African Union Council Dims Hope for Sex Workers’ Engagement With Rights Commission

A pronouncement by the African Union Executive Council will make it impossible for sex worker-led organisation to engage the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) directly.

It will also make reporting human rights violations among sex workers and Key Populations difficult.

The Executive Council through Decision 1015 places restrictions and barriers for civil society organisations’ access to ACHPR.

Among the resolutions passed in June this year, is that organisations must ‘uphold African values and traditions’ be granted Observer Status with the Commission.

ASWA Executive Director, Daughtie Ogutu, with other activists during the meeting held in The Gambia in October, 2018.

This decision has caused outrage among human rights groups in Africa among them the African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA).

Sex work is illegal in most of the African countries, which has made it impossible for sex workers to seek justice.

“This decision is an attempt to close the avenue for direct engagement for the sex worker movement with the African Commission. It also means that African governments do not want to talk about decriminalisation of sex work and that ASWA and partners cannot through the Commission advocate for recognition of sex work as work,” says ASWA’s Executive Director, Daughtie Ogutu.

As one of its strategic approaches, ASWA has been building the capacity of its members across Africa on the mechanisms to engage with the Commission.

In October,  Daughtie attended the ACHPR pre-conference or the NGO Forum to seek strategic alliances and partnerships to make the voice of sex workers heard. The ACHPR held its 63rd Ordinary Session last month in The Gambia.

“ASWA together with a collective of human rights defenders are opposed to the Council’s interference in the work of the Commission,” she says.

The Council’s decision is seen as an autocratic and populist move by African Union Member States to evade accountability for human rights violations they commit.

“The decision seeks to create a culture of impunity by weakening our accountability mechanisms,” say a collective of civil society organisations and national human rights institutions across Africa.

To further evade being held accountable by the civil society, the Commission is directed to ensure ‘verification of all allegations and the States concerned are informed’.

Essentially, AU Member States are shielding themselves from accountability and responsibility from human rights violations.

“We all know that African governments rarely take responsibility. In many countries, sex workers face the worst violence from State agents. I doubt this is something they would acknowledge,” activists say.

The Decision 1015 also restricts the work of the civil society in Africa and openly threatens to lock human rights organisations out of the Commission by overturning the approval of their Observer Status. Observer Status grants official recognition and allows civil society organisations to participate in ACHPR activities and to access the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Already, this has started taking effect by the revocation of Observer Status of the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL) in August this year for allegedly failing the ‘African values’ test imposed by the AU Council. The organisation was granted the status in 2015 after decades of lobbying.

In total, 517 organisations have Observer Status in the ACHPR, but this number may go down due to States’ onslaught on civil society.

Further, the AU Executive Council curtails the work of the Commission by imposing a confidentiality requirement, which makes it difficult collaborate with the civil society organisations that monitor States’ compliance with the African Charter.

In a joint statement, activists from various countries in Africa have condemned the AU Executive Council for the attacks on the independence of the ACHPR and apparent support of human rights violation by Member States.

The statement was issued during the 63rd Extra-Ordinary Session of ACHPR in Banjul, The Gambia in October.

The activists say Decision 1015 shows gradual and escalating threats and attempts to undermine the ACHPR credibility and independence. This means the Commission should take orders from Member States.

The activists say Decision 1015 is a distortion of the core principles of international human rights law and an attempt to rewrite the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Charter).

The AU Council warns that the independence enjoyed by ACHPR is ‘functional in nature and not independent from the organs that created it’.

According to the activists, Decision 1015 seeks to control the work of the ACHPR and also limiting the participation and involvement of the civil society in the Commission.

The AU Council directed the ACHPR to “submit is revised criteria for granting and withdrawing Observer Status for NGOs to the policy organs for consideration and review. Decision 1015 states that accreditation of NGOs ‘must take in account African values and traditions’.

In June, the ACHPR withdrew the Observer Status granted to the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL) based on the Council’s decision.

The declaration has raised concerns among activists. They say it signals increasing restrictions and barriers for civil society organisations’ access to the African Human Rights System in general, and to over 500 NGOs currently holding Observer Status with the ACHPR and are striving to advance and defend human rights and all those who seeking future accreditation.

Another concern is that the directive attempts to displace the primacy of the African Charter as the treaty that establishes and regulates the functioning of the ACHPR.

“The decision is an attempt at revising the law, history and origins of the ACHPR by falsely stating that the organs (of the AU) created the body” in order to make it owe its existence and allegiance to them and not the African Charter,” the statement says in part, adding that it is a distortion of the African Charter and of international human rights law.

Basically, Decision 1015 removes accountability and responsibility of human rights violations by State actors by allowing them to exercise their powers unchecked and with impunity.

Some of AU Member States are rated among countries with the worst human rights record in the world. Criminalisation has made sex workers among the most vulnerable groups in Africa.

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