African Human Rights System

The African System is the youngest of the three judicial or quasi-judicial regional human rights systems, and was created under the auspices of the African Union. Like the Inter-American System (and the European System, as originally designed), it is composed of two entities: a Commission and a Court.

Resources for Advocates

IJRC’s publication Advocacy before the African Human Rights System: Manual for Attorneys and Advocates (2016) provides detailed information on the System, its components, complaints procedure, and decisions. The manual addresses the continental human rights bodies, as well as regional courts engaged in human rights protection. It also contains a list of additional books, articles, and websites with information and analysis relevant to understanding the African human rights bodies’ work.

 

African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights

Seat: Arusha, Tanzania   Instrument: Protocol to ACHPR  Operating Since: 2006

The African Court on Human and Peoples Rights (AfCHPR) is a regional human rights tribunal with advisory and contentious jurisdiction concerning the interpretation and application of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which is also referred to as the Banjul Charter. Its jurisdiction extends to those States that have ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Establishment of an African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The AfCHPR decided its first case in December of 2009 and has taken up over two dozen other cases since then.

Complaints against any State that has accepted the Court’s jurisdiction may be referred to the Court by: the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, States Parties (as respondent or petitioner in a case before the Commission, or on behalf of a individual citizen), and African intergovernmental organizations. As of March 2016, 30 States had accepted the Court’s jurisdiction. These States are: Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Comoros, Congo, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Libya, Lesotho, Mali, Malawi, Mozambique, Mauritania, Mauritius, Nigeria, Niger, Rwanda, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, South Africa, Senegal, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, and Uganda. See AfCHPR, Court in Brief.

To see the most recent ratification information, visit the African Union’s Treaties, Conventions, Protocols & Charters webpage.

The Court also has jurisdiction to hear cases instituted by individuals and non-governmental organizations with observer status before the African Commission, provided that the relevant State has made the necessary declaration under Article 34 of the Protocol to allow these complaints, described in Article 5(3). To date, eight States have accepted the Court’s jurisdiction to receive complaints referred by individuals and NGOs; these are: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Tanzania, and Tunisia. Rwanda previously accepted the Court’s jurisdiction over individual and group complaints but in February 2016 announced it would withdraw that acceptance. [IJRC] It formally withdrew March 2016.

The 11 judges of the court are elected for renewable, six-year terms. The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Establishment of an African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, along with the AfCHPR’s Rules of Court, set out the Court’s functions and operating procedures.

Additionally, the States of the African Union have agreed to establish an African Court of Justice and Human Rights, intended to hear disputes arising under all African Union instruments, including the human rights agreements, and to prosecute individuals for serious international crimes. This new tribunal would replace the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. However, the protocol must be ratified by 15 States before the African Court of Justice and Human Rights comes into being.

African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights

Seat: Banjul, The Gambia        Instrument: ACHPR       Operating Since: 1987

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) promotes and protects human rights in 54 Member States of the African Union that have ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Morocco, rejoined the African Union in 2017, becoming its 55th Member State, but had not yet ratified the African Charter as of June 2017. [IJRC]

The Commission accepts complaints (“communications”) from individuals, groups of individuals, non-governmental organizations, and States concerning alleged violations of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

The ACHPR holds two ordinary sessions a year and may also hold extraordinary sessions upon the request of the Chairperson of the Commission or a majority of Commissioners. During the biannual ordinary sessions, the ACHPR considers periodic reports submitted by States parties, as well as reports from members of the Commission and its Special Mechanisms (rapporteurs, committees and working groups). The Commission also considers reports concerning country visits (“Special Missions”), which are typically dispatched to countries experiencing political or social unrest.

The African Charter and the Commission’s Rules of Procedure establish its composition and procedures.

The African Instruments

The Commission and Court are charged with interpreting and applying a number of regional human rights instruments, which include:

They also interpret the principles contained in the following non-treaty documents:

African Rapporteurs and Working Groups

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has established multiple special mechanisms to assist the Commission with the promotion and protection of human rights. The special mechanisms’ mandates extend to all African Union (AU) Member States who are States Parties to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. All of the 54 AU Member States are States Parties to the Charter. The special mechanisms are dedicated to protecting and promoting specific rights or the rights of specific vulnerable groups.

As of October 2014, there are seven Working Groups, five Special Rapporteurships, two Committees, and one Advisory Committee. All of these special mechanisms gather and disseminate information on how different groups of people or specific human rights are being treated throughout the Member States. The special mechanisms use this information to provide States or the Commission with guidance toward effectively securing human rights in Africa.

Each special mechanism has been overseen by one of the Commission’s eleven Commissioners, who undertakes his or her duties on a part-time basis. As of October 2014, each individual appointed as Special Rapporteur or as Chairperson to a Working Group or Committee has been a Commissioner, simultaneously serving on the Commission. Commissioners also serve as members of the Working Groups and Committees, alongside non-Commissioner expert members.

The special mechanisms have a duty to provide the Commission with reports on their activities during each Ordinary Session. In turn, the Commission presents annual Activity Reports to the African Union Assembly that contain information gathered from the special mechanisms, summarizing positive developments and areas of concern regarding human rights in Africa.

Principal Functions

As described in greater detail at the links below, each special mechanism has a specific mandate. Generally, special mechanisms may:

  • conduct country visits to Member States to investigate the enforcement of human rights;
  • make recommendations to Member States to guide them toward the fulfillment of their international obligations;
  • lend expertise to the Commission when it is considering communications that concern the special mechanism’s mandate;
  • submit annual reports to the Commission detailing its activities;
  • propose that the Commission send urgent appeals to Member States regarding imminent human rights violations;
  • send letters to State officials requesting information regarding human rights violations;
  • analyze States’ domestic laws and their compliance with international standards;
  • engage in promotional activities, including seminars, workshops, and expert meetings; and,
  • collaborate with civil society organizations and international human rights bodies.

Creation of Special Mechanisms

The African Commission appoints Special Rapporteurs, Chairpersons, and members of the special mechanisms either by consensus or by a vote. See ACommHPR, Rules of Procedure of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (2010), Rule 23(2). Typically, the mandate of the special mechanism is originally authorized for two years, and is renewed by the Commission thereafter. The renewals are effectuated through the passing of a resolution. Each special mechanism’s website contains a list of the resolutions that have authorized the continuing mandate for that mechanism.

Committees, Special Rapporteurs, and Working Groups

The following fifteen special mechanisms have been established:

Additional Tools for Victims & Advocates

See IJRC’s publication Advocacy before the African Human Rights System: Manual for Attorneys and Advocates (2016) for detailed information on the System, its components, complaints procedure, and decisions.

Decisions of the African human rights bodies can be accessed on the websites of the Commission and Court. However, the most effective tool for researching their caselaw is the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa’s Case Law Analyser.

The Commission’s website also includes States’ periodic reports and its concluding observation on those reports, as well as the Commission’s reports on country visits and other activities.

The NGO Forum supports and coordinates civil society engagement with the African Commission, through twice yearly meetings ahead of the Commission’s sessions.

Information on engagement with the African Commission and Court can be found in the Commission’s Guide to the African Human Rights System and Guidelines for the Submission of Communications, as well as in the International Service for Human Rights’ publications, Road map for civil society engagement: State reporting procedure of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (2011) and A Human Rights Defenders’ Guide to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (2012).