Author: Adamantia Rachovitsa

Required knowledge: sources of international law; individuals; recurring themes in human rights doctrine

Learning objectives: understanding the basic substantive and institutional features of the African human rights system

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A. Introduction edit

Although human rights were part of the agenda of the Pan-African Congress in the anti-colonial struggle prior to the independence of the African States, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), established in 1963, made no reference to human rights. Instead, it emphasised decolonisation, State sovereignty and development. The language of human rights was (re)introduced with the negotiations for the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR or Banjul Charter),[2] adopted in 1981.[3] Subsequently, the Constitutive Act of the African Union (AU), which succeeded the OAU in 2002, placed human rights values among the AU's own objectives and principles (see article 3(h) and article 4(m) respectively).[4]

This section, first, explains the substantive guarantees of human and peoples' rights in Africa by way of selectively highlighting certain aspects of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights and other treaties adopted under the auspices of the OAU/AU. Second, the discussion focuses on the protective mechanisms available in the African human rights system, including the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights as well as the human rights-protective mandate of certain sub-regional African courts.

B. The Substantive Guarantees of Human and Peoples' Rights edit

I. The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights edit

The ACHPR is not only the lighthouse of the African system of human and peoples' rights protection (with 54 State parties), but also a human rights treaty with many features that distinguish it from other regional human rights systems.

The ACHPR is the only regional human rights treaty that accords equal weight to the different generations of human rights. The text provides for most civil and political rights and a few economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to work, the right to health and the right to education, as well as peoples' rights (also known as solidarity rights). Peoples' rights hold a prominent place and include the right to self-determination,[5] the right to dispose freely of natural resources, the right to development and the right to a healthy environment (articles 20-24).[6] Another unique characteristic of the ACHPR is its emphasis on the duties of the individual towards the community and the State (articles 27-29).[7] An example of such a duty is the duty of the individual to preserve and strengthen positive African values (article 29(7)). Finally, in contrast to other human rights instruments, the ACHPR does not contain a derogation clause, which means that limitation on ACHPR rights cannot be justified by emergencies.[8]

At the same time, the ACHPR features certain notable shortcomings most of which have been addressed by the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACmHPR) and the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACtHPR). First, the text omits certain rights (e.g. the right to privacy).[9] Second, the ACHPR is less detailed (compared to other human rights treaties) in setting out essential safeguards with regard to, for instance, the right to a fair trial. The ACtHPR's case-law has incorporated the guarantees of the right to a fair trial under international human rights law into the protective scope of article 7.[10] Third, the ACHPR is silent on the requirements for a restriction on a human right to be lawful. Article 27(2) ACHPR provides only that 'the rights and principles of each individual shall be exercised with due regard to the rights of others, collective security, morality and common interest' without referring to the principles of legality and proportionality. In response to this, the ACtHPR pronounced, in its very first judgment on the merits in 2013, that the restrictions imposed on human rights must conform to the three-part test under international human rights law: restrictions must be prescribed by law, serve a legitimate aim and be proportionate to the aim pursued.[11] Fourth, the ACtHPR, by affirming the ACmHPR's practice,[12] "neutralised" the so-called "claw-back" clauses contained in the ACHPR. A claw-back clause subjects the exercise of a right provided under an international treaty on human rights to domestic law. The ACHPR subjects the exercise of many rights, such as the right to freedom of expression or the right to political participation, to domestic law. For example, article 9(2) ACHPR reads: 'every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate opinions within the law' (emphasis added). In contrast, other human rights treaties, do not contain such clauses.[13] The ACtHPR ruled that domestic law ought to be in correspondence with international standards and should not nullify the scope and essence of the rights it regulates.[14] This ruling has also been confirmed by the ICJ in the Diallo case.[15]

II. Other Human Rights and Peoples' Treaties edit

In addition to the ACHPR, the African system of human and peoples' rights includes other treaties adopted under the auspices of the OAU/AU, such as

C. Protective Mechanisms edit

I. The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights edit

The ACmHPR is an autonomous treaty body entrusted with the mandate of promoting and protecting human and peoples' rights in Africa. Its views and findings are non-binding but carry strong persuasive authority and have contributed to the progressive development of States' obligations under the ACHPR.

