Africa Human Rights Day – 25 MAY 2020

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Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA) statement presented at the Pan African Parliament (PAP) for the commemoration of Africa Day. PAP hosted a virtual “Meeting with Civil Society” themed: Reflections on the African Union Agenda 2063 and Silencing the Guns.

Brief introduction to Africa Day

On 25 May 1963 the African Union (AU), formerly the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), was established as the apex regional intergovernmental body. This continental body consists of the 55 Member States that make up the African continent. It was officially launched in 2002 as a successor to the OAU, 1963 – 1999.

HURISA statement presented at PAP on 25 May 2020

Thank you to the Moderator Mr, Don Deya, CEO of the Pan-African Lawyers Union (PALU) and the Mistress of Ceremonies Mrs. Lyn Chiwandamira, Senior International Relations Officer, Pan-African Parliament –

•Honourable Bouras Djamel, Acting President of the Pan-African Parliament;
•Honourable Chief Fortune Charumbira, Vice- President of the Pan-African Parliament;
•Honourable Admore Kambudzi, Acting Director of the Peace and Security Department of African Union;
•Honourable Commissioner, Dr Solomon Dersso, Chairperson of the African Commission for Human and People’s Rights;
•Honourable Members of Pan African Parliament;
•Distinguished State Delegates, Dignitaries;
•Development & Cooperation Partners;
•Colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, all protocol duly observed.

It is my singular honour and privilege to speak at this august virtual meeting convened by the Pan African Parliament for the commemoration of Africa Day. Let me first extend my gratitude to Hon. Bouras Djamel, the Acting President of the Pan-African Parliament, for creating this opportunity for PAP engagement with the people of Africa. PAP is the voice of the people of Africa and we appreciate you bringing the parliament to the people of Africa on this occasion. My name is Corlett Letlojane, I am wearing two hats at this platform. One is speaking as the PAP CSO Forum Chairperson and the other as the Executive Director of Human Rights Institute of South Africa.

The significance of this day reminds us of the strides achieved by our forefathers in establishing the AU (formerly OAU). We admire the founding principles entrenched for promoting Pan Africanism, unity, solidarity, cohesion and cooperation between the people of Africa and the African States. If there’s anything that COVID-19 has done in our nations besides devastating our lives, especially the needy, it is that it is changing attitudes of people across the world. Chief Justice Mogoeng has put it well by stating “the lockdown has given us an opportunity to reflect on how materialistic we are at times and how much the need is out there, the need that must not be theorised, or intellectualised, but a need that cries out for practical steps to be taken by each citizen to share”. This resonates with the AU Founding principles and the need to cultivate positive responses for curbing COVID-19 in Africa. This unprecedented crisis has turned people’s lives upside down and stripped off what seemed to be normal for the poor, the middle class and the rich.

The Social Impact of COVID-19

As for the poor, COVID-19 regulations have devastating impact on them because of the vulnerable lived realities they endured for many generations. This is in spite of most constitutions safeguarding the individual’s right to life, to live in a clean and safe environment, and to their health and well-being. Governments are obliged to ensure citizens enjoy these basic fundamental rights. However, many Africans still yearn for freedom despite many decades of the continent’s liberation from colonisation and the 25 years since apartheid. There’s a need to restore the human dignity of the people of Africa through the realisation of African mechanisms, making democratic institutions effective, and upholding the rule of law and human rights. COVID-19 provides a unique opportunity to take stock of the negative impacts of bad governance on the people’s struggle for land, as most Africans occupy land with no infrastructure developed for safe water and sanitation. And, importantly, the occupants of these lands often have no title deeds. There is considerable valuable academic research studies and recommendations for improving the living conditions in Africa. There are also existing mechanisms to overcome the housing and land issues facing Africans on the continent. But millions of people continue living in backyards and squatter camps as shacks dwellers on the African continent . This means we still have a long way to go to address the appalling living conditions in Africa and we need leaders that will change this situation .

