African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR)
Guide to the ACHPR
The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) is a mechanism tasked with promoting and protecting the rights guaranteed by the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. The Commission also interprets the Charter as it applies to particular cases and can advance further legal principles to guide African governments in ensuring their legislation and practices adhere to the Charter. The ACHPR was established in October of 1987 and is headquartered in Banjul, The Gambia.
The Commission is made up of 11 members who are nominated by state governments and then elected by secret ballot by the Assembly of Heads of State and Government (the AU Assembly) for a six-year renewable term. AU member states can nominate up to two individuals based on their human rights and legal expertise, high moral integrity and impartiality. All elected members are to act on personal interest, rather than in the interest of their state governments. The Commission elects among its members the chairperson and vice-chairperson, who serve for a two-year, renewable term.
The ACHPR serves many functions, it:
- decides whether alleged human rights abuses violate the Charter
- makes recommendations to AU governments to promote and protect human rights or address past violations
- organises seminars/conferences
- conducts country promotional visits
- disseminates reports on various human rights issues, violations and/or recommendations
- interprets the Charter and adopts further principles to elucidate the Charter
- investigates human rights violations through fact-finding missions
The commission holds its “ordinary sessions” twice a year, in March or April and in October or November. The sessions usually last 15 days and are held in Banjul, The Gambia unless the Commission decides to hold the session elsewhere. The Chairman may also decide to hold additional “extraordinary sessions.” These sessions will also be held at the request of the majority of the members of the commission or at the request of the AU Chairman. Past extraordinary sessions have been held to discuss, among other incidents, the Nigerian government's execution of writer and activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and the 2010 military coup d'etat in Niger.
Freedom of expression and access to information is enshrined in Article 9 of the African Charter, which states:
1. Every individual shall have the right to receive information.
2. Every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law.
The ACHPR has also adopted the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa. Among many other principles, this declaration states that governments must distribute radio frequencies equitably among commercial and community broadcasters and refusals to disclose public information should be subject to appeal by an independent body or the courts. To read the Declaration, visit: http://www.achpr.org/english/declarations/declaration_freedom_exp_en.htm.
The sessions begin with an opening ceremony, during which time the resolutions adopted by the NGO Forum are read out (see section below on the NGO Forum). The first week of the session is public and focuses on the general human rights situation in Africa; the activities of the commission and its mechanisms; the examination and granting of observer and affiliate status and the assessment of state reports. In regard to the latter, states are required to submit “periodic reports” every two years. These reports should include the measures undertaken to protect and promote rights recognised by the Charter and should highlight progress and challenges in securing these rights. Two to three states present on these reports at each session. After the presentation, the Commission asks questions about the human rights situation in the country, and state representatives are expected to answer. The commission may request information on the situation of human rights from its networks of NGOs prior to the session. Information received from NGOs and other sources are translated into questions that the Commission addresses to the state presenting reports. (See the following section for information on how NGOs can participate in the public sessions.)
The second week is usually reserved for the private agenda items. At this time, Commissioners consider individual communications, or complaints, from individuals, organisations or other member states, and decide if Charter violations have occurred in the incidents referred to in the complaints. In private sessions, only organisations and individuals who bring cases are admitted to make presentations if they so desire. In general, written submissions are considered sufficient if all information is provided by the complainant. In addition, the Commission drafts its “concluding observations” on state reports, which are later made public. These conclusions often suggest steps the government should take to fulfil Charter obligations. Other reports from fact-finding or promotional missions may also be examined and adopted at this time. Decisions, resolutions, recommendations and administrative and financial matters are also carried out during private sessions.
In the closing session, which is public, the ACHPR reads its communiqué offering a summary of the session and details the resolutions passed by the Commission in private sessions. A press conference is also held. Sessions are held from 9 to 6 pm, but are not held on Friday afternoons and Sunday mornings.