1. State Reporting edit

Parties to the ACHPR have the obligation to report on progress and challenges concerning its implementation every two years. Non-Governmental Organisations[16] (NGOs) are allowed to submit non-expert reports. The ACmHPR, in its early practice, did not publish the reports submitted by States and did not adopt concluding observations. Subsequently, it changed its approach in the interest of transparency. From 2001, the ACmHPR began adopting concluding observations and publishing State reports and its own observations on its website. However, many States have never submitted a report or tend to be very late in doing so.

2. Inter-State Communications edit

A State party may bring a complaint concerning an alleged violation of the ACHPR against another party before the ACmHPR. This procedure has been used only once. In 2003, in Democratic Republic of the Congo v Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda,[17] the ACmHPR held that the armed forces of the respondent States committed multiple violations of the ACHPR during their occupation of the eastern province of the Congo.

3. Communications Submitted by Individuals and NGOs edit

The ACHPR provides that communications other than those of State parties may be submitted to the ACmHPR. Although the text does not clarify who may bring these communications, the ACmHPR accepts that individuals and NGOs may do so. According to article 56 ACHPR, a communication needs to meet certain requirements to be admissible. The author of the communication does not have to be the victim of the alleged violation. This is significant since victims may lack access to resources or awareness of their rights and available remedies, or they may be hesitant, perhaps even afraid, to submit complaints themselves. NGOs regularly make use of this broad standing, bringing many communications before the ACmHPR, which testifies to their prominent role in the ACmHPR's activities.

The ACmHPR has adopted many foundational views.[18]

Example for views of the ACmHPR on how severe environmental degradation violates the right to food and the dignity of indigenous peoples: In Social and Economic Rights Action Center (SERAC) and Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) v Nigeria (2001), Nigeria was alleged to have caused severe environmental degradation, through the oil explorations of the Nigeria National Petroleum and Shell Petroleum Development Corporation. The land and water resources became toxic, making farming and fishing impossible for the Ogoni people. The ACmHPR held that the right to food is inseparably linked to the dignity of human beings and is a precondition for the enjoyment of all human rights. The minimum core of the right to food requires that states do not destroy or contaminate food sources.

Example for views of the ACmHPR on the role of the right to development both as a means and an end for guaranteeing human and peoples' rights: The Center for Minority Rights Development (Kenya) and Minority Rights Group International on behalf of Endorois Welfare Council v Kenya (2009) case is an apt example concerning indigenous peoples' rights and the right to development. The Endorois people, an indigenous community, had been forcibly removed from their ancestral lands, thereby endangering their culture, religion and traditional way of life. The ACmHPR proclaimed that the right to development should be treated as both a means and an end. In this instance, the right to development encompassed the states' obligation to guarantee housing for individual and peoples as well as to provide them with the ability to choose where to live.

4. Other Functions of the ACmHPR edit

In fulfilling its mandate, the ACmHPR also exercises a number of other functions, including:

  • Creating special mechanisms, such as special rapporteurs, committees and working groups;[19]
  • Publishing general comments, guidelines or declarations with a view to progressively developing the African human rights law
  • Carrying out onsite visits, promotional or protective missions and investigative measures on the territory of States, where appropriate.

II. The African Court of Human and Peoples' Rights edit

The Arusha-based ACtHPR may be the youngest court among its regional counterparts, but its jurisdiction and case law not only present unique features but also offer valuable lessons to be studied under human rights law. The ACtHPR's mandate is provided for in the 1998 Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Establishment of the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights (Protocol),[20] which entered into force in 2003, and in its Rules of Procedure. As far the relationship between the ACtHPR and the ACmHPR is concerned, they are independent and the former complements the protective mandate of the latter.[21] In addition, the ACmHPR may submit cases to the ACtHPR.[22]

In 2004, the AU Assembly of Heads of State and Government decided that the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights should be integrated into one court with the Court of Justice of the AU, referencing financial and logistical constraints. In 2008 and 2014, the Protocol on the Statute of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights and the Protocol on Amendments to the Protocol on the Statute of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights were adopted respectively, merging the two courts into a single new court, named the African Court of Justice and Human Rights. Neither protocol is yet in force and, consequently, the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights is still in operation.

