Maverick Citizen

TRADE WITH DIGNITY OP-ED

‘For Africa, From Africa’ – reflections from the second annual session of the Africa Business and Human Rights Forum

‘For Africa, From Africa’ – reflections from the second annual session of the Africa Business and Human Rights Forum
The Africa Business and Human Rights Forum established the spirit that harmonising business practices with human rights principles can ensure that we guarantee that the advantages of African Continental Free Trade Area are genuinely all-encompassing, with no one left behind. (Photo: iStock)

The second annual session of the Africa Business and Human Rights Forum recently convened at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This vital gathering brought together a diverse array of stakeholders from across the continent to assess progress, deliberate on challenges and opportunities, and ultimately promote responsible business practices and corporate accountability in Africa.

Human rights activists, lawyers, academics, representatives of impacted communities, government officials, and civil society organisations came together, with a remarkable in-person and online presence of 1,100 participants collectively, hailing from 47 African states. Ethiopia led the way in attendance, with South Africa ranking fourth. 

The overarching objective was to align Africa’s path towards operationalising the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) with the goals of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

Following the last forum convened in Accra, Ghana, in 2022, Africa has witnessed significant advancements. Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria have embraced national action plans on business and human rights, serving as role models for fellow African nations. Additionally, it’s important to recognise that several other African countries are formulating their own national action plans, highlighting the significance of the regulation of businesses broadly to prevent and remedy human rights violations.

The AfCFTA is a major milestone in international trade, bringing together 55 African Union member countries and eight regional economic communities to establish a unified continental market. It is a key initiative of Agenda 2063, a long-term development strategy with the goal of turning Africa into a global economic force. The AfCFTA’s mission is to remove trade obstacles, boost intra-African trade and foster value-added production in all sectors of the African economy.

Day Zero: Addressing gender inequality 

On day zero, a side-session focused on women’s economic justice and corporate accountability, organised by Action Aid International, was convened. It highlighted the unique challenges women in various African countries face with regard to the operations of transnational corporations, and economic challenges women may face under the operationalisation of the AfCFTA. 

The panellists and participants raised concerns about issues such as harassment, unequal pay, job insecurity, unpaid care work and limited opportunities, especially for vulnerable women, including those with disabilities. The session stressed the importance of addressing gender disparities within the AfCFTA, emphasising that it should not overlook gender issues. 

What was concerning was the sentiment of certain business leaders within the extractives industry failing to acknowledge the harm that extractive operations have on frontline communities.

Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) also highlighted the vulnerabilities faced by women and called for strategies to protect human rights activists. LHR cautioned against potential SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) targeting women and the need for preparedness under both the operations of AfCFTA and the UN Legally Binding Treaty on Business and Human Rights. LHR also noted that both these instruments should strategically protect human rights activists.  

Day One: Civil society speaks out  

On day one, civil society organisations used the forum to highlight the severe impact of the operations of transnational corporations in African communities. They raised concerns about issues such as environmental pollution, forced child labour, public health, the exploitation of refugees and migrants as cheap labour, and the safety of whistle-blowers. These organisations emphasised the urgent need for stricter regulations and enforcement mechanisms to address these problems, underscoring the importance of protecting vulnerable populations and safeguarding those who speak out against corporate wrongdoing. They called to action responsible and ethical corporate practices in Africa which they believe could be achieved through collective efforts by the state and corporations.

In response to these concerns, business leaders and the private sector acknowledged their essential role in economic development. They affirmed their commitment to due diligence and acknowledged that the primary responsibility for protecting human rights rests with the state. They expressed a willingness to collaborate with civil society organisations and governments to safeguard human rights. However, what was concerning was the sentiment of certain business leaders within the extractives industry failing to acknowledge the harm that extractive operations have on frontline communities despite these harms being widely and reputably published. 

Day 2: A call for intersectionality: Protecting vulnerable communities

During the second day of the forum, Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to health, eloquently addressed the intersection of businesses and human rights and vulnerable groups, particularly women, children, individuals with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, refugees and migrants. Dr Mofokeng emphasised the importance of rebalancing the power dynamic between corporations, governments, and communities to safeguard human rights. She strongly advocated against discrimination based on gender identity, sexual orientation and nationality, asserting that inclusivity is essential for Africa’s true progress. 

The AfCFTA marks a significant stride towards dismantling colonial-era barriers, fostering economic growth and reducing poverty; but it falls short by not imposing obligations related to human rights protection.

Dr Mofokeng’s bold stance on recognising the rights of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities received widespread support from participants and panellists, despite past reluctance by the African Union institutions.

Africa Business and Human Rights Forum

Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, known as Dr T, in Johannesburg on 18 January 2019. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Alon Skuy)

Wangari Kinoti, the Global Lead for Women’s Rights and Feminist Alternatives at ActionAid International, emphasised the need for a more inclusive and rights-based approach within the AfCFTA. She aptly pointed out that the current framework lacks explicit integration of human rights concerns. Kinoti advocated for a revision of the AfCFTA to incorporate vital cross-cutting issues such as gender equality, environmental protection and human rights, paving the way for a more equitable and sustainable future. Furthermore, she boldly championed the recognition of the intersectionality experienced by individuals with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, fostering an Africa of acceptance and inclusion.

Striking a balance

The AfCFTA marks a significant stride towards dismantling colonial-era barriers, fostering economic growth and reducing poverty; but it falls short by not imposing obligations related to human rights protection. We must not pursue economic development at the expense of human rights. While the African Union’s effort to create a policy on human rights in the context of the AfCFTA is commendable, it serves as a supplement to the AfCFTA and offers guidelines rather than binding regulations. It is worth noting that a clause on human rights, and in particular business and human rights, was essential at inception – discussions on development and human rights should never be separate.  

Africa Business and Human Rights Forum

The panellists and participants raised concerns about issues such as harassment, unequal pay, job insecurity, unpaid care work and limited opportunities, especially for vulnerable women, including those with disabilities. (Photo: coe.int / Wikipedia)

The AfCFTA applies to African states as a regional instrument. However, it is not sufficient as a comprehensive, legally binding framework for regulating transnational corporations. A separate document is still required to fully integrate the UN Guiding Principles, while also imposing binding obligations on both states and corporations operating within Africa.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Without an end to conflict, the African Continental Free Trade Area is an exercise in futility

In conclusion, the Africa Business and Human Rights Forum served as a vital platform for dialogue and advancement. While Africa steers its path towards economic prosperity, it is imperative to prioritise the rights and dignity of its communities, safeguarding their rights. Given the importance of this forum, it is disappointing that communities who are most impacted by harmful business practice were not given the opportunity to speak, participate and raise issues that directly affect them. 

The forum established the spirit that harmonising business practices with human rights principles can ensure that we guarantee that the advantages of the AfCFTA are genuinely all-encompassing, with no one left behind. This transcends mere economic growth, but embodies the commitment to nurturing a fair and equitable Africa, where human rights are upheld and the continent flourishes collectively. DM

Thato Gaffane is a Candidate Legal Practitioner at Lawyers for Human Rights. Gaffane holds a Bachelor of Laws from the University of South Africa and is a Master of Laws in Human Rights Law Candidate at the University of Johannesburg.

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

X

This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.


Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Download the Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox.

+ Your election day questions answered
+ What's different this election
+ Test yourself! Take the quiz