Human Rights Watch – Written evidence (ZAF0050)


April 2020


  1. What are the biggest challenges to human rights in Sub-Saharan Africa?
  1. The biggest challenges to human rights in Sub-Saharan Africa include ongoing communal and sectoral conflicts, abusive terrorism and counter-terrorism operations, weak rule of law institutions, political repression and election-related abuses, corruption and mismanagement as drivers of poverty and inequality, including the in the increased privatization of public services, weak regulation of natural resource exploration, and exploitation, environmental and climate insecurity and vulnerability.


  1. To what extent are there human rights success stories in Sub-Saharan Africa, and what can we learn from them?
  1. It is difficult to measure progress on human rights in terms of success, as changes usually happen progressively and slowly. We however welcome as progress, every incremental step toward the recognition and promotion of human rights, justice and accountability for violations. Here are a few notable developments.
  2. The conviction and sentencing in May 2016 of the former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré by the Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal for torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity was a victory for victims of his atrocities. His trial, the first by an Africa court based on universal jurisdiction raised hopes that justice for crimes matter and is achievable in African courts.
  3. The July 2019 conviction, and sentence to 30 years in prison two months later, of Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda by the International Criminal Court, was a victory for his victims and a strong message that justice awaits other abusers. For over a decade, Human Rights Watch relentlessly documented his crimes, called for his arrest and prosecution, and testified at his trial in The Hague.
  4. The Gambia, in a rare show of leadership from Africa on human rights issues, brought a case last November to the International Court of Justice against the government of Myanmar for abuses against its Rohingya citizens. This January, in a landmark ruling the Court ordered Myanmar under the Genocide Convention to ensure that its military no longer commits genocide against the 600,000 Rohingya in Rakhine State and that it takes effective measures to preserve evidence relating to the yet-to-be-decided underlying case brought by Gambia.
  5. In recent years, more African governments have adopted progressive legislation or policies to advance human rights for their citizens, including the right to education, providing more justiciability of these rights. In the last five years, Ghana and Zimbabwe, for example, have adopted stronger legal protections to guarantee access to free and compulsory public primary and secondary education. Such protections are important to realizing key ambitious goals, including those set out in the African Union’s Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want.
  6. The AU and Africa governments have taken important steps to protect the rights of women and girls, including to end violence against women. The AU is leading a continental campaign to end child marriage in Africa. African human rights law clearly prohibits all marriages of children under 18. In 2018, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) and the African Committee of Experts on Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) issued a general comment on child marriage, urging governments to end the harmful practice. In recent years, many governments, including Malawi and Gambia, have developed laws prohibiting marriage before the age of 18.


  1. What is the relationship between democracy, rule of law and human rights in Sub-Saharan Africa?
  1. The rule of law and respect for human rights are important pillars of democracy. Democracy rests on shaky foundations in many African countries largely due to weak institutional frameworks for protecting the rule of law and human rights. Efforts by authoritarian leaders to manipulate the law and national constitutions to cling to power, are inevitably followed by human rights abuses and brutal crackdowns against critics and opponents. President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled Uganda since 1986 has amended the country’s constitution twice to remain in power. Protests against the first amendment in 2005 to increase his term in office, and in 2018 to remove the 75 years age limit for serving presidents, were met with violent repression. A similar legal maneuver in Rwanda in 2015 gave President Paul Kagame the right to rule until 2034. Since 2019, widespread deadly protests, arrests, detention, and enforced disappearances of opposition party members have also followed plans for potential term-elongating constitutional amendments in Guinea