1. The Jurisdiction of the ACtHPR edit

The ACtHPR's jurisdiction may be divided into advisory and contentious. As far as its advisory jurisdiction is concerned, the ACtHPR may, at the request of an AU member state, any AU organ or any African organisation recognised by the AU, provide an opinion on any legal matter relating to the ACHPR or any other relevant human rights instrument. The ACtHPR has rendered 15 Advisory Opinions thus far. Turning to its contentious jurisdiction, under article 3(1) of the Protocol, the ACtHPR has jurisdiction to deal with all cases and disputes submitted to it regarding the interpretation and application of the ACHPR, the Protocol and any other relevant human rights instrument ratified by the states concerned. Thirty-four State parties to the ACHPR have currently ratified the Protocol.

The Court may receive applications from the ACmHPR, state parties to the Protocol or African intergovernmental organisations (article 5(1) of the Protocol). Individuals and NGOs do not have direct access to the ACtHPR unless the State against which the application is submitted has deposited the declaration described in article 34(6) of the Protocol, accepting the ACtHPR's competence to decide such complaints. In the absence of such a declaration, a complaint can be only submitted to the ACmHPR, which may decide to refer the communication to the ACtHPR. As of June 2023, only eight States have accepted the competence of the ACtHPR to decide complaints brought by individuals and NGOs (Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Malawi, Niger and Tunisia). Since 2016, Benin, Rwanda, Côte d' Ivoire and even Tanzania – the ACtHPR's host State – withdrew their declarations, marking an unfortunate landmark in the ACtHPR's history.[23] However, in November 2021, the Republic of Guinea Bissau and the Republic of Niger deposited respective declarations under article 34(6) of the Protocol allowing direct access to the ACtHPR.[24]

Pursuant to articles 3(1) and 7 of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Establishment of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the ACtHPR enjoys a unique material jurisdiction. Its mandate extends to the interpretation and application of not only the ACHPR but also any other relevant human rights instrument ratified by the States concerned. In contrast, the material jurisdiction of UN human rights bodies and of other regional human rights courts is limited to matters concerning only their respective constitutive instruments.[25]

The future African Court of Justice and Human Rights is expected to have a different structure and a considerably broader material jurisdiction. More specifically, it will have three separate sections: a general affairs section, a human and peoples' rights section and an international criminal law section. The AU decided to add individual and corporate criminal responsibility to the jurisdiction of the merged court. This comes as a response to the strong dissatisfaction among many African States about the International Criminal Court's (perceived) biased focus on Africa.[26]

2. The ACtHPR's Case Law edit

Overall, the ACtHPR has an unfolding case-law ordering provisional measures and ruling on matters pertaining to jurisdiction, admissibility, merits and reparations. The subject matter of the cases spans across, for instance:

  • The right to political participation in connection to the prohibition of independent candidature[27] or the arbitrary revocation of one's passport[28]
  • The right to freedom of expression and whether criminal defamation statutes are proportionate and necessary restrictions[29]
  • Several aspects of the right to a fair trial[30]
  • Indigenous peoples and collective rights[31]


State parties are under the obligation to comply with the ACtHPR's judgments. The AU Executive Council monitors the execution of judgments on behalf of the Assembly. The reality on the ground is that the level of compliance with the decisions is poor: of the over 200 decisions and judgments rendered by the ACtHPR, less than 10% have been fully complied with, 18% partially implemented and 75% not implemented at all.[32] Certain alternative measures to ensure better implementation of the judgments are under discussion, including the introduction of a monitoring role for the ACtHPR, under a newly established Monitoring Unit, or the possibility for the ACtHPR to issue compliance judgments.

III. Sub-regional Courts Protecting Human and Peoples' Rights edit

Individuals and NGOs regularly resort to sub-regional African courts, established in the context of regional economic communities, to raise and litigate human rights claims.

The most active in the field of human rights is the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The ECOWAS Community Court of Justice can hear complaints on human rights violations and applies the ACHPR as its standard of assessment.[33] The fact that it grants direct access to individuals, without requiring them to have exhausted domestic remedies, offers a notable litigation advantage for applicants.

