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OPEN LETTER ON AFRICA'S HUMAN RIGHTS RECORD AND THE AFRICAN UNION

TO: Amara Essy, Chairman Ad Interim, Commission Of The African Union, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

On the occasion of the commemoration of the first international Human Rights Day (December 10) following the establishment of the African Union, we are writing to you to express our deep concern over the lack of improvement in the human rights situation in Africa. In the five months of the AU’s existence, rights violations have actually increased in many member countries of the Union while the Union maintains a rather deafening silence. In Eritrea, for instance, there has been a clamp down on freedom of expression, the rights of Eritrea's people to freely choose their own government and of the media, which has resulted in a ban on the entire independent media. In Liberia and Cameroon, human rights defenders and journalists have either been charged with treason or imprisoned. In Nigeria, a fatwa has been issued against a journalist, Isioma Daniel, calling for her arbitrary and extra judicial murder. And in the past one week, Nigeria's government has prevented several human rights advocates and defenders from travelling out of the country on the unsubstantiated grounds that they are "security risks". In Egypt, human rights advocates are prosecuted or threatened with prosecution for exercising their right to freedom of expression or making lawful democratic demands. In Côte d'Ivoire, the government presides over the persecution of both its own nationals and nationals of neighbouring African countries. In Zimbabwe, and Uganda, among other countries, legislation has been introduced which restrict or threaten punitive measures against the media. In these and many countries, individual journalists are still persecuted for reports, which are not denied or proven to be untrue.

These attacks on the media and individual journalists by many African governments reflect a trend which shows in real terms that they are yet to accept that democracy and good governance are indispensable to stability and development. Also, women and in particular young girls continue to suffer violence and from the consequences of conflict and poverty. Although violence against women is a universal problem, there seems to be no hurry to adopt and implement the Draft Protocol To The African Charter On The Rights Of Women In Africa. Around the African continent, Africans are prevented from travelling freely by immigration rules that privilege non-African nationals. For instance, many Africans travelling to other African countries outside their sub-regions have to wait for between four and six weeks for visas, which many non-Africans can acquire within a week or on arrival at entry points. Collective expulsions of Africans within the continent are also routine practice and refugees and illegal immigrants within the continent continue to be subjected to unspeakable dehumanisation. In all, twenty-six of the fifty-three member countries of the African Union have engaged in notable rights violations since the formation of the Union in July 2002.

To the best of our knowledge, the African Union has not responded robustly to any of these rights abuses. Most rights abuses involve violations of the rights to opinion, expression, association, assembly, free movement and press freedom. This state of affairs directly contradicts the AU’s stated objectives to "promote democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance" and to "promote and protect peoples' rights in accordance with the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights and other relevant human rights instruments". To cap all these, about thirty million people in Africa are now in danger of severe malnutrition and starvation. The situation is particularly bad in Ethiopia and southern Africa. While lack of rainfall and other circumstances are not man made, the lack of adequate short and long term remedies or preventive measures are direct reflections of repressive legal and institutional frameworks, which compel millions to painfully await circumstances which could have been avoided or ameliorated by openness and more democratic participation in government. The above examples and countless other unreported violations which have gone unchallenged by the African Union are without doubt manifestations of an absence of political will, and an inability to effectively implement existing mechanisms for the supervision of the provisions of Africa's human rights instruments.

On this occasion of Human Rights Day, we therefore call on you to without delay utilise your good office to:

? Publicly and unreservedly censure those African governments that violate the human rights of their nationals, foreign residents or inhabitants or deprive victims of such violations of effective remedies;
? Remind African governments of the primacy of the right to life, freedom of expression, participation in government and associated rights, and guaranteeing human rights generally. The AU should announce measures to guarantee that the rights of people to freely choose their governments in free, fair and open elections shall be taken seriously, respected and not be tampered with by the Union or any its member governments;
? Take immediate and active steps to guarantee better funding of the institutions of the African regional human rights system, including in particular the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights and the African Committee on the Rights and Welfare of the Child;
? Take immediate and active steps to ensure that AU member countries ratify the Protocol for the Establishment of the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights without further delay;
? Remind all AU member governments of their obligations to observe, promote, protect, and fulfil human and peoples' rights in Africa, including the economic, social and cultural rights of all persons in Africa;
? Take immediate measures to ensure appropriate priority is accorded to the effective protection of refugees and other victims of forced displacement in Africa.

We would be pleased if you could address these concerns, and take this occasion to clarify how the AU intends to realise the quite ambitious obligations that are contained in the Constitutive Act concerning the protection of human rights. The Constitutive Act represents an orientation towards the protection of human rights different from the OAU Charter that it replaced. Articles 4 and 30 of the Constitutive Act require the countries of the Union to be proactive in the protection of human rights generally, and, most especially, in situations of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and unconstitutional changes in government among others.

These new and far reaching obligations require African governments and the African Union itself to take the protection of human rights seriously because this is the only way that a degeneration into genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, fratricidal conflict, civil unrest and unconstitutional changes in government can be avoided. In the OAU Refugee Convention and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, the member States of the Union have a body of norms and obligations, adherence to which would greatly contribute to positively transforming Africa's human rights record. More than one year after the entry into force of the Constitutive Act in May 2001, we are yet to see evidence of a readiness on the part of the Union to provide the leadership that is required by the Constitutive Act in ensuring compliance with Africa's and international human rights standards. The optimism inspired by the adoption of radical new provisions of the Constitutive Act is now at risk of having been in vain. We look forward to your response to these issues and to the opportunity of working with you and the AU for the effective protection of human and peoples' rights on the African continent.

Yours Sincerely,
Rotimi Sankore
Coordinator Centre for Research Education and Development of - [CREDO] –
Freedom of Expression and Associated Rights
 * CREDO is an International human rights organisation based in Senegal and London and focusing on work in Africa.

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