemocratic governance and even degeneration of human rights in a few states.

It was in response to these challenges and concerns thereto at the turn of the twenty first century that heads of state and government in adopting the United Nations Millennium Declaration – a blue print for addressing global challenges of the twenty first century – paid special reference to Africa’s challenges in relation to democracy, peace, poverty and development and the need to support the continent and its peoples in addressing these challenges.[3] This was in order to ensure that the African continent and its peoples take their rightful place in the mainstream of global issues and make a meaningful contribution to global security, peace and justice

Significant developments have since taken place in order to ensure that the African continent plays a more meaningful role in global affairs, especially in advancing international human rights norms and standards. The establishment of the African Union (AU) in 2002[4] following the adoption of the AU’s constitution, the Constitutive Act in 2000,[5] the adoption of several regional human rights instruments[6] thereafter and the surge in the establishment of national human rights institutions in compliance with the UN General Assembly resolution on Principles Relating to the Status of National Human Rights Institutions (the Paris Principles),[7] are examples in this regard.    

Currents Human Rights Challenges

Despite many developments and several successes in the advancement of human rights and democracy;[8] human rights abuses, poverty, underdevelopment, armed conflict and insufficient respect for democracy and good governance continue to characterize much of the African continent including its almost 25 year old regional human rights system that has largely been ineffective and in need of support and strengthening.

Commenting on Africa’s human rights challenges at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Vice-Chairperson of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in his closing speech of the 48th Session of the Commission said:[9]

“The African continent has witnessed decades of immense human rights challenges resulting from a diverse range of factors including civil wars, poverty, corruption and autocratic governance. The situation of human rights in Africa, unfortunately, continues to be of grave concern in spite of the existence of the Charter and the implementing organ it creates, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

As we well know, in many parts of our continent today, some of those who wield political power chose to misapply and abuse it. Election fraud and intimidation are the order of the day, dissenting opinions are suppressed for nothing better than political expediency, the press is muzzled and intimidated, the judiciary is undermined. In a word, there is an absence [of] democratic governance and the rule of law. Regrettably, the rule of man rather than the rule of law is the norm in some countries in our beautiful continent. The absence of the rule of law is a perfect recipe for anarchy and the continuing threats to the enjoyment of human rights.” 

Reports by numerous organizations on developments in human rights and democracy confirm many of these challenges expressed by the Vice-Chairperson. According to the Economist Democracy Index 2010, only one Africa country-Mauritius-is regarded as a full democracy while slightly over half of countries (54.5%  or 30 out of 50 countries) classified as authoritarian regimes are African.[10] With the exception of Mali and Ghana where there have been significant democratic advances, the report regards the advancement of democracy in Africa as ‘grinding to a halt,’ and reversing in some cases.[11] The Freedom House World Survey 2011 classifies 9 African countries as free in terms of civil liberties, 23 as partly free and 22 not free.[12]

In relation to poverty and underdevelopment, Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest incidents of poverty and is home to the second highest number of poor people living in ‘multidimensional poverty’ – 410 million people according to the UNDP.[13] Thirteen of the world’s poorest countries are also found in Africa.[14]  According to the UNDP report, no African country is in the category of countries with ‘very high human development’ and 35 of the 42 countries with ‘low human development’ are African.[15] As a result of these challenges, the African continent will not be able to achieve the target of the Millennium Development Goals of reducing extreme poverty and hunger by half in 2015.[16] 

Despite the adoption of the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption[17] and the acknowledgement of the impact of corruption on economic and social development by African heads of state and government,[18] corruption continues to take its toll on human rights and development in the African continent and has contributed to Africa’s inability to meet many of the targets of the Millennium Development Goals.[19] No single African country according to Transparency International is amongst the list of the 30 least corrupt countries,[20] and more than half of the most or highly corrupt countries (10 out of 19) are found in Africa.[21]

Incidents of armed conflict have marred and scarred the continent for decades and continue to do so to date with a devastating impact on human life, human rights, development and democracy. African countries have, as a result, a poor rating in the 2010 Global Peace Index, with no African country rated amongst 30 of the most peaceful countries – Botswana, the most peaceful African country, has a good rating of 33 amongst the most peaceful countries while Somalia is rated the second least peaceful country after Iraq.[22] On the impact of this conflict in Africa, a group of international NGOs led by Oxfam said:

“African suffers enormously from conflict and armed violence. As well as the human tragedy, armed conflict costs Africa around $18 billion per year, seriously derailing development.[23]  

The current state of affairs in the African continent in terms of the enjoyment of human rights, democracy and good governance, following the de-colonization process that began more than five decades ago is a disappointment to many. In this regard, one of Africa’s leading sons commenting on the 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence, the acclaimed Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, said recently:

“Fifty years is a long time, especially for those of us were already grown up when it happened. The expectations were just unbelievable. It’s like the place was lit up and we were expecting miracles. But the only miracles I‘ve seen are miracles of disappointment.”[24]

Similar sentiments can be expressed about many other parts of the African continent from Cape to Cairo, via Harare, Nairobi and Tripoli amongst others.

