40th Anniversary of the Adoption of the
African Charter on Human and People’s Rights
28 June 2021
EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Eamon Gilmore
Intervention in session 3 on “The contributions of the African Charter to international human rights law and practice”
“The African Charter based human rights system in comparative perspective: Views from the European system”
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Thank you very much Professor and let me greed first of all Chairperson Commissioner Solomon Dersso, great to see you again. I want to greed everybody participating. I am delighted to be with you today to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. I want to thank the African Commission for inviting the EU and for inviting me to this important event. And I also want to thank my fellow speakers on this panel for their cooperation in rearranging the timing of this presentation to allow me to contribute, as I have another engagement I will just coming up very quickly.
The unanimous adoption of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights – also known as the Banjul Charter – at the OAU’s Assembly on 27 June 1981 has been a milestone for the African regional human rights system. The African Charter is de facto the primary normative instrument for the promotion and protection of human rights and for the consolidation of democratic institutions, good governance and rule of law on the African continent.
Today’s anniversary is an opportunity to renew Africa’s commitment to human rights, to reaffirm the full validity and force of the Charter as the legal foundation upon which the African system rests, to celebrate progress made to date and to provide recommendations for the way forward.
Today’s celebration perfectly intersects with the celebrations throughout the year 2021 as the “AU Year of the Arts, Culture and Heritage: levers for building the Africa we want” and with last month’s celebration of African World Heritage Day (on 5 May). Africa’s rich cultural and natural heritage is a foundation for sustainable and inclusive growth and epochal transformation.
The main value of the African Charter lies in its capacity both to reflect the history, values, traditions, and development of Africa and to align African values with the universality of human rights as the cornerstone of international human rights law.
Human rights are universal, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Treaties. By recognising the universality, interdependence and indivisibility of human rights and making clear that freedom, equality, justice and dignity are essential for all, the African Charter makes a substantial contribution to the corpus of international human rights.
Progress made on the implementation of the African Charter over the past decades demonstrates the willingness of individual African countries and the African Union as a regional entity to live up to their international human rights obligations. Allow me to name just a few examples:
- The African continent is the only region that has a specific Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child;
- The African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child conducted the first-of-its kind campaign against child marriage at continental level;
- The right to universal primary education, with some of them moving ahead to offer universal secondary education;
- In 2017, the African Court recognized for the first time ever the rights of indigenous peoples to their land and natural resources; and
- The African Commission and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights have taken on several African governments on human rights issues.
These results would have been hard to imagine 40 years ago. But what may have been considered impossible yesterday is the reality today.
Human rights instruments, mechanisms and processes are not self-fulfilling. Incisive and continuous action is the only way forward to close the gap between the solemn declarations and commitments and their concrete implementation on the ground. It is the only way to build the Africa, and the world, that we all want.
It is of critical importance to find ways of encouraging States to comply with their human rights treaty obligations, reporting, ratification and domestication of core regional human rights treaties, urgent appeals and country visits as well as to encourage the acceptance of the Court’s jurisdiction over human rights complaints by individuals, to open up to civil society organisations and to engage with human rights defenders and civil society activists. And let me tell you that the EU is a reliable ally in this endeavour.
We know the difficulties. They have been referred to by many of the speakers previously. But these are difficulties that apply elsewhere, including in Europe. And I can tell you that when I will leave this meeting today, I will then be discussing these very same issues with the Ambassadors of the European Union to the Council of Europe.
Africa and Europe have close historical, cultural and geographical ties. The AU and the EU have a strong and long-standing relationship of peer-to-peer partnership and cooperation in human rights and democracy. We share the same values and we pursue a common goal, which is to ensure the full enjoyment of all human rights by all, without discrimination of any kind. Our annual human rights dialogue is a concrete demonstration of the seriousness of our commitment to promote and protect human rights on both continents, and worldwide. We want to deepen and to enrich that relationship. The importance the EU places on our relationship with Africa was evident for example, that the first visit undertaken by President von der Leyen was to Ethiopia during her very first week in office.