Most African constitutions safeguarded the universality of the right to adequate housing. We need to improve Africa’s living conditions to sustainably put an end to overcrowding, informal settlements and squalid slums. These conditions pose life-threatening health risks to people and also make it hard for people to adhere to COVID-19 prevention protocols, including washing of hands with safe water and soap and ensuring social distancing. COVID-19 is challenging leaders to do more to deliver land and dignified housing to Africans. This can be achieved through accelerated implementation of AU mechanisms such as the AU Programme for Infrastructure Development Action. It will make universal access possible for safe water, sanitation, electricity, health centres, schools and roads in Africa. The AU Agenda 2063 is Africa’s vision to end health risks to ensure a safe and secure continent . It should change the lives of over 200 million African people who occupy land which is not surveyed or proclaimed for residential purposes .

In South Africa, when the army was deployed to assist the police to maintain law and order, the budget of R641 million was increased to R4.9 billion after adding 73,000 military personnel to assist the police. If there was similar government surges to address equally important human crises like corruption, poor service delivery, housing, land, water and sanitation, there could be vast progress to curb the systemic gaps. Instead, innocent lives were lost from excessive police force, torture, evictions, shack demolitions, riots, murder, assault, harassment, and arbitrary arrests. This contrasts starkly with the peoples’ expectations that a deployment of the army would not undermine fundamental rights but help the government to save lives. Africa needs to raise leaders that will remember their commitment to uplift the lives of people. Every effort should be made to popularise the AU campaign for 2020, Silencing the Guns, with plans to reduce states’ enormous budgets for the purchase of military equipment.

Although resources have also been provided for assisting the needy with humanitarian aid, the suffering has increased as help is not reaching those who qualify for it. Many stand on the side of roads begging for food. Funds contributed by various sources towards Solidarity funds seem inadequate to cover millions of families.

The response to COVID-19 has also exposed the disproportionate gender-based violence, loss of livelihoods and rising poverty levels as many in vulnerable communities have lost jobs. There’s no policy considered for domestic workers, informal traders and recycling waste pickers to be part of unemployment insurance fund Undocumented migrants and refugees as vulnerable groups have also been impacted, as a number of repatriations and deportations were enforced by South Africa and Botswana. It was only some two weeks ago that measures were put in place to support the needy with a relief grant.

The other sector facing challenges is the essential service providers who are on the frontline of curbing COVID-19, especially in health care. It seems their lives are being put at risk because of inadequate PPE. This has resulted in frontline workers engaging in protests and neglecting people affected by COVID19.

The Role of civil society efforts in curbing COVID-19
CSOs have continued playing important roles in communities through awareness-raising and education campaigns, increasing knowledge and the prevention of COVID-19. There have been significant adjustments, diversified programmes and approaches to enable CSOs to function effectively in the new COVID-19 environment. New pathways have been identified, such as: collaborations, fostering relations with humanitarian aid organisations; obtaining accreditation to serve as volunteers and essential service providers on the ground to reach the needy and vulnerable communities.

Our organisations produced simplified materials to help communities, especially based in far remote areas, including township and vulnerable communities, to understand the legal framework implemented to curb COVID-19 and how to play roles at municipal level. Research studies have been conducted on human rights and the impact of COVID-19. Networking with a view to monitoring the promotion of human rights and Human Rights Documentation Handling was also implemented with partners across South African provinces.

Research studies, publications and media platforms have also been rolled out at the SADC level to analyse whether the space for human rights was enhanced or diminished by measures to control the spread of COVID-19. Moreover, there has been sustained advocacy for promoting the use of regional human rights bodies, and support for drafting petitions against reprisals, abductions, torture, and discrimination during the COVID-19 era. Products of these activities are accessible on our website and social media platforms.

