ACHPR: Withdrawing Coalition of African Lesbians’ observer status threatens civil society participation

Ahead of the 63rd session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR), ARTICLE 19 is critically concerned by threats to civil society participation in the Commission, threats to its independence as a human rights body, and efforts to undermine equality by the African Union (AU) Executive Council. In August 2018, following a decision by the AU Executive Council, the ACHPR withdrew the Council of African Lesbians’ (CAL) observer status following the AU Executive Council’s comments on the need to consider “African values” in the granting of observer status. The issue has been one of contention between the bodies since 2015. ARTICLE 19 is disappointed to see discriminatory approaches and politicization prioritized over the Commission’s mandate to protect universal human rights.

The decision raises questions about the ACHPR’s independence and impartiality, and has triggered concerns of a further assault by the AU’s Executive Council on the ACHPR’s human rights work. The Executive Council’s directive ordering the ACHPR to withdraw CAL’s status, includes a number of alarming elements threatening the ACHPR’s ability to serve as a genuine human rights body and the statement that it must consider “the virtues of historical tradition and the values of African civilization” in its approach to human rights. The Decision orders the ACHPR to now seek permission from state parties before reporting on any human rights violations in a country. It also worryingly states that the ACHPR only enjoys “functional” independence but does not have autonomy from the African Union’s political organs.

“The AU’s decision demonstrates State parties’ continued onslaught on human rights institutions that question them on their human rights practices at home. By forcing the Commission to withdraw CAL’s observer status, the Executive Council has once again demonstrated African leaders’ regressive approach to human rights that views women’s and LGBT people’s equal enjoyment of human rights as ‘un-African’. This effort to undermine CAL and other groups’ legitimacy not only entrenches discrimination, but means women and LGBT people lose their voice in a vital human rights forum for Africa,” said Henry Maina, ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa Regional Director.

The decision also directs the ACHPR to submit its criteria for granting observer status to civil society organisations to state parties for their review. The suggestion has been that the ACHPR’s criteria for granting observer status should be like those of the AU, which are more restrictive and would block NGOs from having observer status, creating a serious threat to participation in the Commission’s discussions on human rights.

At the 62nd Ordinary Session of the ACPR held in April this year in Nouakchott, Mauritania, 56 organisations with observer status made statements on the floor of the commission on a range of African human rights priorities. Three new organizations from South Africa, Uganda, and Cote d’ Ivoire were granted observer status, bringing the total number of organisations with observer status at the Commission to 518.

“The vital input of civil society in the promotion and protection of human rights at the ACHPR is at risk of being further restricted if civil society and rights respecting States do not come out to castigate this move by the AU Executive Council and the Commission, and to ensure the ACHPR is able to hold its ground and maintain its independence and autonomy from other more politicised AU organs” added Maina.

As the ACHPR prepares for its 63rd session in Banjul, The Gambia, ARTICLE 19 calls on all stakeholders to come out in support of the CAL and urges the ACHPR to reinstate the organisation’s observer status with immediate effect, and resist efforts to undermine women’s and LGBT rights. State parties must not interfere with the independence of human rights institutions but instead support the structures that ensure all actors can participate in platforms such as the ACHPR.