Organization of African Unity Adopts the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights represented a moral and legal undertaking by African leaders to respect the human rights of more than half a billion people.

Summary of Event

Present-day African states are principally the result of European colonization of the African continent at the end of the nineteenth century. The principal colonial powers were Great Britain, Belgium, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and, until the end of World War I, Germany. The fifty-odd states reflect the geographic and legal-political legacy of the colonial experience, which was terminated in most of the continent by the end of the 1960’s. Organization of African Unity;human rights African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations [kw]Organization of African Unity Adopts the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (June, 1981) [kw]African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Organization of African Unity Adopts the (June, 1981) [kw]Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Organization of African Unity Adopts the African (June, 1981) [kw]Human and Peoples’ Rights, Organization of African Unity Adopts the African Charter on (June, 1981) [kw]Peoples’ Rights, Organization of African Unity Adopts the African Charter on Human and (June, 1981) [kw]Rights, Organization of African Unity Adopts the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ (June, 1981) Organization of African Unity;human rights African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations [g]Africa;June, 1981: Organization of African Unity Adopts the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights[04530] [g]Kenya;June, 1981: Organization of African Unity Adopts the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights[04530] [c]Civil rights and liberties;June, 1981: Organization of African Unity Adopts the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights[04530] [c]Human rights;June, 1981: Organization of African Unity Adopts the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights[04530] Amin, Idi Bokassa, Jean-Bédel Macías Nguema, Francisco

In spite of the varied experiences of the African states, common aspirations for freedom from foreign domination and unity for purposes of greater strength and rapid socioeconomic development induced leaders to start working together to solve common problems. This desire for coordination of policies, particularly with regard to the continuing issues of foreign control of parts of the continent and apartheid (racial control, exclusion from political and economic power, and exploitation of the majority of the population by the minority white segment) in South Africa, led African leaders to establish the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963. The organization has remained the principal forum for discussion of African problems by African leaders at the level of heads of state or government.

The OAU operates through regular annual meetings of the heads of state and government and foreign ministers at a secretariat based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It is headed by an administrative secretary who is appointed by the heads of state and government. There are also specialized standing and ad hoc committees and regional offices elsewhere in Africa, Europe, and at the United Nations in New York.

By the end of the 1970’s with the exception of Namibia, which was still under South African occupation, and the continued survival of the apartheid system the goal of ending colonial or racist rule in Africa had been achieved. The OAU then began to pay more attention to resolving problems that had arisen within its member states, such as the large number of refugees who had fled interstate military conflicts and repression within their countries. It was against this general background that the organization confronted the problem of situations of serious human rights violations in some of its member states.

Human rights violations were essentially the result of the breakdown of the liberal democratic constitutional systems that had been bequeathed by the majority of the colonial powers at the time of their departure. The systems had succumbed to the pressures of social and cultural disunity, lack of liberal democratic traditions, limited political experience for many of the politicians who took over, and generally unfavorable economic circumstances.

Three cases probably had the most impact on the OAU: those of Uganda, Equatorial Guinea, and the Central African Republic. Beginning in 1971, the regime of Idi Amin in Uganda had engaged in some of the most atrocious forms of political repression, including killings, illegal imprisonments, and expulsions of citizens as well as resident aliens of foreign origin. In Equatorial Guinea, the regime of Francisco Macías Nguema had been engaging in similarly atrocious repression against its citizens, causing a large number to flee to neighboring countries and beyond. Although not as vicious as the Amin and Macías regimes, “Emperor” Jean-Bédel Bokassa’s reign in the Central African Republic also earned the dubious distinction of being among the most repressive on the African continent in the 1970’s.

The three tyrants were the source of considerable embarrassment for the other African leaders. Within the British Commonwealth (of which Uganda was a member) and the United Nations, efforts were made to denounce the regimes. This confronted the African leaders with a dilemma: They could join in condemnation of fellow leaders at the risk of causing division and inviting scrutiny of their own often poor, if not vicious, human rights records, or they could defend (or refrain from condemning) fellow leaders at the risk of appearing to condone them, thus weakening their moral case against the repression of the apartheid regime of South Africa.

Other factors influenced African leaders’ thinking about the human rights situation on the continent. In the international arena, the subject of human rights was acquiring ever-increasing salience. U.S. president Jimmy Carter Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;human rights had decided to make the promotion of human rights a major aspect of his foreign policy when he became president of the United States in 1976. In Europe, the 1975 Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) had resulted in the Final Act, which gave prominence to the role of human rights in interstate relations. Helsinki Accords (1975)

The United Nations, United Nations;human rights through its human rights agencies, also played a significant role. For years, it had encouraged the formation of regional human rights mechanisms similar to those that had been set up earlier in Western Europe through the 1950 European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and in the Americas through the 1969 American Convention on Human Rights.

