African Human Rights System

In 1981, following numerous pleas by the UN Commission on Human Rights, interested states, nongovernmental organizations, and others dating as far back as 1961, the Eighteenth Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), convening in Nairobi, Kenya, adopted the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. Also known as the "Banjul Charter" for having been drafted in Banjul, Gambia, it entered into force on 21 October 1986 and boasts the vast majority of the states of Africa as parties to it.

Like its American (and early European) counterpart, the African Charter provides for a human rights commission, to wit, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights. The Commission has both promotional and protective functions and there is no restriction on who may file a complaint with it. Signatory states, individuals, groups of individuals, and nongovernmental organizations, whether or not they are victims of the alleged violation--all may file. In contrast to the European and American procedures, however, concerned states are encouraged to reach a friendly settlement without formally involving the investigative or conciliatory mechanisms of the Commission. Also, the African Charter does not call for a human rights court. African customs and traditions, it is said, emphasize mediation, conciliation, and consensus rather than the adversarial and adjudicative procedures common to Western legal systems. Notwithstanding, due largely to the changing realities of post-Cold War Africa, the creation of an African Court for Human Rights is imminent. The Court will not replace the Commission but will complement and reinforce its mandate.

Four other distinctive features of the African Charter are noteworthy. First, it provides for economic, social, and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights. In this respect it resembles the American Convention, but is distinctive from the European Convention. Next, in contrast to both the European and American conventions, it recognizes the rights of groups in addition to the family, women, and children. The aged and the infirm are accorded special protection also, and the right of peoples to self-determination is elaborated in the right to existence, equality, and nondomination. Third, it uniquely embraces two third generation, or "solidarity," rights "as belonging to all peoples": the right to economic, social, and cultural development and the right to national and international peace and security. Finally, it is so far the only treaty instrument to detail individual duties as well as individual rights--to the family, society, the state, and the international African community. In view of the turmoil that has beset northern and sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, it is fair to say that the African human rights system is still in its infancy.