The East African Court of Justice does not have explicit jurisdiction to address human rights complaints but nonetheless deals with such complaints as long as they are considered to be violations falling within the scope of the East African Community treaty.[34]

The Tribunal of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) followed the approach of the East African Court of Justice, namely to address human rights claims without a clear mandate to do so.[35] However, this choice was more politically controversial than expected and it seriously backfired. After several judgment rulings against Zimbabwe and its refusal to comply, the Tribunal was de facto suspended in 2010.[36] In 2014, the SADC adopted a new protocol that will confine the Tribunal's mandate to the interpretation and application of the SADC treaty and protocols in inter-State disputes. The protocol is not yet in force and the Tribunal remains effectively suspended.

D. Conclusion edit

There is still room for the ACtHPR to develop the ACHPR's unique characteristics as well as for other human rights courts and bodies to draw inspiration from the ACHPR's features and the ACtHPR's case law. The ACmHPR and the ACtHPR continuously elaborate upon their functions and jurisdiction, respectively. They also develop the scope of rights and guarantees under the ACHPR. Although the practice of progressively elevating the level of protection for peoples' and individual's rights may be arguably linked to the backlash consisting of the four States having withdrawn their declarations under article 34(6) of the Protocol, new States have recently deposited such declarations. Consequently, States' political choices about accepting/withdrawing their declarations allowing direct access to the ACtHPR need to be assessed in light of many factors. The ACtHPR's function is undermined by the low number of States accepting its jurisdiction for complains brought by individuals and NGOs and the poor compliance record with its judgments. Despite these challenges, the ACtHPR is a resilient court addressing its increasing workload and evolving its case law.

Further Readings edit

  • J T Gathii (ed), The Performance of Africa's International Courts: Using Litigation for Political, Legal, and Social Change (OUP 2020)
  • C Heyns, 'The African Regional Human Rights System: In Need of Reform?' (2001) 2 African Human Rights Law Journal 155
  • R Murray, The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (OUP 2010)
  • F Ouguergouz, La Charte Africaine des Droits de l'Homme et des Peuples (Graduate Institute Publication 1993)

