Human rights must not be forgotten from EU-African dialogue

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The new EU-AU ministerial meetings should not ignore human rights, argues Carlo Perrotta. [Legnan Koula/EPA/EFE]

The new African Union-European Union ministerial meetings are a valuable new innovation. They should not ignore human rights work, writes Carlo Perrotta.

Carlo Perrotta is Italy’s Ambassador to Zimbabwe

In January the African Union and EU Foreign Affairs Ministers held in Brussels the first of the regular ministerial meetings agreed upon at the 2017 Abidjan Summit. The discussion reflected the traditional EU pillar-inspired tripartition into economy, politics and migration, plus a pledge to support the UN-centred world order grounded on multilateralism.

The pledge was obviously triggered by the recent US unilateral actions on security, trade and the environment; therefore, in the joint communiqué the Iran nuclear deal, the WTO and the Paris Agreement have understandably been reaffirmed; less understandable, from the point of view of both the UN and multilateralism, is the absolute lack of any reference to what is arguably their main joint achievement: the UN human rights system, and especially the 1996 Covenants, one of which at least, focusing on the protection of civil and political rights, including non-discrimination, has also clearly been challenged by some of the actions by the current US administration directly targeting Africa, namely the nation-based US-travel ban. Such an omission can maybe be explained from the point of view of the EU, where anything related to people moving across borders has apparently become a highly contentious issue; but much less from the point of view of the African Union.

Africa is affected by the travel-ban much more directly and immediately than by the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement or the Iran nuclear deal or even by the new barriers to trade. These barriers have not cancelled the preferential treatment regime African countries have generally been enjoying within the WTO, not to mention that African steel exports to the US are unlikely to be affected, since they are hardly noticeable anyway. As for the Iran deal, nuclear peace is surely relevant to all countries, but no African one belongs to the 5+1 group. And the withdrawal of Washington from the Paris Agreement leaves Europe, not Africa, faced with the dilemma between industrial competition and carbon-reduction goals. In conclusion, if a serious reflection on and commitment to multilateralism is to become part of the AU-EU meetings, then it should also reflect its long-term goals besides the agenda of the day, however relevant.

With regard to the three-pillar based discussion on which the longest part of the ministerial meeting was centred, namely the economy, politics and migration, references to human rights can all be found in the middle one. Some may dismiss them as very generic or abstract and complain that for the other two pillars, migration and the economy, references to human rights are only implicit, at best. But, after all, foreign ministers’ meetings are different from human rights workshops; unless a specific issue needs to be handled it is sound for top diplomatic officials to focus only on the essentials. Which is why, however, the lack of any reference to individual remedies (IRs): on the African level, this means the African Court on Human and People’s Rights (AfCHPR) and, crucially, the Commission (ACHPR), is more deplorable.

Reference to the ACHPR, and particularly to its independence, can be of vital support in what for many represents its main challenge, that is resisting control by other AU organs, of which an emblematic example is the January 2018 AU Executive Council Resolution 995-XXXII reiterating the “request” to the ACHPR to remove CAL, a same-sex advocacy group, from its own list of observer NGOs. Something to which the ACHPR eventually bowed last August.

Hopes were high of a mention of the independence of the Commission because, last December, its critical relevance had been acknowledged at the AU-EU Dialogue on Human Rights.

But the lack of reference to the AHCPR is noticeable from another point of view, namely the relevance and high technical value of its Reports, especially in the field of basic needs like food or even environmental law, in those areas in which the European system, that is the Strasbourg Court, has had to build its own jurisprudence on rules protecting other values, such as life or property.

AHCPR Reports such as the one on the Ogoni people, for example, and the damage to their environment by oil companies are currently quoted among experts in Europe and constitute a distinguished contribution by Africa to the development of international human rights law. A reference to this contribution would have also been appreciated in the kind of joint communiqué where human rights rarely offer the chance for congratulatory remarks.

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