The right to life in Africa: General Comment No. 3 on the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ RightsPosted: 10 February, 2016
Author: Paul Ogendi
Researcher, Working Group on death penalty and extrajudicial summary or arbitrary killings in Africa, African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights
During its 57th Ordinary Session held from 4 to 18 November 2015 in Banjul, The Gambia, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the Commission) adopted General Comment No. 3 on the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (General Comment No. 3) focusing on the right to life.
The document is timely because the protection of the right to life is currently under threat globally. Africa is no exception.
The Commission in 2012 expanded the work of one of its working groups focusing on the right to life to include not just death penalty but also extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary killings in Africa.
Some of the salient features of the new General Comment are discussed below.
On 16 March 2013, Zimbabwean voters overwhelmingly ratified a new constitution, which contains a right to life provision that dramatically scaled back the scope of the death penalty. The new constitution restricts the death penalty only to aggravated homicide and requires a judge to consider all mitigating factors in order to dispense a death sentence. The death penalty is a prohibited sentence for women and persons under the age 21 or over the age 70. The new constitution also establishes a constitutional right for prisoners to seek commutation or pardon from the executive. The death penalty was abolished for non-homicide offences, including treason, a notoriously politicised charge in recent years. Newspaper reports indicated that the Cabinet would review the cases of each of the current 72 death row inmates, even though a new hangman was hired in February 2013 after a twelve-year long search. The two women on death row would have their sentences automatically commuted.
Late at night on 23 August2012 the President of The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, ordered the executions of nine death row inmates despite international condemnation and even division in his own cabinet. At least three of the death sentences were for the crime of treason; the remaining cases involved murder. Two of the nine were Senegalese nationals, and at least one had been on death row since before the current death penalty law entered into force. These cases are constitutionally troubling and may erode the rule of law in The Gambia, Sub-Saharan Africa’s smallest mainland country with a population of 1,3-million.