Commissioner Mudford Zachariah Mwandenga reading decisions on the granting of observer status. © ISHR

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ACHPR 77: The African Commission grants observer status to nine NGOs and rejects five requests

During the 77th Ordinary Session, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights granted observer status to nine non-governmental organisations. It rejected five applications. Four of these applications were rejected on the grounds that the organisations did not have offices in Africa.

At its 77th Ordinary Session held in Arusha, United Republic of Tanzania from 20 October to 9 November 2023, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Commission) examined 14 requests for observer status submitted by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working on issues related to human and peoples’ rights in Africa. Of the 14 requests, nine were granted while five were rejected on the basis that one organisation’s legal status was ambiguous and four did not have an office in an African Union member State. 

Diversity of NGOs that obtained the observer status

The nine organisations which obtained observer status work on diverse human rights issues. The National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders (Uganda) is the only organisation dealing directly with human rights defenders (HRDs)-related matters. This status was granted to the coalition after two successive rejections by the African Commission. The Coalition aims to strengthen the work of HRDs throughout Uganda and to enhance mechanisms for the protection of HRDs. The Coalition also seeks to create an avenue for collective response to threats against HRDs and raise public awareness and profile of HRDs in Uganda. The other organisations are Afya na Haki Institute (Uganda), Centre d’Espoir pour les Droits de l’Homme (Democratic Republic of Congo), the Consortium of Ethiopian Human Rights Organisations, the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (Sudan), Forum for African Women Education (FAWE), Kenya, Forum for Development and Human Rights Dialogue (Egypt), Un Monde à Venir (Cameroun) and Well-Being Africa (South Africa). 

Rejections on which grounds?

Four of the five organisations whose requests were rejected are based in the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands and do not have offices in Africa. These organisations are ADF International, International Network of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, GAIA Foundation and Transatlantic Christian Council. The African Commission stated that it reached the ‘decision’ not to grant the observer status to organisations which do not have offices in Africa at its 35th Extraordinary Session held in April 2022 in The Gambia. This ‘decision’ does not appear in the Commission’s Final Communiqué leaving NGOs who made their requests in limbo. In general, the practice of granting observer status to NGOs is regulated by the Commission’s Rules of Procedures (Rule 72) and its Resolution on the Criteria for Granting and Maintaining Observer Status to Non-Governmental Organizations working on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Africa adopted in November 2016. It aims to increase the participation and contribution of NGOs to the work of the Commission as they consolidate participatory democracy and sustainable development on the continent. None of these two legal instruments excludes organisations which do not have offices on the continent as long as they work for the promotion and protection of human rights in Africa.

‘While the Commission’s “decision” can have its own merits, it nonetheless seems to go against the principle of legal certainty based on which decisions should be made according to legal rules and that individuals can predict the outcome of their requests in advance by knowing established rules,’ said Trésor Muhindo Makunya, Africa Legal and Advocacy Officer at ISHR.

A call for more clarity

To ensure legal certainty and predictability, the Commission should clarify the content and nature of this ‘new’ requirement. The clarification will go a long way in supporting the participation of NGOs in its work.

NGOs have been instrumental in driving landmark litigation before the Commission, spearheading initiatives which have resulted in the development of soft and hard law instruments and supporting the Commission’s mechanisms and commissioners when conducting its promotional mandate in State parties. This role needs to be nurtured by an inclusive approach by the Commission in granting observer status based on pre-defined criteria that are known to all the stakeholders, especially NGOs themselves.
Adélaïde Etong Kame, Senior Programme Manager at ISHR

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