Causes of Continuing Human Rights Challenges

There are many reasons/factors behind Africa’s disappointing decolonization process which has resultant in situations and experiences for many African people that are no different from Western colonialism the continent was subjected to for many decades. The current state of affairs in the continent has led to questions being raised as to whether the decolonization process was not just about replacing once set of oppressors and exploiters with another bunch (decolonization of the continent) or that those who took over were nothing but agents of the departing colonizers as Ngungi has ably and eloquently written about.[25]

There are six main causes/factors responsible for African’s continuing challenges that need to be addressed if significant progress is to be made in advancing human rights in the continent. There causes/factors re:

  • Colonial legacy: The undermining of institutions that could have led to development of democracy and respect for human rights. Colonialism was in itself, an antithesis of human rights and democracy
  • Cold War phenomenon: Thissaw Western and Eastern powers turning a blind eye to anti-human rights conduct by many African states regarded as allies or strategic partners in pursuit of the objectives of the Cold War
  • War against Terror: The security interests of developed countries in fighting international terrorism has led to these states again turning eye to conduct of their African partners in this fights-Uganda, Egypt, Tunisia etc.
  • Scramble for Africa’s Resources, general trade and geopolitical interests: The continuing demand and scramble for Africa’s natural resources (oil, minerals, agricultural products and cheap labor) continues to have devastating impacts on human rights, democracy, development and good governance. Competition for Africa’s natural resources, oil and minerals in particular, have allowed authoritarian African regimes (such as Nigeria, Uganda, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Sudan (until recently) that have oil and mineral resources to get away with their conduct without much consequences. The sale of arms to African countries – which are largely a net importer of weapons, tanks, jet-fighters etc- by Western countries and China and Russia, fuels much of the conflicts in Africa and diverts resources that could help to advance the continent. The same applies to billions of dollars stolen by African leaders that are kept in foreign banks. US froze Kaddafi’s $30 billion dollars, Obiang Nguema Mbasongo’s alleged roughly $700m in US bank accounts- the list goes on.    
  • Club of the Strong Men of Africa and their Militaries. The club of African strong men that have ruled Africa for decades supported by their militaries and exploitation of Africa’s natural resources continue to be a stumbling block in the advancement of human rights in the continent. While paying lip service to human rights and the African human rights system, they are still able to subvert the system by underfunding it, not implementing many human rights instruments and institutions they adopt and establish, intimidating human rights activists, dividing the people along ethnic, religious divide and buying the poor and the middle class in general. This club helps these leaders to support and defend each other in the UN and forums as seen in the universal period review process, the election of Libya to represent African states in the UN Human Rights Council, the position on the President of Sudan in relation to the International Criminal Court and the indictment of the Six Kenyan leaders (including the current Minster of Finance-Uhuru Kenyatta).
  • Citizens’ participation and demand for human rights, democracy and good governance 

Prospects for the future

Despite these challenges, the quest of African people for human rights, democracy and freedom cannot be quenched by anything else but human rights, democracy and freedom. African people will continue their struggle for freedom against current dictators and authoritarian regimes as they did as did against colonialism and apartheid. The developments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya attest to this.

What is needed is that the international community, especially human rights activists in the developed world should strengthen their efforts in supporting these struggles and by pushing their countries and institutions doing business with Africa to do so in the best interests of human rights, democracy and good governance. 

Recent developments in Egypt and Tunisia, where the respective heads of state were forced to resign after decades in power, the violence accompanying protests against the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, the on-going piracy incidents off the coast of Somalia, incidents of armed conflict in Sudan and parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere, the dispute over election results in Cote d’Ivoire and the poor performance of the continent in addressing corruption, poverty and underdevelopment, highlight the need for more concerted international efforts to advance human rights and democracy in Africa and in strengthen its regional human rights system.


The increasing recognition and appreciation of the impact of developments in Africa in current global affairs and the increasing strategic importance of its natural and human resources in future global economic, political and security developments has however led to a renewed focus on Africa and its human rights system.

In support for more focus on Africa and other equally challenged regions following the commitments made during the adoption of the Millennium Declaration in 2000, heads of state and government at the 2005 World Summit stated:

“We believe that today, more than ever before, we live in a global and interdependent world. No State can stand wholly alone. We acknowledge that collective security depends on effective cooperation, in accordance with international law, against transnational threats.”[26]

Current developments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and elsewhere in the continent that will hopefully spread to many other countries like Zimbabwe, offer hope for the advancement of human rights and democracy in the Africa continent. These developments also highlight the importance of greater public involvement in matters of governance, democracy and human rights – an antidote to authoritarian regimes and tyranny – and the need for more concerted efforts by the international community in advancing human rights, democracy and development in African.

