The AU’s initiative on silencing the guns and human rights: the missing link

Author: Ayalew Getachew Assefa
African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child

The African Union (AU) has designated its theme for the year 2020 to be on ‘Silencing the Guns: Creating Conducive Conditions for Africa’s Development’. The theme is informed by prior initiative that the Union has established mainly during the occasion of the OAU/AU 50th anniversary, where the Heads of State and Government adopted a Solemn Declaration, in which they expressed their determination to achieve the goal of a conflict-free Africa by ridding, among other things, human rights violations from the continent. Following the commitment expressed through the Solemn Declaration, the Peace and Security Council (PSC), in 2016, developed an AU Master Roadmap of Practical Steps to Silence the Guns in Africa by Year 2020 (AUMR), which eventually was endorsed by the Assembly of Heads of States and Governments (Assembly) in 2017.

Since the adoption of such initiative, the AU has undertaken various activities aimed at curbing the ongoing conflicts in Africa. Yet, despite the few cases of achievements, evidence shows that the peace and security situation on the continent has become rather bleaker. In recognition of this fact, the Executive Council, in July 2019, decided ‘Silencing the Guns: Creating Conducive Conditions for Africa’s Development’ to be the theme of the Union in the year 2020. Accordingly, the AU Peace and Security Department has developed an orientation concept note and its matrix of activities on the theme, which is also endorsed by the Assembly during the February 2020 Summit

Though the year could create an opportunity to the AU to further strengthen and deepen engagement in the implementation of some aspects of the AUMR and the planned activities under the orientation concept note, I am of the view that the success will only be partial as the initiatives make little or no reference to the role that the human rights discourse could play in achieving the aspired goals. Such neglect of human rights as a crucial element of the AU’s response to silencing the guns is noted from the development to implementation stages of the project. Though ‘human rights’ is identified as one of the challenges in the implementation matrix, no practical step which needs to be taken is identified to integrate human rights in the AU’s response to silencing the guns.

Overall emphasis is placed on the resultant impact of conflicts adversely affects development, perpetuates poverty, reduces the incentives to invest and the capacities for economic growth, as well as the overall achievement of the objectives of Agenda 2063. Looking at the activities and the overall focus of the project documents, one may learn that human rights remain to be the missing element as no direct reference is made to the relevance of a human rights approach to peace and security, and the role that the AU Human Rights Organs could play in this regard. Particularly, while this year’s theme joins ‘development’ with ‘conflict’, it would rather have been easier to start with the very basic principle of considering ‘development’ as an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to.

Such recurring neglect of human rights from the peace and security discourse is rather worrying particularly considering the fact that human rights violations remain common in conflict and crisis situations on the continent. Failing to incorporate human rights in the ‘silencing the guns’ discourse confirms how the initiative disregards the role of human rights abuses in the causes, dynamics, and consequences of conflict. If human rights are part of the problem, it must also be part of the solution.

Peace talks and political mediations which lead to peace agreements can lead to silencing the guns, when they respond to the various forms of human rights violations that the people have been facing. We can only say that we effectively silenced the guns when the millions of people who are forced to flee their residence are able to return to their places of origin and or residence. The guns are silenced when States are upholding international and regional human rights law in creating a sense of reassurance and guarantee to protect the weak from abuse of power by the strong. The initiative can achieve its target by ensuring sustainable peace only when it addresses not only the proximate causes of conflict but also its underlying and structural causes. The guns could be silenced when negotiations by government elites and high-ranking military officials, as much as they are relevant, incorporate more plural and participatory process both during and after an agreement has been reached. A ‘silencing the guns’ process which fails to address the ‘justice versus peace’ dilemma would disregard one of the critical components of achieving full peace and security; i.e., accountability and redress.

Failing to give due regard to matters of human rights in the above mentioned strategic documents, the AU finds itself in violation the legal obligations set under its own instruments, which unequivocally prescribe protection and promotion of human rights as essential elements to the achievement of the objectives of peace and development in the continent. (See Art. ((Art. 3(h) of the Constitutive Act, and Art.3 of the PSC Protocol). Consequently, the AU must consider revising its project documents to ensure mainstreaming of human rights into ‘silencing the guns’ initiatives ranging from conflict prevention, management, and resolution to post-conflict reconstruction and development.

About the Author:

Ayalew Getachew Assefa is a human rights lawyer with over 13 years of experience in research, academic and professional practice on human rights monitoring and compliance with specific focus on the African human rights system, children’s rights, nationality rights and statelessness in Africa. He currently works as a Senior Child Protection Officer at the Secretariat of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, at the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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