In December 2014, just weeks before the January 2015 meeting at the African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, violence broke out in neighbouring South Sudan. Within days, horrific atrocities had been committed, prompting the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) – the AU body responsible for the maintenance of continental peace and security – to establish a human rights Commission of Inquiry.
The following year, as preparations for the January 2016 summit were under way, violent conflict reared its ugly head once again. On December 11, 2015, Burundian security forces unlawfully killed dozens of people after a pre-dawn rebel attack on military installations in the capital, Bujumbura. The Peace and Security Council announced that it would send troops to Burundi to stop the bloodbath – a decision that was later rescinded.
The circumstances surrounding this year’s summit are no different.
The political crisis in Gambia amid Yahya Jammeh’s refusal to hand over power after losing the election on December 1 generated regional tension and placed the country on a knife’s edge. Thousands fled to neighbouring Senegal in fear.
Once again, the spotlight is on the AU’s role (and that of regional economic communities such as Ecowas) in preventing and responding to conflict and crisis and, more specifically, on addressing human rights violations or abuses committed in such situations. In this context, it is important to recall that the role the AU plays in a specific conflict or crisis is largely shaped and driven by the chairperson of the AU Commission. According to the Protocol Establishing the PSC, the chairperson of the AU Commission, in conjunction with the PSC, “deploy[s] and take[s] all initiatives deemed appropriate to prevent, manage and resolve conflicts”.
This crucial role has been occupied for the last four years by Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma of South Africa. As her term nears its end, elections for a new chairperson are being conducted during the ongoing summit in Addis Ababa. The contest is between five African diplomats: Abdoulaye Bathily, a former Minister for Environment in Senegal and former UN Special Envoy for Central Africa; Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chadian Foreign Minister; Amina Mohamed, Kenyan Foreign Minister; Agapito Mba Mokuy, Equatorial Guinea’s Foreign Minister; and Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, Botswana’s Foreign Minister. Speculation is rife about which of them will clinch the position. The outstanding peace and security issues of the continent await whoever triumphs.
One of the key mandates of the new chairperson will be to steer the AU towards the realisation of its aspiration to silence all guns on the continent by 2020. With this deadline fast approaching, the new chairperson must move quickly to put in place structures that will reinvigorate and breathe new life into the AU’s framework for responding to human rights violations and abuses committed in the context of conflict and crisis.
But, what exactly would that entail?
First, the new chairperson must deliberately and consistently give prominence to addressing the human rights violations and abuses that lead to and/or are committed during conflict situations. The AU’s response to conflict-related human rights violations has typically been slow, inconsistent and reactive. The AU needs a comprehensive and consistent strategy to address this, and the political will to implement it.
Second, the new chairperson must bring co-ordination and synergy to the AU’s institutional response. All the organs and institutions of the AU involved in matters of human rights and peace and security must read from the same script. The chairperson must find ways to bridge the co-ordination gap between the African Peace and Security Architecture and the African Governance Architecture. He or she must also try to strengthen the relationship and collaboration between the AU and the Regional Economic Communities in matters of peace and security.
Third, the new chairperson must revive regional and international interest in old and largely forgotten conflicts, such as the ongoing conflicts in the Blue Nile, South Kordofan and Darfur regions of Sudan. While the AU and the rest of international community heads towards “normalising” their relationships with the government of Sudan, terrible violations continue. In September 2016, research by Amnesty International revealed that Sudanese government forces continued to perpetrate crimes under international law against civilians, including the possible use of chemical weapons during attacks in the Jebel Marra region.
Finally, the new chairperson must reaffirm publicly that the AU stands strong in its commitment to pursue accountability for perpetrators of crimes under international law. In both Sudan and Burundi, there are specific and urgent measures the new AU chair can take to ensure accountability and justice. The August 2015 South Sudan Peace Agreement allows for the establishment of a hybrid court – and this urgently needs to be implemented. The new chair must also consider the recommendation of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to establish a special tribunal for Burundi.
Impunity remains a common denominator in all of Africa’s major conflicts with those suspected of gross human rights violations rarely held to account. While this continues, the cycle of violence is unlikely to be broken.
Above all, the new chair must ensure that the promotion and protection of human rights is not just a convenient afterthought, but an essential element of the African Union’s conflict prevention strategy. DM
Japhet Biegon is Africa Regional Advocacy Co-ordinator, Amnesty International.
Photo: A picture made available on 18 October 2016 shows Sudan People’s Liberation Army soldiers (SPLA) mounting an armored personnel carrier (APC) during a military operation against Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO) in Eastern Nile State, South Sudan, 16 October 2016. EPA/IKILASS HENRY
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