The African Commission on Human and People's Rights. Core functions, achievements and failures

Term Paper, 2013

15 Pages




The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights

The mandate of the condition

Core Functions of the commission

The secretariat

Achievements and successes of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights

Major challenges and failures of the commission





Since its inception in 1963, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) now African Union (AU) concentrated all its efforts on dismantling the relics of colonialism and fighting apartheid, consequently relegating the promotion and protection of individual as well as group rights to a secondary position and priority was instead given to the security and inviolability of states at the expense of individual liberty (Eno, 2002). The Continent was consequently not at the same wavelength in terms of Human Rights with the other continents, especially the west.

The OAU often played the ostrich when its members were involved in human rights violations typical of them including the atrocities perpetrated in the 1970’s by the likes of Idi Amin of Uganda, Jean Bedel-Bokassa of the Central African Republic and Marcias Nguema of Equatorial Guinea. The activities of some of these dictators and several other human rights violators on the continent threatened the reputation of Africa and embarrassed it especially at international fora. For instance the US chief delegate to the UN in 1975, Daniel P Moynihan, lambasted the OAU and Idi Amin by saying “. . .it is no accident, I fear, that this racist murderer. . .is the head of the Organisation of African Unity. . .” (Eno, 2002).

The OAU was therefore in a moral dilemma and found it difficult gaining the support of the international community for example in fighting apartheid while the same body remained silent for the gross maltreatment of other African peoples by their governments. There was incessant pressure on the OAU to take steps to improve the human rights situation on the African continent.

As a result, at the OAU’s 16th Ordinary Session in Liberia, the secretary general of the OAU requested to convene a meeting of government experts to prepare a preliminary draft of an African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The charter then came into force on 21 October 1986 and today all 53 member states of the OAU have ratified it.

The African charter provided for the establishment of the African Commission On Human and Peoples’ Rights. The commission often used to refer to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights was established on 29th July 1987 and is currently based in Banjul, the Gambia.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights

The commission is basically a quasi-judicial body tasked with promoting and protecting human and peoples’ rights throughout the African continent coupled with interpreting the African charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and considering individual complaints of violations of the charter. Aside these primary roles, the commission should also be able to perform any other task which may be entrusted to it by the Assembly of Heads of States of government Article 45(4) of the African Charter.

For the first two years of its inception, the commission was based in Ethiopia, then in November 1989, it relocated to Banjul, the Gambia. The commission is made up of eleven members and its first ever members were elected by the OAU’s 23rd Assembly of Heads of State and government in June 1987. Commissioners are nominated by member states and elected by secret ballot by the Assembly of heads of state of government of the African Union. Commissioners must be nationals of state parties to the African Charter and the commission cannot include two commissioners from one state. The eleven members later choose for themselves a chairperson and an assistant chairperson who each serve two-year renewable terms. The commissioin is currently chaired by a Nigerian called miss Catherine Dupe Atoki and assisted by Reine Alapini-Gansou from Benin. African countries such as Cameroun, Mauritius, Mali, Rwanda, Tunisia, Algeria, South Africa, Uganda, and Burundi all have their representatives on the commission. Members of the commission are appointed for six years and are eligible for re-election. It is regrettable though that, state parties have not always responded to the invitations of the OAU Secretary General to submit names of candidates as stipulated under Article 35 of the charter, therefore giving the incumbent the will for automatic re-election.The working languages of the commission are English, French and Arabic.

The commission meets twice a year originally for 15 days but at present, due to lack of funds, for ten days.

The mandate of the condition

Article 45 through 55 of the charter summarizes the mandate of the African Commission on Human and peoples’ Rights. The primary mandate of the commission according to the charter are to monitor, promote and protect Human and Peoples’ Rights in member states by developing and maintaining constructive and productive relations between the AU and member states.

