Part 5 in a series by Marissa Goldfaden as she works her way through “Introduction to minority rights, regional human rights mechanisms, and minority rights advocacy,” a new online course offered to the public free of charge by Minority Rights Group International. The course’s stated objectives are to introduce concepts of minority rights and discrimination, develop awareness and understanding of international and regional mechanisms for minority rights, and improve practical skills in lobbying and advocacy.


Topic 5: Regional instruments and mechanisms: Africa

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights is the main regional human rights instrument. However, it does not make specific mention of minorities as a category recognized in African human rights law. Explains MRG, “the concept of minorities in Africa is challenging due to the multi-ethnic nature of most of the African states at the national level. Colonial boundaries were established without regard for different ethnic groups, religious and linguistic variations, or regional power bases…some communities regard the term ‘minorities’ as derogatory and therefore, do not self-identify as such.” Many communities in Africa identify as both indigenous peoples as well as minorities.

Introduction to the African Union

The African Union (AU) is a pan-African organization that was founded to promote cooperation among African countries. All African states except Morocco are members. The AU is responsible for promoting unity and peace among African nations; encouraging democracy and good governance; and fostering sustainable growth.

The Constitutive Act of the African Union established the AU. It is the basic legal agreement that governs the relationship between, and behavior of, African states.

Main decision-making organs of the AU

The Assembly is the AU’s main decision-making body. It is made up of the heads of state of member countries, who meet twice a year at its Ordinary Summits. The Assembly adopts decisions, which are binding on member states, by majority vote. Treaties – Conventions and Charters – and their Protocols are adopted by decision but enter into force only after they have been ratified by a sufficient number of member states. A head of state is elected to serve a one-year term as chairperson of the AU.

The Executive Council, comprised of the foreign ministers of all the member states, is in charge of the coordination of member states’ policies in areas of common interest. The Peace and Security Council (PSC) is tasked with the prevention, management and resolution of conflict in Africa, as well as the protection of human rights. Its decisions are binding on member states. The PSC may hold informal consultations with civil society organizations, or invite them to speak before it.

Advisory Organs of the AU

The Pan-African Parliament (PAP) is composed of representatives of parliaments of AU member states. Its objectives include: the promotion of human rights, democracy, good governance, transparency and accountability, and peace, security and stability in Africa. It may examine, discuss or express an opinion on any issue, notably those relating to ‘the respect of human rights, the consolidation of democratic institutions and democratic culture as well as the promotion of good governance and the rule of law’, and make recommendations.

The Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC) encourages the participation of civil society in the implementation of AU policies and programs; promotes advocacy around gender equality; and aims to strengthen the capacity of African civil society. In order for civil society to participate at ECOSOCC meetings, they have to have applied for, and been granted, observer status.

The African Union Commission acts as the AU’s secretariat; represents the interests of the AU; manages its financial resources; and drafts strategy.

Women, Gender, and Development Directorate: Article 4(1) of the Constitutive Act mandates the Union to operate in accordance with the principle of ‘promotion of gender equality’. According to Article 8 of the Statutes of the Commission of the Union, the chairperson is responsible for all gender programs and activities within the Commission.

Some of the core functions of the directorate are: gender mainstreaming; advocacy; policy; performance tracking, monitoring and evaluation; gender training and capacity building; research; communication, networking and liaison. Gender mainstreaming is defined as the process of assessing the different implications for women and men of any policy within an organization, with a view to achieving gender equality.

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (also known as the Banjul Charter) is a regional version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It does not refer to minorities as a legal category of people to protect, but its other strengths include:

  • Acknowledging the indivisibility and interdependence of civil, political, economic, and social rights, and recognizing collective rights
  • Emphasizing the importance of duties as well as rights
  • Guaranteeing the right to non-discrimination (Article 2), the right to equality and equal protection under the law (Article 3), and the right of equal access to public property and services (Article 13, para. 3).

An important treaty for the promotion and protection of children belonging to national minorities, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child:

  • Clearly prohibits discrimination based on cultural identity
  • Aims to safeguard the identity and culture of the child
  • Imposes duties on children and parents

The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa is inspired by the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and aims to eliminate discrimination and harmful practices related to women in Africa.

While it does not make specific mention of the concerns of women belonging to minority groups or indigenous communities, it insists on the following:

  • Promotion of peace to eradicate elements in traditional and cultural beliefs, practices, and stereotypes that legitimize and exacerbate the persistence thereof and tolerance of violence against women (Article 4, para. 2(d))
  • Protection of women facing harmful practices or any other forms of violence, abuse, and intolerance (Article 5)
  • Protection of women in armed conflict (Article 11)
  • Women’s right to a healthy and sustainable environment (Article 18)

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) is a quasi-judicial body (defined as an organization or agency exercising powers or functions that resemble those of a court or judge) established by the African Charter to monitor states’ compliance with the Charter. It is the oldest and most significant body responsible for the promotion, protection, and monitoring of human rights in Africa.

Civil society can file communications with the Commission. Communications are like court cases that are lodged against states on behalf of alleged victims of human rights violations by that state. The Commission will consider these cases and eventually (the process often takes more than 5 years) give a decision with some recommendations to be implemented at the domestic level.

Member states are urged to submit reports to the Commission every two years informing it of the progress they have made in implementing the Charter at the domestic level. Most of these reports can be viewed on the ACHPR website. NGOs may prepare what are called ‘shadow reports,’ in which they provide their observations on human rights issues. The Commission examines the report and produces Concluding Observations.

The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, based in Arusha, Tanzania, is the newest regional structure established by the AU in the context of human rights protection. It was established to complement the work of the Commission. The judgments it makes are binding and have to be implemented.

Currently, only the African Commission, African state parties to the Protocol establishing the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and African inter-governmental organizations can file a case before the court. Otherwise, it is a requirement that the state against which the NGO or individual wishes to file a case must have made a declaration allowing the case to be filed.