The building and strengthening of democratic and human rights institutions in Egypt and Tunisia following the recent changes will certainly influence developments in the continent and bring renewed energy, hope and courage in the struggle for human and democracy and also hopeful help in enhancing the effectiveness of the African human rights machinery that has largely been hampered by many previous and current authoritarian regimes and inadequate resources.

* Tseliso Thipanyane, March 2011.

[1] Adopted in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 25th May 1963.

[2] Adopted by the Organization of African Unity, at Nairobi, on 27 June 1981 and entered into force on 21 October 1986.

[3] United Nations Millennium Declaration, A/55/L.2 of 8 September 2000, para 27- 28.

[4] Launched in Durban, South Africa, on 9 July 2002.

[5] Adopted in Lome, Togo, on 11 July 2000.

[6] Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa adopted on 1 July 2003; the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption adopted on 1 July 2003; the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance adopted on 30 January 2007 but not in operation as of January 2011; and the Protocol on the Statute of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights adopted on 1 July 2008 but not in operation as of January 2011. 

[7]UN GA resolution 48/134 of 20 December 1993.  According to the report of the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (ICC), the number of African national human rights institutions deemed to be in full compliance with the Paris Principles by the ICC increased from one in 1999 to 15 in 2010, see Chart of the Status of NIs-Accredited by the ICC at

[8] There is increasing public support for democracy and human rights and the AU, unlike its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, shows no toleration for unconstitutional changes of government and has actually suspended states whose governments come to power in violation of the provisions of the AU’s Constitutive Act. Article 4 of the Constitutive Act provides for the condemnation and rejection of unconstitutional changes of governments and Article 30 provides for the suspension of such governments. States like Niger, Madagascar and Cote d’ Ivoire have been suspended from the AU as a result, see The Economist, January 29th– February 4th, 2011.

[9] Closing Speech of the Vice Chairperson, Commissioner Mumba Malila, delivered at the closing of the 48th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, at . See also, the Final Communique of the 48th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human Rights held in Banjul, The Gambia, from 10 to 24 November 2010, available at

[10] The Economist Intelligence Unit, Democracy index 2010: Democracy in retreat, London/New York: The Economist, 2010, pp 6-8 and 27, available at  The report also indicates that only five Sub-Saharan countries have elections regarded to be free and fair-Botswana, Cape Verde, Ghana, Mauritius and South  Africa-and South Africa’s democracy is classified as flawed due to ‘weaknesses in political participation and political culture,’ at p 27.

[11] Ibid, pp 2 and 9.

[12] Freedom House World 2011 Survey, see maps at and The free countries are South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Mauritius, Ghana, Benin, Mali, Cape Verde and Sao Tome & Principe.

[13] UNDP, Human Development Report 2010: The Real Wealth of Nations-Pathways to Human Development, New York: UNDP, 2010, pp 97-8.

[14] See Thomas Pogge, Politics as Usual: What Lies Behind the Pro-Poor Rhetoric, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010, p16. The fifteen poorest countries are: Malawi, Mali, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Niger, Uganda, Gambia, Rwanda, Guinea-Bissau, Tanzania, Tajikistan, Mozambique, Chad, Nepal, and Ghana.

[15] UNDP report, above note 26, pp 144-147. In its report, 2011 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics, the World Hunger Organization gave the number of hunger people in Africa in 2010 at 239 million, available at  (accessed on February 15, 2011).

[16] See, United Nations, The Millennium Development Goals Report 2010, New York: United Nations, 2010, p 7 available at

[17] Adopted on 01 July 2003 and came into force on 05 August 2006.

[18] See Preamble of the Convention, ibid.

[19] See, International Bank for Reconstruction/The World Bank,  Africa Development Indicators: Silent and Lethal-How quiet corruption undermines Africa’s development efforts, Washington: The World Bank, 2010, pp vii and xi-xii, available at 

[20] Transparency International, Annual Report 2009, Berlin: Transparency International Secretariat, 2010, p 48, available at  The highest ranked African country at number 37 in terms of being least corrupt is Botswana.

[21] Ibid, p 48.

[22] Global Peace Index-GPI MAP-2010 available at accessed on February 14, 2011).

[23] International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), Oxfam International and Saferworld, Africa’s missing billions: International arms flows and the cost of conflict, October 2007, available at (accessed on February 14, 2011).

[24] Hillel Italie, ‘Achebe cool to 50 yrs of independence’, News 24, 21 October 2010 at (accessed on 25 October 2010).

[25] Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Devil on the Cross, Oxford: Heinemann, 1987, p 89 (See in particular, Chapter 4).

[26] United Nations 2005 World Summit Outcome, A/RES/60/1 of 24 October 2005,  para 7.

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