  1. To what extent do non-African countries, including the UK, play a role in the promotion of human rights in the region, and how could they do more?
  1. Africa’s foreign partners are primarily multilateral development institutions like the United Nations’ agencies and foreign donors including the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK); and the European Union (EU), some of whose members are former colonial powers with long-standing and complicated ties to the continent. The UN agencies monitor, investigate and report on human rights through several mechanisms including international human rights treaty bodies, special procedures of the Human Rights Council (HRC), and the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
  2. Foreign donors provide a range of assistance through bilateral and multilateral arrangements, from military assistance to commercial, economic and cultural relations, and aid to support development strategies. These relationships and assistance provide significant leverage to assert positive influence and pressure on African governments to make progress on human rights issues. The influence has been asserted in different ways including diplomatic pressure; conditioning of specific or general forms of assistance on improvements in human rights; denial of trade and economic concessions; and, targeted individual sanctions such as withdrawal of training opportunities, travel bans and assets freezes.
  3. Some of Africa’s foreign partners tend to focus more public engagement on the promotion of trade and culture rather than human rights values. This includes the UK despite its significant influence on the governments of former British colonies. These have sometimes meant a reluctance to publicly pressure African governments on serious human rights challenges, adopting “private diplomacy” to co-opt rather than coerce abusive regimes. Efforts by partners, notably the US, France and UK to support African security forces, including in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin area with training and equipment have so far been ineffective in stimulating much needed security sector reforms. A lot more needs to be done to ensure accountability for human rights violations, improve oversight on purchased equipment to ensure that recipient security forces do not use them to repress dissent and peaceful protests.
  4. The imposition of a unilateral arms embargo by the US on South Sudan in 2018 paved the way for a similar embargo and sanctions by the UN Security Council (UNSC) against two individuals. The combined pressure by the AU, the US, the UK bilaterally and as a member of the TROIKA (UK, Norway and US), was key to forcing concessions by belligerent parties and to the formation of South Sudan’s unity government February 22, 2020. The UK has also played a consistent role as a member of the Core Group with Norway and Albania at the HRC in ensuring the creation and continuation of the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, which is a critical for advancing accountability for human rights violations in the country. Consistent pressure on the new unity government to deliver on key human rights reforms, establishing a war crimes court and ensuring the UN arms embargo is upheld, would be critical to sustaining peace and alleviating civilian suffering in South Sudan.
  5. The UK has played a positive role in Sudan through EU and TROIKA statements on human rights issues and, as part of the EU, provided funding support for Sudanese human rights organizations  over many years. In the UNSC, as co-penholder with Germany on the AU-UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) mission, the UK has raised important concerns about ongoing issues on protection of civilians as the UNSC considers a post-UNAMID mission for the whole country. At the HRC the UK has continued to spotlight human rights issues in Sudan through the Independent Expert’s mandate and pressed for a strong OHCHR presence in the country – to which Sudan’s government has agreed.
  6. In Nigeria, the UK funds and supports various civil society and government initiatives aimed at promoting access to justice, greater citizens engagement and awareness on critical human rights issues including women’s rights. There has however been an unwillingness to exert meaningful pressure on Nigeria over its human rights record despite strong evidence of abuse by the Nigerian authorities from local and international civil society groups. The UK should leverage its influence to support the release from military detention, of all children detained for alleged involvement with the armed group Boko Haram, and urge Nigerian authorities to draft and adopt a handover protocol for transfer of detained children to UNICEF. The UK government should also provide better protection, health care, and livelihood support to women and girls trafficked from Nigeria and other countries to the UK, including by taking steps to ensure those repatriated do not to suffer further abuses on return to their home countries.
  7. The UK, despite the absence of historical ties to Rwanda, is one of its largest bilateral aid donors, and one of its strongest diplomatic supporters. To demonstrate a genuine commitment to inclusive development in Rwanda, the UK should urge the Rwandan government to recognize that greater respect for human rights will enhance rather than threaten its development gains. When the postponed Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting takes place in Kigali, it will be an opportunity to reinforce the need political openness and freedom of speech, including through credible investigations into suspicious deaths of political figures such as the recent death in police custody of Kizito Mihigo, a high-profile activist and government critic. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) should consider including Rwanda in its human rights priority countries in the region.
  8. The US cut trade privileges and scaled back military assistance to Cameroon over persistent human rights violations in its beleaguered Anglophone region. The UK has openly condemned separatist and security force violence, coordinated with Austria to deliver at the HRC in March 2019 the first-ever joint statement on Cameroon, on behalf of 38 countries, and debated the Cameroon’s Anglophone region crisis at the House of Commons. The UK government however remains unpopular among  Anglophone activists who have criticized it for not taking enough action to push the issue onto the UNSC and UNHRC agendas.
  9. The European Union (EU) has maintained a sanctions regime on Guinea since the massacre of more than 150 protesters in Conakry in September 2009. The sustained pressure has forced some limited progress in ensuring justice for the victims.
  10. In 1995 the UN appointed an Independent Expert and opened an Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, OHCHR in Burundi to monitor and report on the widespread human rights violations in the country. The government of Burundi refused to cooperate with the OHCHR and asked it to leave the country after the damning report by a Commission of Inquiry established by the HRC in 2016 to investigate rights violations. The EU renewed in October 2018 targeted sanctions imposed in 2015 against four individuals implicated in human rights violations “deemed to be undermining democracy” and this April asked members to consider expanding the sanctions against those implicated in violations in the lead up to forthcoming elections in May 2020.
  11. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the US department of treasury has sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act several individuals, notably in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.
  12. The UK has sought to play a global role in advancing girls’ right to 12 years of free quality education, including in many African countries. Its campaign, through the FCO and the Department of International Development (DFID)’s “Girls’ Education Challenge,” has entailed diplomatic efforts, including at the UN, as well funding for projects in 14 African countries. The UK has however not actively used its leverage to call on some African governments to remove policies or laws that impact on girls’ human rights, including policies that discriminate against pregnant girls and adolescent mothers, laws that maintain a lower age of marriage for girls, and those that curb or prohibit adolescents’ sexual and reproductive rights. The UK should actively raise these concerns through bilateral channels and give them greater prominence in its global campaign to advance all girls’ right to education.
  13. In February 2019, the UK announced the investment of £30 million for a new three-year partnership agreement with the AU. The funding is earmarked for training of peacekeepers in Kenya, assistance towards free and fair elections, and to support the next phase of negotiations for the African Continental Free Trade Area. The UK should provide direct support to African human rights institutions, including through training, systems support and speaking out through bilateral channels to support their independence.


