Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi should use his new leadership of the African Union to prioritize human rights and accountability across the continent. President Tshisekedi was elected chairperson of the African Union for 2021 during the 34th Ordinary Session of the African Union Assembly of Heads of State and Government on February 6-7 2021.
Tshisekedi takes over the leadership role amid unprecedented challenges in Africa due to the Covid-19 pandemic, armed insurgencies, inter-communal conflicts, abuses committed by non-state armed groups and state security forces, and election-related violence. The AU is also expected during 2021 to start implementing the Africa Continental Free Trade Area Agreement, a flagship project of the AU’s Agenda 2063, which aims at boosting intra-African trade by 52 percent, and thus accelerate Africa’s economic development by 2022. Agenda 2063 is described as “Africa’s strategic framework for achieving its goals on inclusive and sustainable development.”
“Tshisekedi should use his position to reassert the deep connections between development, democracy, and human rights in Africa,” said Carine Kaneza Nantulya, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “He should lead the Union to support a rights-driven economic development agenda in 2021.”
As Africa continues to confront the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects, it is crucial for the Union to prioritize rights-driven Covid-19 strategies by encouraging all member states to guarantee the right to access quality health care and to an adequate standard of living.
Impunity for massive human rights violations remains a key challenge on the continent. The AU leadership should make sure that pending African-led justice mechanisms start operating, the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, which has been pending for more than five years. Despite South Sudan’s recent approval for the establishment of the court in partnership with the AU, the option for the AU’s unilateral establishment should remain on the table. The AU raised hopes with its unprecedented Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan, and should not allow the interests of victims to be held hostage to further intransigence by the government.
The AU leadership should also make sure that the Trust Fund for Victims of Hissène Habré’s Crimes starts providing compensation to his victims. The AU played a major role in Habré’s landmark trial, but the victims, who campaigned for justice for 25 years, have now been waiting another 4 years for the Fund to begin its work.
In addition, the AU should encourage domestic justice efforts and other systems aimed at addressing accountability for mass atrocities and other serious human rights abuses. These include Guinea’s long-awaited trial of alleged participants in the 2009 stadium massacre, rapes, and other abuses more than three years after a domestic investigation closed.
These and other initiatives such as AU member states’ speedy ratification of the AU Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance, and the establishment of an Africa led sanctions regime could contribute meaningfully to foster a culture of peace, human rights, and democratization.
In 2020, the continent held more than a dozen general elections, many of them marred by violence, restrictions of civic space, unlawful killings, crackdowns on civic protests, and allegations of electoral frauds. Human Rights Watch research in DRC, Cameroon, Guinea, Central African Republic, and Ivory Coast indicates that a culture of impunity for abuses and institutional flaws in the administration of justice has a direct impact on civil and political rights, such as the right to vote and the right to political participation.
In December 2020, the AU chair, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, stated that the 2019 AU theme “Silence the Guns” initiative underscored the importance of protecting rights for women and youth. These rights should remain priorities on the 2021 agenda, just as the AU has extended the Silence the Guns initiative until 2030.
President Tshisekedi assumes his functions at a time when the AU has been criticized for lacking the necessary will to castigate its members for violating their domestic and international human rights obligations and enforce its resolutions. Nevertheless, as chairperson of the AU Assembly, the Union’s highest policy and decision-making body, he could improve respect for and protection of human rights in the region, in accordance with the African Charter.
“African governments can do more to integrate efforts toward economic development with meeting people’s aspirations for justice, freedoms, equality, and dignity,” Kaneza-Nantulya said. “The African Union should adopt a bolder stance for human rights, including by hinging the implementation of its agenda 2063 on the principles of the rule of law and fundamental freedoms.”