The African Charter
on Human and Peoples’ Rights

Research failures – the two that got away

Nat Rubner


Exclusively for the African Griot, Nat Rubner discusses the research that led to his monumental publications on The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Volume 1 outlines the dominant African political and cultural ideas of the time and their symbiotic relationship with the principles and politics upon which the OAU was founded and upon which it functioned. Volume 2 describes the process through which the ACHPR came into being, analysing the role of Western governments, the UN and NGOs.

Researching intellectual history demands a deep immersion into the concerns and questions that dominated the period in which the ideas being researched emerged and were formed. The extensive, albeit select, bibliography provides some idea of that immersion, and is itself also a useful reading guide for academic studies on Africa, human rights, international law, international relations and decolonisation. An essential part of that research process was also the twenty-five or so interviews and correspondence conducted with those who, in one way or another, were involved with the process that led to the adoption by the OAU of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 1981. Those interviews disclosed several deep insights that would not have been so apparent from any other source as, particularly in Africa, government archives of that time are invariably minimal in meaningful content and often inaccessible to researchers. This, though, is the story of two research efforts that got away.

Outside of the OAU’s circle of African heads of state, the key players pushing for adoption of an African human rights system were Keba M’baye and Niall MacDermot, operating under the umbrella of the International Commission of Jurists. On an early research visit to Dakar I located and was able to meet with Abdou M’baye, Keba’s son and himself a former Prime Minister of Senegal, who very generously, with his mother’s permission, provided me with valuable access to some of his father’s papers and library. The papers of Niall MacDermot, however, were to prove elusive. 

MacDermot led an interesting and romantic life. His second wife was considered suspect by British intelligence and therefore incompatible with his burgeoning Ministerial career in the 1964 Labour Government. Forced to choose, he opted for love and gave up his political career eventually arriving at the ICJ in 1970 as the successor to Sean MacBride as Secretary-General. Initially, for my PhD research, I concluded that, insofar as MacDermot’s second wife had died intestate, dealing with the Swiss cantonal authorities to identify details of the whereabouts of any papers that might have survived was likely to prove too problematic at best. 

However, with the PhD successfully completed I was able to think again. I made contact with Tam Dalyell MP, then father of the House of Commons and the author of an obituary for his old friend. Amazingly, I rang what I thought was his constituency office only to discover that it was his home and his wife was answering. ‘Tam’, she said, ‘there’s someone on the phone for you’. Tam gave me a number of tips about his friends, although sadly they led nowhere, but I was so enthused by his generosity and enthusiasm I was determined to try harder. My first port of call was the MacDermot clan website and a query as to whether I could locate MacDermot’s sons whose first names I did not know. Three days later I was speaking with his son, a distinguished physician, who, it turned out, was working at UCL Hospital just down the road from me and the British Library. Regrettably, he informed me that he had no idea where his father’s papers were. Undeterred, I pursued the cantonal authorities in Geneva and emerged with the name of the lawyer who had handled his step-mother’s estate. She explained that MacDermot’s papers had been offered to one of his sons but that the offer had been declined and so they were thrown away. A rather unfortunate loss for all human rights specialists.

Within the OAU the key players were President Senghor of Senegal, the whereabouts of whose papers I am still hoping will emerge (my efforts to locate them are a story in themselves), President Jawara of The Gambia and former OAU Secretary-General Edem Kodjo. Thanks to the help of Sika Frepeau at the OAU archives in Addis Ababa, but earlier in her life the first woman TV presenter on Togo TV, I was able to obtain an interview with Edem Kodjo at his home in Togo, an interview that was exceptionally helpful in gaining an understanding of the political process. Unfortunately, I was less successful in my pursuit of former President Jawara. 

Through the internet I identified that President Jawara’s son was Secretary of the Banjul Golf Club – his daughter was at this time working near Brighton, England but I was unable to reach her. An email was sent to the golf club asking that my request for an interview with President Jawara be passed on to his son. Again, within a very few days, I received a reply from him suggesting I should contact his father’s lawyer. After prolonged correspondence I was told that I could come to Banjul for an interview, although a firm time was yet to be agreed, and so I sped off to Banjul on a one week charter package. As was my practice, on the first morning I sought to spy out the lay of the land and took a taxi to President Jawara’s villa, which turned out to be protected by armed soldiers. My efforts to gain access, at least to speak to his secretary, were not only rebuffed by the soldiers but, as I learned, they were also intending to arrest me. By a complete stroke of luck, President Jawara’s lawyer happened to pass by at this moment in his car and, realising who I was, managed to secure my release. A week later I was on the flight out of Banjul without an interview. It seems, so I was told, that an interview with President Jawara had only recently been published in a foreign journal and the current President, Jammeh, President Jawara’s successor, had not been sufficiently lavished with praise in that interview. As a result, President Jawara was under house arrest and no visitors permitted. Nonetheless, the visit was not without some interest as The Gambian archives turned up some interesting contemporary reports of the Banjul drafting meetings.

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights
VOLUME 1

Political, Intellectual & Cultural Origins

NAT RUBNER

9781847013538, hardcover,
August 2023
656pp., 1 b/w illus.
James Currey
£110 / $160

VOLUME 1
OFFER PRICE:

£60.50/$88

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights
VOLUME 2

The Political Process

NAT RUBNER

9781847013545, hardcover, October 2023
520pp., 5 b/w illus.
James Currey
£95 / $140

VOLUME 2
OFFER PRICE:

£52.25/$77

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NAT RUBNER has a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge. He is an Honorary Research Fellow, School of History, Queen Mary, University of London. In the course of his previous 20-year career in international finance, he edited the first public international debt prospectus of the African Development Bank.