Core Functions of the commission

The functions of the commission shall be to promote Human and People’s Rights and in particular, to collect documents, undertake studies and researches on information, encourage national and local institutions concerned with human and peoples’ rights, and should the case arise, give its views or make recommendations to governments. It is also formulate and lay down, principles and rules aimed at resolving legal problems relating to human and peoples’ rights and fundamental freedoms upon which African governments base their legislation. The commission is again tasked to co-operate with other African and international institutions concerned with the promotion and protection of human rights. The commission is also to ensure the protection of human and peoples’ rights under conditions laid down by the charter and further interpret all the provisions of the present charter at the request of a state party, an institution of the OAU or an African organization recognized by the OAU. The commission must also perform any other tasks which may be entrusted it by the assembly of Heads of state and government.

However, it is important to note that, under a protocol to the charter in 1998, there was an adoption to the creation of a court for African human and people’s rights, which thankfully came into fruition in January 2004. The commission was then given an extra role preparing human rights related cases for submission to the court. Since the task assigned to the commission is a daunting one, it has devised a number of mechanisms to ensure a total coverage in terms of the African continent in promoting and protecting human rights. These mechanisms include working groups or committees and rapporteurs. Special rapporteurs include “rapporteur on the rights of women”, “rapporteur on human rights defenders”, “rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary execution”, “rapporteur on prisons and conditions of detention” “rapporteur on freedom of expression and right to information”, and “rapporteur on asylum seekers, refugees, migrants and asylum seekers”.

There are also eight working groups, two committees and one study group that monitor and study issues under the purview of the commission. Notable amongst the working groups are the “working group on fair trial”, “working group on death penalty”, “working group on communications”, “study group on freedom of association”, “working group on social and cultural rights” etc.

The secretariat

Article 41 of the African charter provides that the OAU secretary general shall appoint the secretary and staff as well as provide the services necessary for effective discharge of the commission’s duties (Ankumah, 1996).The charter provides in general terms in Article 41 that the secretariat shall assist the commission in discharging its duties. However in Rule 23 of the rules of procedure and practice of the body which was adopted in 1988 and amended in 1995 there is an attempt to define the task of the secretariat and says the secretary shall under the general supervision of the chairman assist the commission and its members in the exercise of their functions. By the rule, the secretariat shall be the custodian of the archives of the commission, be the intermediary for all the communications concerning the commission and also bring immediately to the commission all the issues that will be submitted to it.

Achievements and successes of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights

Since its inception, the commission has chalked quite some successes and notwithstanding how minute they may be are worth mentioning and have if for nothing at all created quite a substantial level of human rights awareness and consciousness on the continent.

First is with regards to its promotional mandate. It must be noted that, the main purpose of the promotion is sensitization of the African public on human rights issues in an effort to enhance respect and recognition. The commission conducts its promotional activities mainly through education and publicity in designated countries. The commissioners have visited human rights organizations, universities and other institutions assigned to them. Commissioners mostly give lectures on the charter, African human rights issues and the work of the commission. Interestingly, it was during such usual visits of commissioners that led to the founding of the Ghana based non-governmental organization “the Ghana committee on Human and People’s Rights” (Ankumah, 1996).

Further on the commission’s promotional mandate, the commission has organized several seminars, conferences and symposia to provide a forum for open discussion on human rights. Several of such seminars which the commission has held include the implementation of the African charter, the role of the African media in the promotion human rights, the state reporting procedure, the status of women under the charter and the situation of refugees and internally displaced persons in Africa (Ankumah 1996).

One significant feat of the African commission on Human and People’s Rights concerning the promotion mandate is the proclaimation of 21st October as African Human Rights Day and is marked every year by all state parties.

