Photo credit: African Center for Democracy and Human Rights Studies


NGO Forum: Enhancing civil society engagement with the AfCFTA

The panel discussion held on 16 October addressed the pivotal role of NGOs in the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). The insights and recommendations shared by the panellists highlighted the urgency of making the AfCFTA more accessible, inclusive, and aligned with human rights principles.

Moderated by Lydia Kembabazi, Advocacy Officer at the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA), the panel included Deborah Nyokabi, representing the Network of African National Human Rights Institutions (NANHRI), who emphasised the need to simplify and translate AfCFTA documents into local languages. This action would enhance understanding and accessibility, making it more inclusive for people in diverse communities. Additionally, she called for the inclusion of human rights as an explicit objective of trade reform under the AfCFTA, a vital step to ensure that the trade agreement benefits everyone.

Another panelist, Don Deya, Executive Director of Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU), highlighted that current discussions, particularly those related to the rights of women in trade, need active participation from NGOs. Deya pointed out that ensuring protection for the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) within legislative civic spaces is vital. He stressed the importance of active monitoring and implementation to ensure that the AfCFTA benefits all segments of society. 

‘We must ascertain who is already involved, identify potential stakeholders, and assess the resources required for effective engagement,’ he underscored. He also emphasised the significance of exploring innovative funding sources, noting that ‘traditional donors may not align with supporters of human rights and development organisations.’ Deya also stressed the importance of involving trade unions and addressing human rights issues that may be overlooked in the AfCFTA negotiations, as the agreement is not fully funded by member States.

Kembabazi highlighted the crucial role of civil society in every step of the AfCFTA process, from elaboration and negotiation to implementation and monitoring. She introduced the human rights defenders’ toolkit launched by IHRDA to equip activists with the necessary resources and knowledge to advocate for human rights within the AfCFTA framework.

Nyokabi urged member States to adopt the protocol related to visa-free entry. This step is essential for facilitating easier travel and collaboration among civil society organisations across the continent.

The panel discussion underscored the significance of civil society engagement in the AfCFTA, aiming to ensure that the trade agreement not only boosts economic growth but also upholds human rights and serves as a tool for the broader advancement of African societies. It is evident that there is an urgent need for simplified and localised AfCFTA documents, active engagement in legislative spaces, and a comprehensive stakeholder survey to identify and support those who are not yet participating. With the toolkit for human rights defenders and the adoption of visa-free entry protocols, civil society is set to play an increasingly vital role in shaping the future of trade in Africa. These discussions at the 77th Ordinary Session of the African Commission serve as a reminder that the AfCFTA is a shared responsibility for all stakeholders, with human rights and inclusivity at its core.

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