According to Amnesty International’s The State of African Regional Human Rights Bodies and Mechanisms report, the blame for many of the human rights violations experienced by people lies with their governments. Over and above systematic failures to ensure the protection of their citizens’ rights, African states are consistently late in submitting human rights country reports to the relevant bodies, such as the African Union. Some have taken up to 19 years before the submission of their first country reports since signing the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. Further, the report states that African human rights bodies continue to work in harsh conditions where their decisions are ignored and their pleas for adequate funding and human resources go unanswered. Not only is this indicative of the attitudes of states parties when it comes to human rights protection, but it also has the effect of limiting protection and justice for those that need it the most. 

In the period under review, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights sent over 80 urgent appeals to states parties regarding human rights violations. Only 31% of these received a written response. The Commission also requested over 25 country visits. Of these, 13 were authorised in principle and only five actually took place. The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights handed down 25 judgments. However, at the time of reporting, only Burkina Faso had fully complied with the Court’s decisions. The remaining nations either complied partially or not at all. 

Many communities took matters into their own hands after tiring of the gross and continuous human rights violations committed by their leaders. Mass protests in countries like Sudan, Zimbabwe and South Africa highlighted the plight of a concerned and defeated citizenry. In some of these nations, the protests yielded results but often, they resulted in police brutality, sometimes involving the killing and arrest of protesters. Active human rights defenders who worked tirelessly saw their livelihoods threatened, and sometimes their lives as well. 

According to Amnesty International’s Annual Report, between January 2018 and June 2019, appeals for protection of human rights defenders accounted for 71% of all appeals issued to state parties by the African Commission. This means that the very people tasked with standing between the state and its vulnerable people became targets, as states continued to operate with impunity. 

What the report makes blatantly clear, is that there is a concerning lack of political will directed at actively alleviating the poor conditions of human rights in many countries. While it would be unwise to ignore obvious constraints, such as financial resources, which are universally cited, states parties could and should do better. They should manifest the political will and commitment to address human rights issues, and collaborate with civil society organisations that are actively involved in working for human rights. Room for dialogue with the citizenry should be created, and states parties should not crack down on anyone who speaks out against government failures. States parties further should accept accountability where failings are exposed and make available the resources required to ensure steady progress with the implementation of human rights. 

International Human Rights Day should be a day of reflection on the innumerable milestones that the world has attained in the field of human rights protection. However, until there is a more concerted effort on the part of states and more visible accountability, the goal of access to universal rights  will remain difficult to celebrate. There is a glaring imbalance between those who enjoy human rights and those who do not; between those whose lives and human rights are valued and those whose lives and human rights are ignored.  The UDHR can point the way, but only governments working with their people can ensure that ultimately everyone will enjoy the full spectrum of human rights that the world articulated in 1948.

By Ms Rebecca Sibanda: Legal Officer, Centre for Constitutional Rights
10 December 2019