The other mandate of the commission which constitutes its protective role is to consider interstate complaints called “communications” as well as NGO and individual complaints. The procedures for the state complaints are covered by Articles 47 through 54 of the African charter. With this role, a complainant state writes a correspondence to the respondent state and sends a copy of the correspondence to the Chairperson of the commission. Dialogue and negotiations are first used to resolve the matter amicably but if within three months the matter is not resolved , either state may submit the matter to the commission. When the matter is brought to the commission, the commission is entrusted to investigate the matter. The commission’s ultimate power to address interstate complaints is to report to the Assembly of Heads of State and government and sometimes accompany the complaints with recommendations, though the commission lacks the authority to enforce its decisions. It is rather unfortunate that, there are not much records of party states submitting communications to the commission but the commission can take consolation in the fact that, countries such as Mali have requested it for an election observer role.

Article 55 through to 59 of the charter extends the consideration of communications to individuals and NGOs.

Another important mandate of the commission is to interpret the provisions in the charter. It does that at the request of the OAU, state parties and NGOs. The commission to facilitate its mandate to interpret has done so by adopting resolutions on specific provisions of the African Charter. The resolutions are meant to clarify some of the vague and ambiguous provisions of the charter.

The charter In Article 45 further gives the commission the additional role of performing any other role assigned it by the Assembly of heads of state and government. To date however, the Assembly of heads of states and government is yet to entrust any other task to the commission as the charter stipulates. This trend notwithstanding however the commission at certain times has taken the initiative to activate the additional task role. For example, during its seventh session in 1990, the commission at its own initiative decided to offer its “good services” to Liberia when there were very serious human rights violations as a result of armed conflicts between the government and rebel forces.

The other role expected of the commission is the examination of state reports. Under this provision Article (62) of the charter, member states are expected to submit to the commission every two years, a report on the measures they have taken to improve the human right situation in their respective countries. The commission examines these states reports in public and by so doing subjects the state under review to public scrutiny and has effected quite some change as all sates will like to make strides to avoid any public ridicule. Countries such as Ghana, Tanzania, Nigeria, Cape Verde have always written their reports to the commission.

Another area where the commission has done commendably well is in emergency situations, i.e. when a situation poses the risk of further human rights violations. The commission has adopted a creative approach in its interpretation of the charter which requests the commission to submit by letter to the chairman of the Assembly of Heads of state, such emergency cases for further action by using interim measures allowing the commission to use any appropriate method of investigations. .

In addition, at its 30th ordinary session held in Banjul, the commission decided to produce a code of conduct to regulate the behavior of commissioners, especially the conflict of interest that might arise with states. This in effect ensure that commissioners work independently and also to make them accountable. This has watered down considerably the suspicion about independence of the commission and the fear of conflict of interest.

More on the successes chalked by the commission, it is worth mentioning that in 1996, the commission in 1996 in Mauritius came up with a visionary 5-year action plan dubbed the Mauritius Plan of Action. It is commendable notwithstanding the fact that many of the proposals are not yet achieved, the initiative alone to spell out clearly a vision brings about some sort of awareness and consciousness with regards to human rights. One major success that the Mauritius action plan led to was a wider dissemination of the African charter in the four working languages (English, French, Arabic and Portuguese)

Without doubt the African Commission has grown from its early years when it played a very small role, to an institution today that has developed enormously. Its growth has enabled the commission to be described by Mireille Affa’a Mindzie as a ‘significant tool for promoting and protecting human and people’s rights across the continent. Today, the commission is seen to be far more effective in carrying out its mandate (Sarkin, 2011).

Major challenges and failures of the commission

The weakness or strength of any human rights institution revolves around its normative and procedural scope, its implementation machinery and above all the practice of all the relevant actors (Eno, 2003). This assertion means that the blame of the failure or otherwise of the commission is multi-faceted including in particular lack of political will, lack of independence, inadequate follow-up on decisions or recommendations, lack of a monitoring role, lack of publicity and awareness, and above all the commission is handicapped financially, materially and lacks human resources. As a result of these challenges, the commission so far has not been able to live up to expectations.


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The African Commission on Human and People's Rights. Core functions, achievements and failures
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Kwesi Nyarkoh Koomson (Author), 2013, The African Commission on Human and People's Rights. Core functions, achievements and failures, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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