What is the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights?
The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR), which was created by Article 30-45 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, monitors the implementation of the rights set out in the Charter. All 54 African States are parties to the Charter.
The Commission is formed by 11 independent experts who are nationals of State parties to the Charter, and meet for two 15-day sessions each year which are held in April/May and October/November. The permanent Secretariat of the Commission is based in Banjul, The Gambia.
The African Union was created in 2001, replacing the Organisation of African Unity in 2002, which was established to promote cooperation among the newly independent African States, but which did not have a human rights focus.
What does it do?
The Commission promotes human rights through awareness-raising programmes, sets human rights standards, and interprets articles of the Charter.
The Commission protects human rights through its complaints mechanism, which empowers it to receive individual and inter-State complaints alleging human rights violations. It also receives and considers periodic reports that State parties are required to submit under Article 62 about how they are implementing the Charter.
Below is some introductory information on the Commission's powers and activities, and how it can be used to promote and protect children’s rights, including the reporting procedure, complaints procedure, and special mechanisms on specific human rights issues.
States must submit reports about their progress in implementing the African Charter to the Commission every two years. The reports are considered by the Commission in public sessions, following which it issues recommendations to the reporting State called 'concluding observations'. However, over half of the State parties to the Charter have not yet submitted any report. Read more on the reporting procedure of the ACHPR.
NGOs can submit alternative reports when their State reports to the Commission, giving additional information about human rights in their country. However, this mechanism has been little used in practice as NGOs have been given very little time to review State reports.
NGOs often play a role in bringing cases to the Commission (under the complaints procedure), proposing agenda items for Commission sessions, and providing logistical and other support to the special rapporteurs, working groups and missions, as well as developing resolutions and new protocols to the African Charter.
How does the complaints system work?
The Commission is authorised to consider both inter-State and individual communications about breaches of human rights. In fact, the Charter binds all State parties to accept the Commission's power to supervise and monitor all rights.
The Commission is a quasi-judicial body so its decisions do not carry the binding force of a court of law.
The Commission has special investigative powers to monitor emergency situations; that is, cases which reveal a pattern of serious or massive violations. It can do this through appointing experts, requesting States to adopt interim measures to protect victims, receiving testimonies, etc.
For the Commission to consider a complaint, it must meet certain 'admissibility' criteria. These include, that the complainant has taken their case to the highest court in their own country without success or the prospect of success, and, that the communication is not written in 'disparaging or insulting language directed against the State concerned and its institutions'.
Read more about the complaints procedure to the ACHPR, including official guidelines for submitting a complaint.
The inter-State communications procedure has only been used once (Democratic Republic of Congo vs. Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, 15th annual activity report 1001-2 227/99).
Cases of children's rights violations
These are generally reported to the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child which can receive complaints of breaches of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. The case below detailing breaches of a group of students' rights in Sudan has been ruled on by the Commission, but there is no information about the ages of the students.
Sudan: Communication 236/2000 - Curtis Francis Doebbler vs. Sudan
On 13 June 1999, a group of female students at the Nubia Association at Ahlia University held a picnic in Buri, Khartoum along the banks of the river. They were sentenced to 25-40 lashes for 'public order' offences, contrary to Article 152 of the Criminal Law of 1991, because they were not properly dressed or acted in a way considered immoral, for example the girls danced and talked with boys.
A complaint was brought to the Commission stating that this punishment was carried out in violation of Article 5 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, which prohibits inhuman or degrading treatment.
The Commission ruled the communication admissible and requested the government of Sudan to:
- Immediately amend the Criminal Law of 1991, in conformity with its obligations under the African Charter and other relevant international human rights instruments
- Abolish the penalty of lashes; and
- Take appropriate measures to ensure compensation of victims
(Decision made at the 33rd Ordinary session in Niamey, Niger 15-29 May 2003)
Read the full judgement on Curtis Francis Doebbler vs. Sudan
How does the Commission deal with particular issues of concern?
The African Commission has established a number of special mechanisms to monitor thematic issues of concern in the region. Because children have all human rights, all special mechanisms apply to them as well as to adults, and every mechanism listed below can address breaches of children's rights. In addition, the African Committee has appointed a Special Rapporteur on child marriage.
The special mechanisms are formed of individual experts or working groups, which include a member of the Commission. The current special mechanisms are:
Special Rapporteurs: Prisons and Conditions of Detention in Africa; Rights of Women in Africa; Refugees, Asylum Seekers, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons; Human Rights Defenders in Africa; Extra-Judicial, Summary and Arbitrary Executions in Africa; Freedom of Expression in Africa.
Working groups: Specific Issues of the work of the Commission; Indigenous populations; Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; Robben Island Guidelines; Death Penalty.
Provisional or interim measures
The Commission can request that a State adopt certain measures in cases where there is a risk of serious or immediate harm to a person or a group. For example, a communication was sent to the Nigerian government requesting them not to execute Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.
The future of the African Commission
Once the Protocol on the Statute of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights (“the Protocol”) comes into force, the African Commission will be eligible to submit cases to this new unified Court (you can find more information on this future Court here). Moreover, article 36 of the Protocol introduces new concepts with regard to representation of parties before the Court. It provides that:
“The African Commission, the African Committee of Experts [...] shall be represented by any person they choose for that purpose.”
This opens the door for the Commission to hire legal counsel or law professors, or to be represented by their own staff members.
Useful contacts and links:
African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights
Kairaba Avenue, P.O. Box 673, Banjul, The Gambia
Tel: (220) 4392 962 | Fax: (220) 4390 764
Email: [email protected]
African Union Headquarters
P.O. Box 3243, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Tel: (251) 11 551 77 00 | Fax: (251) 11 551 78 44
New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD)
P.O. Box 1234, Halfway House, Midrand, 1685, Johannesburg, South Africa