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African Union seeks to shackle human rights watchdog

African Union seeks to shackle human rights watchdog

Human rights activists are fighting against moves by the African Union to rein in the continent’s human rights watchdog, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR).

The Coalition of African Lesbians has been barred from meetings of the African Commission on Human and People's Rights. (Photo courtesy of CAL)
The Coalition of African Lesbians has been barred from meetings of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, which is the continent’s human rights watchdog. (Photo courtesy of CAL)

LGBT rights organizations have been prominent in the protests, which began after the ACHPR revoked the observer status that it had granted in 2015 to the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL).  That move came because of pressure from the 55-nation African Union.

More than 30 African advocacy groups have joined together to protest by signing a statement opposing “recent attacks on the independence” of the commission and “the dire implication this has for human rights on the continent.” Other organizations are invited to add their endorsements to the statement.

Pan-Africa ILGA issued this call to action:

Logo of Pan-Africa ILGA, the African affiliate of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.
Logo of Pan-Africa ILGA, the African affiliate of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.

In a deeply concerning move, the Executive Council of the African Union has questioned and threatened the independence of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR).

In direct contravention of the laws governing the relationship between members of the African Union and the ACHPR, the Executive Council has attacked the status of the ACHPR as a body that is not answerable to the laws of member states. The ACHPR’s independent status as a body that holds governments accountable for human rights violations is essential to the protection of the violation of human rights perpetrated by member countries.

In support of the statement, Pan-Africa ILGA calls on its member organisations and other human rights defenders to answer the statement and call to action to voice our outrage and prevent the African Union from taking a step that will be a hugely significant setback to the progress that has been made for human rights on the African continent.

This is the related statement presented last month to the U.N. Human Rights Council:

Logo of the U.N. Human Rights Council
Logo of the U.N. Human Rights Council

Statement on behalf of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, the Coalition of African Lesbians, the Sexual Rights Initiative, and the Association for Progressive Communications.

The Vienna Declaration affirms the duty of all states to promote and protect all human rights – indivisible and universal – prioritizing women’s human rights and the eradication of all forms of gender-based discrimination. Yet, we observe with alarm today intensifying attacks on our human rights systems and protections, and particular threats to Women Human Rights Defenders [WHRDs].

Around the world, movements of the extreme right are growing in power.

Activists are confronted by multiple and intersecting oppressions on the rise: authoritarianism, ultra-nationalism, racism, neo-colonialism, corporate capture, militarism, and fundamentalisms. WHRDs face increasingly repressive environments and threats to their legitimacy and security, and are subject to threats, intimidation, harassment, defamation campaigns, violence, discrimination, and attacks in an attempt to restrict their access and engagement with the UN.

States have violated the rights of defenders and feminist movements in recent years by a number of interrelated measures, including:

  • criminalization and stigmatization of human rights defenders;
  • restrictions on their rights to freedom of assembly and expression (including surveillance);
  • restrictions on funding for [civil society organizations]; administrative barriers; and
  • anti-rights actors colluding in intimidation, attacks and reprisals against civil society.

States then seek impunity for their violations by delegitimizing and undermining the national and international legal frameworks for the protection of human rights defenders and our human rights frameworks as a whole.


See Also
Flag of Cameroon

Logo of the Coalition of African Lesbians
Logo of the Coalition of African Lesbians

The recent decision of the African Union requiring the ACHPR to revise its criteria for granting and withdrawing observer status for NGOs, for example, mirrors similar attacks on the global human rights system. The decision of the ACHPR to withdraw the Coalition of African Lesbians’ observer status, following instructions from the Executive Council of the AU, is a clear illustration of threats enacted by states to civil society participation and defenders working to advance and defend human rights on the continent.

Without an effective, independent and rights based African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, rights holders are left to defend themselves against the routine and persistent rights violations perpetrated by the powerful – including corrupt corporations and government officials.

Furthermore, States are increasingly and opportunistically using terms like ‘morals’, ‘values, ‘culture’ and ‘family’, to undermine human rights and delegitimize defenders. These terms do not belong in the human rights framework.  The African Union, by its interpretation of the ‘African Values’ of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights is actively pushing for homogenisation without recognising the diversity of the continent, that values and culture are not static but change, and is using this to further entrench discrimination and violence against women and non-normative people.

It is clear that we require an urgent response to the growing global trend of pushback and reprisals against feminist activists and WHRDs, and the moves to undermine and delegitimize our human rights systems.

We call upon States to speak out and counter anti-rights propaganda and the dismantling of the global and African human rights mechanisms.


Organizations that have signed onto the protest include:

  1. Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL)
  2. Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa (ISLA)
  3. African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR)
  4. Synergía – Initiative for Human Rights
  5. HOLAAfrica
  6. Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA)
  7. One in Nine Campaign
  8. Africans Rising for Justice, Peace & Dignity: Coumba Toure & Muhammed Lamin Saidykhan, Coordinators
  9. CREA
  10. Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA)
  11. Queer African Youth Network (QAYN)
  13. African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA)
  14. Foundation for Human Rights
  15. Center for Human Rights, University of Pretoria
  16. International Labour, Research & Information Group (ILRIG)
  17. Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health
  18. Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID)
  19. Human Rights Implementation Centre at the University of Bristol
  20. Initiative for Social and Economic Rights
  21. Center for Reproductive Rights
  22. Southern Africa Litigation Center (SALC)
  23. AIDS & Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA)
  24. International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute
  25. Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  26. Advocates for Community Alternatives
  27. Kenya Legal and Ethical Issues Network (KELIN)
  28. Women’s Health and Equal Rights Initiative
  29. Just Associates (JASS)
  30. World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)
  31. Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG)
  32. Coalition for Grassroots Human Rights Defenders Kenya (CGHRD Kenya)
  33. Secularism Is A Women’s Issue


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