The Origins of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights 

The broad features of the political process of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) are well known. They are generally assumed to begin with Decision 115 at the 1979 OAU Monrovia Annual Heads of State and Government meeting (AHSG) and conclude with the ACHPR’s adoption at the 1981 OAU Nairobi AHSG. As an account this is correct but tells us very little. There is far more to the story. Significance is also invariably attributed to the 1961 ICJ Lagos African Conference on the Rule of Law and the 1979 UN Monrovia Seminar on the Establishment of Regional Commissions on Human Rights with special reference to Africa although in fact neither played any part in bringing about the critical step of Decision 115.  

In Volume 2 of my upcoming book The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights I have attempted to identify in far greater detail the steps of the path that the political process of the ACHPR followed. Unfortunately, this has to begin by debunking the role frequently credited to the major Western powers, the UN, international NGOs and African civil society. The reality was that in 1979 the African states were not only determined to resist any outside interference in African affairs, including human rights, but also, as a result of their effective majority in the UN and the Cold War, they were in a position to push the Western powers about. The extent of their control in the UN and its agencies was such that they were able to block all efforts to bring African states before the bar of the Commission on Human Rights and, moreover, to turn the existing canons of international human rights upside down. As for the many pedagogic human rights conferences in Africa, they were largely useless and only demonstrated that most African delegates did not support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and opposed outside interference in Africa’s internal affairs.  

The real story begins in the mid-1970s when the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) began its campaign push for an African human rights system and used its 1976 Dar es Salaam and 1978 Dakar conferences as cover for the political lobbying of African political leaders without which the ACHPR political process could not have happened. Ultimately, it was only President Senghor’s bold decision to propose what became Decision 115 that made the ACHPR a realistic possibility. Nonetheless throughout the process, the ACHPR was dogged by opposition extending even to the after-hours of the 1981 Nairobi AHSG. Much of this detail has not yet been told and therefore the part played by OAU Secretary-General Kodjo has also not been fully recognised. That opposition went even further by means of resistance to ratification, funding and compliance. Far from being an inevitable outcome of the 1970s human rights zeitgeist, acceptance of the ACHPR by African heads of state was a finely balanced outcome in which any one of a number of factors could have brought it down. 

The details of the political and drafting twist and turns of the ACHPR process and a textual analysis of what emerged in terms of the thinking at the time, not what is assumed today, is the main subject matter of The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights Volume II: The Political Process. The best example of this is Article 24 which is often portrayed as the first time in which environmental rights were included in a human rights charter. Legal scholars, in particular, may find the textual analysis useful in terms of cases coming before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights today.

This guest post was written by Nat Rubner who 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.  

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights Volume II: The Political Process is a landmark study of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.  

Volume 2 is now available to pre-order along with the 2-volume set

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