Further Resources edit

Table of Contents edit

Back to home page

Part I - History, Theory, and Methods

Part II - General International Law

Part III - Specialized Fields

Footnotes edit

  1. The first footnote. Please adhere to OSCOLA when formating citations. Whenever possible, provide a link with the citation, ideally to an open-access source.
  2. African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (adopted 27 June 1981, entered into force 21 October 1986) 1520 UNTS 217
  3. For discussion on the Third World approaches in international law (TWAIL), see Hauck, § 3.2 in this textbook. For critique on human rights and discussion of human rights as a colonial construction see Ananthavinayagan and Theilen, § 21.8 in this textbook.
  4. Ilias Bantekas and Lutz Oette, International Human Rights Law and Practice (OUP 2020) 280-281.
  5. On self-determination and decolonisation, see Bak McKenna, § 2.4 in this textbook.
  6. For the groundbreaking reparations’ judgment of the ACtHPR on the recognition of the Ogiek community as a holder of rights collectively and the legal implications of the notion of collective harm when deciding moral prejudice and non-pecuniary reparations see discussion below in the textbox Advanced Knowledge: Indigenous Peoples and Collective Rights. See The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights vs Republic of Kenya Application No 006/2012 (ACtHPR, 23 June 2022) paras 44, 92-93, 113-114, 116, 160(iv); Kenya: UN expert hails historic ruling awarding reparations to Ogiek indigenous peoples, UN Press Release, 18 July 2022.
  7. For the presence of duties of individuals in Islamic and Arab documents on human rights, see Rachovitsa, § 21.6, in this textbook.
  8. Abdi J Ali, 'Derogation from Constitutional Rights and Its Implication Under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights' (2013) 17 Law, Democracy & Development 78; Mohamed N Bhuian, 'African (Banjul) Charter: A Unique Step to Protect Human Rights in Africa' (2001) 5 Bangladesh Journal of Law 35.
  9. Certain rights omitted from the text of the ACHPR, including the right to privacy, could be read into the right to human dignity, as provided under article 5 ACHPR.
  10. For example, Alex Thomas v United Republic of Tanzania Application No 005/2013 (ACtHPR, 20 November 2015) para 124.
  11. Tanganyika Law Society and Legal and Human Rights Centre and Reverend Christopher R. Mtikila v Tanzania Application No 009/2011 (ACtHPR, 14 June 2013) para 106.
  12. Media Rights Agenda and Constitutional Rights Project v Nigeria Application No 224/1998 (ACmHPR, 2000) paras 65-70.
  13. Adamantia Rachovitsa, 'The African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights: A Uniquely Equipped Testbed for (the Limits of) Human Rights Integration?', in Emmanuelle Bribosia, Isabelle Rorive and Ana Maria Correa (eds), Human Rights Tectonics: Global Dynamics of Integration and Fragmentation (Intersentia 2018) 69.
  14. Tanganyika Law Society and Legal and Human Rights Centre and Reverend Christopher R. Mtikila v Tanzania Application No 009/2011 (ACtHPR, 14 June 2013) paras 108-109.
  15. The International Court of Justice in Case concerning Ahmadou Sadio Diallo (Republic of Guinea v Democratic Republic of the Congo) [2010] ICJ Rep 639, para 65 while discussing Article 12(4) of the ACHPR and Article 13 of the ICCPR, clarified that when a human rights provision requires national authorities to make a decision in accordance with the law, acting in accordance with domestic law is a necessary but not sufficient condition for complying with international law. The applicable domestic law must be compatible with the other requirements of a given human rights treaty.
  16. On NGOs, see Chi, § 7.6, in this textbook.
  17. Democratic Republic of Congo v. Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda Application No 227/99 (ACmHPR, May 2003.
  18. For example, Social and Economic Rights Action Center (SERAC) and Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) v Nigeria Application No 155/96 (ACmHPR, 2001)
  19. For discussion, see, C Heyns and M Killander, 'Africa', in D Moeckli, S Shah and S Sivakumaran (eds), International Human Rights Law (Oxford University Press, 2018) 474-475.
  20. Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Establishment of the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights (adopted 10 June 1998; entered into force 25 January 2004).
  21. Ibid, article 2.
  22. Ibid, article 5.
  23. Nicole de Silva and Misha Plagis, 'A Court in Crisis: African States’ Increasing Resistance to Africa’s Human Rights Court', Opinio Juris, 19 May 2020.
  24. See ACtHPR, Press Release, 3 November 2021.
  25. Adamantia Rachovitsa, 'On New "Judicial Animals": The Curious Case of an African Court with Material Jurisdiction of a Global Scope' (2020) 19 Human Rights Law Review 255.
  26. Geoff Dancy and others, 'What Determines Perceptions of Bias toward the International Criminal Court? Evidence from Kenya' (2020) 64 Journal of Conflict Resolution 1443.
  27. Tanganyika Law Society and Legal and Human Rights Centre and Reverend Christopher R. Mtikila v Tanzania Application No 009/2011 (ACtHPR, 14 June 2013).
  28. Kennedy Gihana and Others v Rwanda Application No 017/2015 (ACtHPR, 28 November 2019).
  29. Lohe Issa Konate v Burkina Faso Application No 004/2013 (ACtHPR, 5 December 2014).
  30. Mohamed Abubakari v United Republic of Tanzania Application No 007/2013 (ACtHPR, 3 June 2016).
  31. African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights v Republic of Kenya Application 006/2012 (ACtHPR, 23 June 2018).
  32. Activity Report of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Executive Council, Forty Second Ordinary Session, 16 January - 16 February 2023, EX.CL/1409(XLII), para 85.
  33. Omar Jallow v Gambia Application No 33/16 (ECOWAS Court, 10 October 2017) para 10.
  34. Katabazi and 21 Others v Secretary General of the East African Community and Another Application No 1/2007 (East African Court of Justice, 29 August 2007).
  35. Mike Campbell (PTV) and Others v Zimbabwe Application No 2/2007 (Southern African Development Community (SADC) Tribunal, 11 October 2007).
  36. Michelo Hansungule, 'The Suspension of the SADC Tribunal' (2013) 35 Strategic Review for Southern Africa 135.