Remarks at the Opening Ceremony of the Banjul Commission

21 October 2019, Banjul

Vice President of the Republic of The Gambia, Isatou Touray, Attorney General and Minister for Justice, Honourable Soyata Maiga, Chairperson of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Honourable Justice Oré, President of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Honourable Goitseone Nanikie Nkwe, Chairperson of the African Committee of the Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, Honourable Members of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Honourable Judges, , Representatives of the African National Human Rights Institutions, Representatives of UN Agencies, Representatives of civil society, Excellences, members of the Diplomatic Community, Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is a great honour to be here today to address your opening ceremony on this your 65th session, especially today, African Human Rights Day – in the year of refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons. My visit to The Gambia this week has three objectives: to underline and deepen EU cooperation and dialogue with the African Union on human rights, to express our great appreciation for the work of work of the African human rights institutions, particularly the Banjul Commission and the African Court on Human and People’s Rights and to witness first-hand the remarkable progress that is taking place in The Gambia.

The European Union relationship with the African Union is a partnership, a partnership where we discuss mutual challenges, share experiences and determine how we can better support one another. Like the African Union, the European Union was founded to foster peace and prosperity in our region. We know only too well the horror and pain of war and it is our experience that freedom, equality, justice and dignity in one Member State leads to the same in others and to greater respect and protection of human rights – no country or region operates in a vacuum.

We have learned too that regional leadership is vital to advancing the promotion and protection of human rights and Africa is showing remarkable leadership in promoting the universality of human rights through its institutions and its people. It is not by chance that the Nobel Peace Prize has gone to two remarkable leaders in Africa in the last 2 years – Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia and Dr. Denis Mukwege from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They are not only an example, but also an important source of inspiration, for the region and for the world.

On Saturday, I was privileged to co-chair with Commissioner Samate the 15th Dialogue on Human Rights between the African Union and the European Union. We had an extremely fruitful and frank discussion about developments and challenges in both Europe and in Africa and in our joint communique underline our shared commitment to the universality of human rights. This includes ensuring that no one is subject to discrimination and everyone’s rights are protected and respects.

We all know that respecting and vindicating human rights is not a political choice for countries or governments. It is a legal obligation, agreed by countries, enshrined in international conventions and regional legal instruments, such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which underlines the universality of human rights and the non-hierarchical nature of human rights. Economic, social and cultural rights are not less important than civil and political rights.

Coherence and cooperation are vital within every human rights system, at all levels, national, regional and international. That is why the EU has been supporting, and will continue to support the African Governance Architecture and in particular the Banjul Commission and its independence. We are currently finalising a new financial support programme which will broaden the scope of organs supported to include also the African Peer Review Mechanism, as well as the AU Anti-Corruption Board. One aim is to foster the implementation of AU legal instruments like the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.

These instruments are based on the universality of human rights, democracy and rule of law. In order to uphold these values, the independence of the organs is crucial, but so too is support for their work from Member States. That includes through practical action, such as ratification of legal instruments, fulfilling obligations and granting individuals access to the main regional human rights institutions.

The new EU support programme to the African governance architecture will reinforce the capacities of the regional organs and strengthen their coordination and cooperation to increase their collective leverage. In complement, the EU will also support African civil society networks working in the field of governance and human rights to work closer with regional institutions and increase awareness on them at the national level.

This Commission is central to the protection of human rights in the region as it the only body that any individual can turn to if he/she sees his/her rights violated. However, only 9 States to date have accepted the jurisdiction of the African Court on Human and People’s Rights to receive individual complaints. If this Commission and the Court are to fulfil their potential, they need to be supported by Member States through practical action. This includes the ratification, domestication and implementation of AU legal instruments. We have seen in Europe that regional leadership on human rights has to come from within the region.

During our Dialogue on Saturday, we discussed the fundamental importance of a safe and enabling environment, in law and in practice, for civil society and we committed to work together to promote and protect an open and enabling space for civil society and human rights defenders, and to support their daily work on both continents.

This week, I have seen and discussed the impressive changes in The Gambia, which is hosting this distinguished gathering today. Human rights – and the people of The Gambia claiming them – are at the core of the turnaround which has occurred in the country. Human rights are the driving force behind the transitional justice processes and democratic reforms the country has embarked on.

In human rights there is much that needs to be done and so we must concentrate together on being more effective, drawing on all resources and standing firm in our collective resolve. In a few short weeks, the new EU Commission will begin its work in Brussels and will continue to work closely with the African Union. In a world where human rights have rarely been more challenged, we should never lose sight of our ultimate objectives, which have been eloquently put by the President elect of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen: the power of freedom; the reliability of the rule of law and dignity of every human being.

Thank you for the honour of participating in your opening session and I wish you well for your important deliberations in the coming days.