Within Africa itself, people from various walks of life had increased demands for an end to prevalent military or civilian authoritarian regimes. Lawyers, trade unionists, academics, students, and journalists were among the leading spokespersons for the cause of human rights. In some countries, such as Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Angola, civil wars raged, fueled in part by opposition to arbitrary government.

The precipitating factor, however, was the controversy that followed the overthrow of the Amin regime by a combined force of Tanzanian regulars and Ugandan guerrillas in early 1979. Tanzania was criticized by some African states for having interfered in Uganda’s internal affairs. The Tanzanian government, supported by the successor government in Uganda, put emphasis on Amin’s atrocious human rights record in defending its actions. The summit meeting of the OAU that met later in the year decided to draft an African charter on human rights as a means of giving greater protection to the human rights of citizens of African states and, it was hoped, also preventing future interstate conflicts arising out of severe cases of human rights violations. The resulting African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights was approved at the 1981 annual meeting in Nairobi, Kenya.

Significance

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights stipulated the basic rights incorporated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights documents, such as the rights to life, freedom of expression, movement, trial by an impartial judicial system, and political participation, as well as social and economic rights to work, health, education, and employment. It also set up a commission responsible for investigating and taking action on reported human rights violations.

The charter came into force in 1986. The next year, the commission was set up, and a decision was made to base it in Banjul, Gambia. It immediately received, and started considering on a confidential basis, a large number of complaints from citizens of African states who believed themselves to be victims of human rights violations.

The adoption of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights was a landmark in the evolution of the inter-African political system. It constituted an explicit commitment on the part of African leaders to adhere to international human rights standards with regard to the treatment of their citizens. They could no longer plausibly argue that foreign criticism of human rights violations in their countries constituted unwelcome interference in their internal affairs.

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights provided both African and non-African human rights activists with a regional political and legal weapon to attack arbitrary rule and political repression on the African continent. On various occasions since 1981, human rights activists have invoked it when calling for fundamental reforms on the continent. The years 1990 and 1991 saw the fall of dictatorial governments in Benin, Congo, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe, Togo, Madagascar, and Zambia, and a new wave of efforts at democratization swept across Africa as widespread demands for civil and political rights and serious challenges to authoritarian regimes proliferated elsewhere in Africa. These developments were the result of the greater sensitivity to and determination to fight for basic rights that had developed over the preceding two decades. The adoption of the charter presaged these developments.

Beyond the issue of human rights, the adoption of the charter reflected an enhancement in the level of political integration on the African continent. As happened in Western Europe and Latin America, by creating a supranational human rights system, African leaders demonstrated a willingness to surrender a certain degree of jurisdiction over the political and socioeconomic situations of their citizens. This development held the promise of improving the conditions in which citizens of African states struggled to improve their political, economic, and social welfare.

The 1990’s also produced disillusionment with the effectiveness of the African human rights commission, leading to exploration in 1994 of the feasibility of establishing a court of human rights. In 1998, the OAU adopted a protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights establishing such a court. Some complications arose in establishing the court, as the OAU governments decided to reform into the African Union (AU) and to integrate the work of the African Court on Human Rights with its own African Court of Justice. A decision to merge the two was taken in 2004, and the new body sat for the first time in July of 2006. Organization of African Unity;human rights African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ayouty, Yassin el-, and I. William Zartman, eds. The OAU After Twenty Years. New York: Praeger, 1984. Collection of essays discusses significant aspects of the activities of the OAU, including human rights. Includes text of the OAU charter, list of member states, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cervenka, Zdenek. The Unfinished Quest for Unity: Africa and the OAU. New York: Africana, 1977. Provides a succinct account of the origins, structure, and activities of the Organization of African Unity from its foundation in 1963 up to the mid-1970’s. Includes appendixes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howard, Rhoda E. Human Rights in Commonwealth Africa. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1986. Presents a critical analysis of the human rights records of a number of African states that were British colonies. Raises a number of theoretical issues and includes a discussion of women’s rights. Includes bibliography, tables, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murray, Rachel. Human Rights in Africa: From the OAU to the African Union. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Examines how the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) has dealt with human rights from its inception in 1963.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Welch, Claude, Jr., and Ronald I. Meltzer, eds. Human Rights and Development in Africa. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984. Collection of essays discusses the theme of human rights in Africa from cultural, philosophical, political, and legal perspectives. Two of the essays discuss the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Includes bibliographic essay, text of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Winchester, Brian N. “African Politics Since Independence.” In Africa, edited by Phyllis M. Martin and Patrick O’Meara. 3d ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. A brief discussion of the main social, economic, and political obstacles to the development of African states as democratic and prosperous societies. Provides useful background for understanding the resurgence of demands for democratic government that swept the African continent in 1990 and 1991. Includes a short list of suggestions for further reading.

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