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The emergence of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is one of the greatest developments in the defense, protection and promotion of human rights in Africa, Leo Igwe writes. I realized this in May when I traveled to represent the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) at the 41st Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) in Accra, Ghana. ACHPR meet twice every year to assess the state of human rights in Africa especially how state parties are fulfilling their obligations and commitments under the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.

Usually part of the Session is devoted to hearing reports and statements by state parties, human rights institutions, intergovernmental and non governmental organizations involved in human rights protection and promotion in the region.

At the last Session, I listened to the statements and reports by state delegates from Ethiopia, Algeria, Gambia, Gabon, Sudan, Egypt, Zimbabwe etc. on the human rights situation in their countries. The state delegates including those from countries with terrible human rights records devoted a greater part of their presentations to praising their home governments and describing in glowing terms the efforts and progress their countries are making to uphold human rights.

They never made the slightest reference to any human rights abuses perpetrated by their governments. Even the National Human Rights Institutions – in their statements – shied away from highlighting the human rights violations by the states. It means that if the ACHPR were to rely solely on the reports and statements of state parties and institutions for its work, it would never have an adequate and comprehensive knowledge and information about the human rights situation in the region. And one of the aims for the establishment of the Commission would have been defeated.
That brings me to what I regard as the importance of NGOs in human rights protection and promotion in Africa. NGOs are a part of the ACHPR. The Commission on application grant them observer status. NGOs focus on different areas of interest-women’s rights, child’s rights, indigenous people’s rights, minority rights, gay rights, human rights defenders, freedom of expression etc

Few days to each Session NGOs convene a forum to debate and articulate a common platform and pass resolutions, which are presented at the session. Also, the different NGOs are given the opportunity to make statements and report cases of human rights violations during the Session. At the last meeting in Accra, I noticed that NGOs, in most cases, highlighted and drew the attention of the Commission to grave human rights abuses and violations, which state parties commit, ignore or refuse to report.

For instance, the government of the Gambia, in its statement, pointed out the progress it had made in strengthening human rights protection and promotion especially in the domestication of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the peaceful conduct of the presidential and parliamentary elections. It said nothing about any human rights abuses it might have committed. It was an NGO – the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative that informed the Commission of the death and disappearance of 50 African immigrants which occurred in the Gambia in 2005. These immigrants were traveling en route from Senegal to Europe when they were arrested by the Gambian police and army officials who clubbed and macheted them to death, dumping their bodies indiscriminately at various locations in the state. The Gambian government has continued to frustrate efforts to investigate the extra-judicial killing of these persons.

Also, the state delegate from Zimbabwe told the Session about the giant strides that the government of President Robert Mugabe had made in human sights protection and promotion. He blamed the crisis over the land redistribution process on the misrepresentations and distortions by the American and British governments who wanted to effect a regime change in the country. He never acknowledged any form of human rights violation by the government.

But it was an NGO – the Human Rights Institute of South Africa – that drew the attention of the Commission to the fact that the government of Zimbabwe was using restrictive legislation to suppress political activism especially freedom of expression and the media. Another NGO – the Human Rights Watch – noted the arrest and severe beating of over 50 opposition leaders and civil society activists by the Zimbabwean police and state security officers leading to the death of one activist and severe injuries to others.

In the case of Sudan, the head of its delegation told the Commission how the Sudan government was working to fully implement the Darfur Peace Agreement and improve the human rights and humanitarian situation in the region. But an NGO – the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies – in its statement-asked the Commission to get Sudan to end the grave and widespread human rights violations in Darfur. It noted that the government of Sudan had continued to fail in its commitment to ensure full and unhindered access of international humanitarian aid to Internally Displaced Persons in Darfur. Other NGOs brought before the Commission cases of human rights violations by state parties – Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, Uganda etc. These are issues, perspectives and concerns, which, ordinarily, would have gone unheard, unreported, and unaddressed by the Commission if NGOs were not involved- if NGOs were not given a voice and a platform – at the ACHPR.

NGOs enrich and enhance the work and mission of ACHPR. NGOs bring depth, balance and objectivity to the knowledge and understanding of the human rights situation in Africa. The participation of NGOs is critical and crucial to the defense, observance and enthronement of human rights in the region. Still a lot of criticisms have been leveled against NGOs in Africa. Some regard them as tools which some imperialist – Western- nations and organizations use to undermine African governments, interests and development. Others say that many of the so-called non-governmental organizations are in fact non-governmental individuals, set up by those who are only interested in enriching themselves. Whatever the case, an adage says that abuse does not destroy value. The abuses by those who use NGOs for some ulterior motives cannot destroy the value or detract from the fact that NGOs are a major force in human rights protection and promotion in Africa, and the world at large.

In a continent where governments rig themselves into power in spite of popular will and opposition; in a continent where governments are the major oppressors, exploiters and violators of human rights; in a continent where states parties pay lip-service or are totally indifferent to their obligations and commitments under the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights; in a continent where a rich and powerful minority tyrannize over a poor, powerless and voiceless majority, the voices, perspectives and participation of NGOs in human rights promotion would remain invaluable. NGOs are and will remain a great asset in the furtherance of human rights, human development and democratic values in Africa.

Leo Igwe is the IHEU Representative at ACHPR in Banjul

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