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How human rights are faring in Africa

By Lynda Tilley

Lynda is a founding member of United African Humanists and a member of the Advisory Board for Humanist Global Charity, California. Lynda is based in Durban, South Africa.

In 1948, three years after the end of World War II, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations. It was the first internationally agreed upon document that stated that all humans were free and equal "irrespective of colour, creed or religion". At this time, most of Africa was still under brutal colonial rule, with colonial powers denying human and civil rights; only four African countries (Egypt, Ethiopia, Liberia and South Africa) were members of the United Nations. South Africa was one of the ten countries which refused to sign the declaration, as it would have meant that they were no longer able to practice racial discrimination and segregation ('apartheid'), which had begun in earnest in 1948.

The Organisation of African Unity and the African Union

In 1963, The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was formed. Made up of thirty-two member countries, the main aim of this intergovernmental organisation was to eradicate colonialism and neo-colonialism across the African continent. Although it claimed to also stand for human rights, it still mostly viewed human rights as a 'domestic matter' and, as a result, protection of human rights at the time was mainly and almost exclusively carried out by activists and citizens within their own country. The biggest issue was that resolutions of the OAU were not binding and they had no way of enforcing them.

In 1986, the African Charter for Human and Peoples' Rights was accepted by the OAU. The Charter was written to reflect Africa's needs and its two main functions were stated as being 'the promotion and protection of human and peoples' rights in Africa.' It provided for a Human Rights Commission to ensure implementation of the rights within the Charter.

In 1987, the African Commission of Human and Peoples' Rights was established. This was seen as a significant step as it indicated recognition of human rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The African Union replaced the OAU in 2002 and established the African Court on Human and People's Rights in 2004, in order to strengthen the work of the Commission. At the time, political leader and rights advocate, Halidou Ouédraogo, had this to say about the African Court: 'Many African judges are unwilling or unable to rule against their governments, because they are dependent on the ruling parties for their positions, lack the authority to enforce their rulings or, in some cases, may face arrest or assault for challenging government actions. With the African Court we can put pressure on states to lessen their hold on the courts, which they use to massively violate human rights, and as a result serious violations can be brought before the African Court and governments will no longer have a choice in the matter.'

"The latest Human Rights Watch Report for 2022 shows that human rights violations are not only continuing across the African continent but are, in fact, on the increase."
Human Rights in Africa, Seventy Five Years Later

It's now eighteen years since the African Court was established. So how are human rights doing in Africa today? The latest Human Rights Watch Report for 2022 shows that Human Rights violations are not only continuing across the African continent but are, in fact, on the increase. They are not only taking place in countries facing armed conflicts, such as Nigeria, Chad and Mozambique, but also in countries like South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Eswatini as well.

We have more human rights defenders and activists than ever before across Africa, as well as the active presence in many countries of established, respected human rights organisations. These include Amnesty International, the United Nations, and country-specific bodies such as the South African Human Rights Commission, where cases of rights violations can be reported on a national level, yet still these violations not only exist but are on the increase everywhere.

A look through the publicly-available case records of the African Charter of Human and Peoples' Rights shows how very few cases of human rights violations are actually being reported to them. A country such as Nigeria, for example, which has some of the worst violations taking place on every level almost daily, has an almost blemish-free record and reports are for violations such as there not being enough clean drinking water available for inmates of a certain prison, when there are people being abducted, killed, raped, tortured and starved across the country on a daily basis. To the outsider, a country like Nigeria therefore raises little concern.

When I ask activists or lawyers why they are not reporting or putting cases through the African Union system, the general response seems to be that it's pointless — a waste of time, because 'we never get anywhere and no action is taken by them'. My argument is that this is the very reason why we should be reporting human rights abuses through them, regardless.

Leaving Footprints and Uniting Globally as Humans

The system may be broken, but it's there for a reason and it's the way in which we can officially record what is really taking place here in Africa. We are witnesses and we're giving testimony. It's also our way of saying, 'We do not agree to what we see happening to innocent people around us, we won't sit by idly and do nothing, we stand against this because these people matter, we matter, and we separate ourselves from those evil people committing these abuses'.

"As we connect through social media with humanists across the globe, we realise that there are people like us, everywhere, on every continent worldwide..."

We are leaving footprints that cannot be erased or altered because what's happening today in our present will one day be part of Africa's history — just another chapter in our book of life, but an important chapter, I feel. Because this is the chapter where Africans slowly started waking up to the fact that religions are a big scam and that there are no gods and that we started to get to finally 'meet' and know our neighbours through social media, we realised that there are people exactly like us across our entire continent, godless Africans with humanist hearts who've all had enough of lies, war, corruption, poverty and hunger and are all doing what we can to stop it.

As we connect through social media with humanists across the globe, we realise that there are people like us everywhere, on every continent worldwide! There are horrific things happening not just across Africa, but across the entire world and the systems are broken everywhere. The systems are all being broken and corrupted by the greedy, the powerful, the egotistical and those suffering are the ones who aren't driven by greed or power at all.

Human rights are the rights we all have as members of a species of life known as 'humans', inhabiting a single planet known as 'Earth' — a tiny speck in the vast universe. Being humans means that we are all the same, we are all one big family, we are connected genetically and we are here for a reason. At the end of the day, no set of rules or rights defines us or governs us, because we are driven by good, we know the difference between right and wrong and we know at the end of the day that to overcome violations against our species as a whole, we have to unite.

Our collective strength as a species working for GOOD is far greater, and will one day be far more effective, than any book, international agreement or set of rules can ever be.

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Feb 15, 2023

I would not describe humanists as being godless. I would - instead - use the term 'rational Africans holding values of empathy and compassion in support of human rights'. The situation regarding Mubarak Bala is - frankly speaking - murky. Cannot Nigerian Humanists refer his case to the African Court?

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