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  • International Organizations & DemocracyThe OAU and Human Rights
  • Clement Nwankwo (bio)

Founded in 1963 amidst the wave of decolonization that was then sweeping Africa, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was brought into existence by newly independent states concerned above all with safeguarding their own sovereignty and territorial integrity and opposing the remaining presence of colonialism on the African continent. As the principles and purposes set forth in the OAU Charter make clear, cooperation for the sake of African independence was the dominant theme. Compared to the founding documents of other regional formations like the Council of Europe or the Organization of American States, the OAU Charter makes little reference to human rights, and democracy is mentioned not at all. Despite the Preamble's endorsement of the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as "a solid foundation for peaceful and positive cooperation among states" and a tangential reference in Article II's listing of the OAU's purposes, the Organization's focus remained decidedly elsewhere throughout the first 16 years of its history. Aside from denunciations of colonialism and apartheid, the OAU gave little attention to matters touching on human rights and democracy. Not surprisingly, the nondemocratic regimes that predominated in Africa preferred this arrangement: they had created the OAU not to champion human rights, but to help preserve regional stability and shield against foreign intervention.

In July 1979, however, the OAU's Assembly of Heads of State and Govemment met in Monrovia, Liberia, to adopt a resolution urging the countries of Africa to work together for the purpose of safeguarding human rights. The resolution also called on the OAU secretary general [End Page 50] to form a committee of experts to draft an African charter on human rights, as well as a commission to promote and protect the rights to be embodied in the charter. A group of experts began work in November 1979 and produced a draft charter, which was unanimously adopted at a 1981 meeting of the OAU heads of state in Nairobi, Kenya. On 21 October 1986, the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights came into force; to date 48 African countries have signed it.

Hobbled by severe limitations and replete with contradictions, the Charter has not been able to ameliorate the serious problem of human rights abuses in Africa. But perhaps it was never intended to in the first place. Discussions on the Charter started only after the administration of U.S. president Jimmy Carter and other Westem governments began to emphasize human rights in their diplomacy and foreign-aid policies. Although double standards were noticeable in the toleration of abuses committed by Western allies like Zaire's President Mobutu Sese Seko, many of Africa's dictators did feel some need to respond to the international demand for greater freedoms, if only to prop up the sagging legitimacy of their discredited and repressive regimes and keep the way open for Western aid.

Not surprisingly, the Charter that emerged from this climate was aimed more at creating an impression of liberalism than at curbing human rights abuses in Africa, most of which were being perpetrated by the very governments that signed the instrument.

The Charter is divided into two parts. The first part guarantees rights, while the second sets up an African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights to promote and enforce the rights guaranteed. The Charter addresses three areas of human rights: civil and political rights; economic, social, and cultural rights; and the rights of peoples. A careful reading of the Charter's provisions, however, exposes a series of omissions and contradictions, raising the question of whether all the rights listed therein are really meant to be protected. For instance, while the Charter provides for the equality of all persons before the law and cites the rights to life and human dignity, it fails to guarantee adequately the freedom of the individual, subjecting personal liberty to the municipal laws of the respective signatory powers. The right to a fair trial is guaranteed in Article 7 of the Charter, but the freedoms of conscience and religion are said to be subject to the laws of the state. Several other rights embodied in the...