Strengthening PAP mechanisms for innovative engagements & CSOs partnership

The PAP Rules of Procedure place PAP in a unique position to engage in vibrant initiatives with civil society. It also elaborates special powers and procedures for PAP participation in awareness-raising, which is an area with huge gaps where CSOs and PAP can map out ways of engaging effectively. Very few CSOs understand the PAP mechanism, including its procedures, how to access Committees, and how to contribute to the deliberation pertinent to human rights. However, CSOs have the knowhow for accessing both national and regional core expertise, stakeholders and networks working on diverse issues corresponding to PAP work. CSOs are available and willing to enhance PAP’s effectiveness by providing resources, technical assistance for impacting initiatives for various stakeholders, and platforms based within remote communities. COVID-19 offers States and non-state actors an opportunity to review progress in effecting the AU frameworks established decades ago for collaborations in Africa.

The promotion of human and people’s rights is another important role of PAP where synergies can be tapped with CSOs. CSOs can offer solutions for PAP to create cultures of respect for human rights, including social cohesion, unity and solidarity on the Continent. Furthermore, considering that corruption is one of the root causes of conflict on the continent, Article 72 of the PAP Rules of procedure provides PAP the opportunity to increase its visibility to help in overcoming this challenge through consolidation of democratic institutions, democratic culture, and good governance. PAP also has creative models for effective functioning that include the establishment of ten (10) permanent PAP Committees to work on various issues for advancement of democracy, human rights and the rule of law on the continent. The Committees on Justice and Human Rights; on Health, Labour and Social Affairs; on Gender, Family, Youths, and People with Disability; among other committees are important to respond to COVID-19 and should work hand-in-hand with CSOs.

Rule 23 provides PAP with the power to receive evidence, hold public hearings, call witnesses, and permits any organ of the AU as well as other persons outside PAP to attend and speak at its proceedings. CSOs can also lodge Petitions to PAP’s attention on the various human rights problems to be considered. This is an important process that will enhance similar processes applied by other human rights bodies in the region to systematically address in collaboration and complementarity with other AU Organs. The opportunity for PAP to complement the work of the African Court on Human and People’s Rights, African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and Expert on the Rights and Welfare of the Child is clear. We recognize the presence of the Chairperson of ACHPR in this meeting and encourage PAP to do more on this aspect of complementarity of AU Organs. Although, we have to bear in mind possible conflicts with meeting timeframes of AU Organs that might make this hard to actualise. Encouraging CSOs’ submission of shadow reports, such as practiced by the ACHPR after presentations of the States reports, will further enhance advocacy for compliance with Concluding Observations, ratification, domestication and implementation of AU human rights instruments for change in the region.

Honorable Members of PAP offered responses to HURISA intervention and the following were discussed.

1.Freedom of expression and information must be upheld, especially the dissemination of information relating to curbing COVID-19.
2.People’s voices should participate in the law making and decision making for development of adequate laws to curb COVID-19.
3.Need for one continental legislation to curb COVID-19.
4.The lockdown, humanitarian aid, as well as education should be seen to represent people’s views.
5.COVID-19 changes should encourage PAP’s move towards new technology in meeting online and advancement of social media.
6.COVID-19 has taught us many lessons, especially in its exposure of poverty, lack of land ownership, housing, inequality, the plight of vulnerable communities which need to be addressed for provision of safe livelihoods, to save lives, and responsibility to adhere to protocols.
7.There’s a need for Continental Research to be conducted on Informal traders and workers who need sustainable solutions.
8.Clear targets should be set indicating impact where the majority live.
9.Capacity building training for CSO stakeholders’ participation in PAP initiatives.
10.Unity should be Africa’s strength and encouraged practice.
11.Transparency in respect of resource mobilization, especially regarding funding from the World Bank, IMF and effective monitoring and distribution of resources to prevent corruption.
12.Promotion of Citizens rights enshrined in Constitutions, and scrutiny of law and policies, while also monitoring laws that impede the freedom of movement.