  1. How would you assess the role of the African Union in promoting human rights across Sub-Saharan Africa?
  1. The AU contribution to human rights on the continent is threefold: normative, institutional, and political. Since the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Charter) entered into force in 1986, the AU has adopted several treaties to strengthen the protection of human rights in Africa. These include the Protocol to the African Charter on Human And Peoples' Rights on the Rights Of Women (Maputo Protocol); the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child; the Protocol to the African Charter On Human And Peoples' Rights on the Establishment of the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights;  the 1969 OAU Convention Governing Specific Aspects Of Refugee Problems In Africa; the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities;  and the draft Protocol to the African Charter On Human And Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Older Persons in Africa.
  2. Some of these treaties have pushed the frontiers of human rights by including the right to development and expanding State’s obligations toward internally displaced persons under the 2009 AU Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (Kampala Convention). The Maputo Protocol is a progressive legal instrument on women’s rights, including for its recognition women and girls‘ rights to access safe abortion under specific conditions. HRW and others have long advocated for all AU member states to speedily ratify crucial regional treaties like the Maputo protocol and the Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.  
  3. The AU’s human rights core institutional framework is comprised of three institutions: the ACHPR, ACERWC and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR).
  4. The ACHPR, established as an independent treaty body in 1987 by the African Charter, is the AU’s main human rights body tasked with promoting and protecting human rights in Africa.  The ACHPR has contributed to normative development of human rights and democratic principles on the continent, including through the 2002 Resolution on Guidelines and Measures for the Prohibition and Prevention of Torture, Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in Africa (Robben Island Guidelines) and the Declaration of Principles of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa of 2020. The ACHPR has undertaken 15 fact-finding missions to investigate serious human rights violations and encourage State Parties to address them in a rights-respecting fashion. 
  5. However, despite the ACHPR’s work to develop progressive and comprehensive human rights norms in Africa, the Commission has not been exempted from political interference from AU member states, who have attempted to weaken its mandate and independence clearly to skirt accountability for wrongdoing. In June 2018 the African Union Executive Council adopted Decision 1015, which endorses the review by the AU of the interpretive mandate of ACHPR and, in effect, challenges the functional and institutional independence of the ACHPR. 
  6. Established by Article 32 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, ACERWC came into force in November 1999. It recently developed two new General Comments to address the rights of children of incarcerated mothers and issues related to birth registration.
  7. The AfCHR is a judicial body based in Arusha, Tanzania which hears cases from AU member states which have ratified the Protocol establishing the Court, adopted in 1998.  As of March 2020, the Court has received more than 200 cases from individuals and non-governmental organizations who have exhausted domestic remedies.
  8. All three human rights institutions struggle with recurring backlogs, chronic underfunding, and political interference by AU member states, all of which has had negative implications for the implementation of their recommendations. These can be addressed by mounting pressure on AU policy organs to support proposals presented by these institutions and refrain from interfering with their independence and autonomy.
  9. Politically, over the last 20 years, the AU has demonstrated increasing commitment to the advancement of democracy, improved elections, human rights and governance in Africa. It has expanded its role in election monitoring, to prevent leaders from coming to power through less than fair elections. The adoption of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG) in 2001 has contributed to the diminished tolerance for unconstitutional changes of power and permits more frequent imposition of sanctions against illegitimate governments. The ACDEG has been ratified by 34 African countries, constituting more than half of all AU member states, making it one of the most widely ratified and signed AU treaties. The AU department of political affairs oversees the divisions in charge of governance, human rights, and elections as well as humanitarian affairs, refugees, and internally displaced persons. In 2019, the AU adopted an Africa-wide transitional justice policy.
  10. Despite these advancements, democratic and governance deficits and entrenched authoritarianism in AU member states with poor human rights and governance records have hampered progress on the development and implementation of rights-respecting political norms.
  11. These can be remedied by the AU promoting an overarching human rights agenda within its peace and security architecture; addressing the AU’s overuse of quiet diplomacy to manage human rights crises; establishing strong conflict prevention and management tools; and the use and full operationalization of regional legislative mechanisms such as the Pan African Parliament, which to date does not issue binding laws.


Received 30 April 2020