The treaties that create the regional human rights systems for Africa and Europe follow the same rationale. They set out legal norms – individual rights, mostly, but in the case of the African Charter also peoples’ rights – as binding on states that have joined the system. They have put in place monitoring systems to ensure full compliance with these norms also by states that have joined the two systems.
The African and European Human Rights systems are in many ways similar but there are also differences. The African Charter is the only regional human rights convention that contains both civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights. The African Charter is also the only one to contain both individual and collective rights, such as the right to development.
In these particularly challenging times, we are increasingly seeing human rights and democracy questioned and constrained in many parts of the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated this situation. This is despite the fact that we are not here talking about optional benefits. Human rights belong to everyone.
But this also provides us with an opportunity. The pandemic has shown us all, in a very real way, the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights. It has shown us that to protect life and health, we need to ensure many other rights, such as economic and social rights. Placing human rights at the centre of our response to the pandemic will help to make the crisis more manageable as well as help us to prepare for and address other major global challenges, such as climate change.
In this spirit, the EU has recently renewed our own policy framework. In November 2020, the EU’s Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy for the period 2020 to 2024 was adopted unanimously by the 27 Member States. In March last year, the EU adopted a comprehensive Strategy with Africa and just a few months ago, we adopted the Integrated Strategy in the Sahel. In addition, the new EU-Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States Partnership Agreement, which will enter into force later this year, has strong provisions on human rights, the rule of law and good governance. It is our experience in Europe that security and development are only sustainable in the long term when democracy, gender equality, the rule of law and human rights without discrimination of any kind are fully respected and protected.
The EU Action Plan is an opportunity to proactively plan for the challenges and opportunities we face and to re-energise our work. Many actions have been priorities in our daily work for many years, such as the protection of human rights defenders, the abolition of the death penalty, the elimination of torture and many more.
But there are also new elements. These include:
- increased action on economic, social and cultural rights,
- more emphasis on democracy,
- greater focus on business and human rights,
- more emphasis on the link between human rights and the environment,
- maximising the benefits of digital technologies and minimising the risks,
- further action on the protection and empowerment of human rights defenders and
- greater emphasis on communicating what we do.
We also recognise that what we do outside the European Union must be consistent and coherent with what we do within the European Union. This is why the new internal European Democracy Action Plan complements the efforts and objectives of this external Plan. In addition, the new internal and external framework on gender equality, the Gender Equality Strategy and the third Gender Action Plan, and of course the Rule of Law mechanism, all these strengthen and complement both our external and internal efforts.
As the European Union Special Representative for Human Rights, I have a central role in guiding the implementation of the Action Plan. In that, I believe that dialogue, communication and cooperation is critical. The Action Plan is not about imposing a model on anyone; it is about supporting universal rights, and we will raise concerns when needed and we expect our partners to do the same.
We are always willing to work closely with others to make progress and to address our common challenges. And this is certainly the case with Africa, where there are many positive examples of our cooperation on human rights and democracy. Despite the circumstances of the pandemic, we managed to hold the EU-African Union human rights dialogue in December. Allow me to highlight that it was the only high-level dialogue, albeit virtual, which took place between the AU and the EU in 2020. In follow up to that Dialogue, I have recently met with Commissioner Bankole, the newly elected African Union Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security, in just a few weeks ago.
We continue to work closely with the African Union on a number of areas, including transitional justice, business and human rights and the protection of civil society space.
Civil society and human rights defenders continue to play a hugely important role in Africa, as in other regions. Indeed, civil society and human rights defenders are critical to the successful implementation of human rights all over the world.
This past year has been a startling warning for all us on human rights and democracy, but we have clearly seen the vital importance of unity and solidarity. An assault on human rights and democracy anywhere in the world is our shared concern. And it is time for us to step up action.
Countries and governments have an obligation to comply with human rights, it is not a choice. It is a legal obligation rooted in international and regional human rights instruments, such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. Let this 40th anniversary of the Charter be a year when renewed commitment to human rights is made and human rights are fully realised for all human beings, with no discrimination based on any ground, in Africa, in Europe and around the world.
Mr Chairman, I look forward to our continuing cooperation with the AU and with the Commission. We are at our strongest and most resilient when we work together.
Thank you very much.