What happened to the AU theme for 2016?

The African Union (AU) theme for 2016 – ‘The year of human rights, with a particular focus on the rights of women’ – ensured that the spotlight fell on the plight of African women during the year. In contrast, the AU failed to speak up about human rights abuses by dictatorial regimes, despite a decision by the AU Assembly to label the next 10 years as ‘the Human and Peoples’ Rights Decade in Africa’. Three AU member states’ withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC) also dealt a blow to continental efforts to deal with human rights abuses.

At the July 2016 AU summit in Kigali, AU Commission (AUC) Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma awarded honorary prizes to Rwanda, Algeria, South Africa and Tunisia in recognition of their outstanding efforts in the promotion of women’s rights and gender equality. This was based on the new African Gender Scorecards for measuring the progress and achievements of AU member states on gender equality in various categories.

These awards were among a number of efforts to amplify women’s rights in 2016. Although the issue of promoting human rights more generally was placed on the back burner, the AU did adopt a new protocol on human rights for older persons and developed a new partnership with a network of human rights institutions. It also held consultations and conducted training on human rights, and has mandated the establishment of a new human rights institution in member states. A new human rights action plan is also expected to be tabled at the 28th AU summit in Addis Ababa in January this year.

The AU theme ensured that the spotlight fell on the plight of African women in 2016

As part of ‘the Human and Peoples’ Rights Decade in Africa’, the AU mandated the establishment of the Pan-African Human Rights Institute (PAHRI) to provide technical support to all member states on human rights promotion and protection through training and research. The AUC is expected to encourage member states to establish the PAHRI and host the institution.

Experience has shown, however, that directives to protect human rights are extremely difficult to enforce. Leaders in many countries resent the AUC’s initiatives in this regard and refuse to cooperate with human rights observers.

Africa held 16 presidential elections in 2016. Reports on these elections concur that the participation of women in these elections has improved, but huge constraints persist in terms of realising the equitable participation of women compared to their male counterparts.

Assessing the participation of women in the Ugandan elections in 2016, for example, the Women’s Democracy Group noted that although legal electoral frameworks do not discriminate against women, women face specific challenges due to the social, economic and cultural organisation of society. These include ‘less access to resources than their male counterparts; gender roles which at times prevent them from participating in politics; religious and cultural obstacles to their participation; [and] domestic violence, among others.’

In Somalia, the AU, together with United Nations (UN) Women, has used its leverage to mainstream women’s representation and participation in politics. Political parties in the country have developed internal rules to include a certain percentage of women as candidates for political office. The country’s Independent Electoral Commission has ensured that every sub-clan reserves seats to be contested only by women. Women’s representation in Parliament has thus far risen to 19.6%, based on reports from the AUC. After the elections the representation of women across the political spectrum is expected to rise to 30%.

The AU failed to speak up about human rights abuses by dictatorial regimes

At its 616th meeting on 11 August 2016, the AU Peace and Security Council endorsed the Intergovernmental Authority for Development’s call for in-depth investigations to identify and hold accountable those responsible for violating the ceasefire agreement and perpetrating human rights abuses in South Sudan in the renewed fighting. However, no commission has been established or effort has been made to prioritise accountability in South Sudan. The current focus is on establishing a Regional Protection Force, which remains to be fully conceived or deployed.

Most of the reports on the violence in South Sudan highlight how sexual and gender‐based violence are one of the major weapons of war. The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) documented over 100 cases of sexual violence, besides killings, torture and rights abuses, during the renewed violence in July 2016. Several women said they were raped when they left UN-protected camps to search for food; others were abducted and held in sexual slavery as ‘wives’ for soldiers in barracks.

The AUC launched the ‘Campaign to restore the dignity of women and to ensure accountability in South Sudan’ on 13 October 2016. It is imperative that this campaign highlights the role of South Sudanese leaders in the atrocities that have taken place.

The AU’s capacity-building initiatives include training for the human rights observers deployed in Burundi. During the commemoration of Africa Human Rights Day on 21 October 2016, Dlamini Zuma noted that the AU has ‘deployed human rights observers in Mali, Central African Republic [CAR], South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of [the] Congo, Somalia and Burundi’. ‘We currently have 45 human rights observers in Burundi. The impact of these observers in Burundi for instance has been immense in respect of mitigating human rights violations in the country,’ she said.

It is ironic that the AU chose 2016 to escalate considerations for a mass withdrawal from the ICC

However, the Burundian government continues to suppress opposition parties and infringe on the rights of opponents. The AU Assembly’s rejection of the PSC’s proposal for a peacekeeping mission in Burundi in 2016 set the tone for its minimal involvement in addressing the crisis. As matters stand, the Burundian government has rejected further dialogue with opposition parties and is on course to modify the constitution and the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi of 2000, as contained in the report of the outcome of the internal dialogue presented to the National Assembly on 25 August 2016.

The move will likely deepen the political instability and worsen the human rights violations in the country.

It is ironic, then, that the AU chose 2016 to escalate considerations for a mass withdrawal from the ICC, as suggested consistently at the January and July AU summits. The proposal emboldened South Africa, Burundi and The Gambia to lead the charge on withdrawal. The withdrawal campaign has undermined the need to sustain momentum on justice and human rights in the continent.

This article first appeared in the ISS Peace and Security Council Report

Picture: ©AU-UN IST PHOTO / STUART PRICE

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