NGOs with observer status may participate in and speak at the public discussions of a session; however, they are not permitted to vote in these discussions. NGOs that do not have observer status may attend the ordinary sessions but are not allowed to speak. NGOs with observer status must register to attend specific sessions by filling out registration forms, which are available on the ACHPR website ahead of the ordinary session and from the Secretariat at the opening of the session.
Civil society organisations are allowed to make one intervention or statement, per agenda item, and are usually allotted three to five minutes to speak. At the beginning of the session, NGOs should notify the Secretariat of which agenda items they wish to take the floor on. Organisations may wish to print copies of their statements to distribute to Commissioners, the Secretariat and other participants. Representatives speaking in a language other than Arabic, English, French or Portuguese will not be provided with a translator. It is advisable that written statements be in one of these four working languages. Ideally, statements should be written in more than one language so they resonate with more officials. The time allocated for each agenda item will vary, so organisation's representatives should be sure to closely follow public sessions to ensure they are present to speak on the items they wish to comment on.
The agenda items most commonly commented on by NGOs are 1) the human rights situation in Africa, and 2) the presentation of reports from Special Rapporteurs or working groups as these categories are broad enough for organisations to forward their specific concerns, questions or requests for resolutions to be adopted.
Organisations are not permitted, however, to make comments on agenda items that concern: state parties' periodic reports, a country's compliance with the Charter, or decisions on granting observer status to other organisations. Thus, it is important for organisations to lobby commissioners to ask the states presenting reports specific questions during the public sessions and request certain recommendations be put in the “concluding document.” Civil society organisations may also wish to provide further written information to help guide commissioners in their assessment of state reports.
During sessions, organisations can also run side events such as seminars or training sessions on particular human rights themes. Groups may wish to invite Commissioners and state representatives to these events. In addition, an organisation's representatives can approach state delegates in attendance as well as Commissioners informally, such as during breaks, to highlight their particular concerns.
To obtain observer status with the African Commission, NGOs must provide information on how their objectives and activities aim to promote or protect Charter principles, their human rights work, and their financial resources. NGOs must send applications at least three months before a session in order to be considered for observer status at that session.
According to the ACHPR, NGO applications should include:
- legal statutes/codes
- proof of its legal existence (unless there is evidence that the State is hostile towards human rights activities and has made it unreasonably difficult to register legally)
- a list of its members and its constituent organs
- its sources of funding
- its last financial statement
- a statement on its activities (detailing past and current activities of the organisation)
NGOs with observer status are expected to present reports on their activities to the Commission subsequently every two years, however the ACHPR has yet to strip NGOs of observer status for failing to comply with this requirement. Since its inception, the Commission has granted hundreds of NGOs observer status.
Organisations should send applications for observer status to the Secretary of the ACHPR at the address at the bottom of this guide. There is no cost to filing an application for observer status. For the ACHPR's official guide to attaining observer status, see: http://www.achpr.org/english/_info/observer_en.html
An invitation to an upcoming session, as well as the agenda for the session must be posted on the ACHPR's website at least four weeks before the session (www.achpr.org)
. The secretary must also inform all NGOs with observer status of the time and agenda of a session no later than four weeks ahead of that session.
Any individual, organisation or state can send a complaint or “communication” to the ACHPR that details human rights violation(s) in a particular country. It is worth noting however, that a state has only submitted a complaint to the commission on one occasion and most complaints come from civil society organisations. NGOs do not need observer status to submit a complaint.
Once a complaint is sent, it may take years for the ACHPR to decide whether the incidents included in the submission constitutes a Charter violation. In the first step, seven or more members must indicate they are “seized” with the communication, meaning they feel it satisfies the seven requirements of Section 56 of the African Charter
. More detailed instructions on meeting these seven requirements are included in the IFEX Guide to Submitting a Complaint
. If members fail to respond to a communication in between sessions, the members will decide whether or not to seize the communication at the next session.
Once communication has been seized, the Secretary notifies the state concerned and the author of the communication. The state party is then asked to submit a written submission that may elucidate the issue further and, if possible, explain measures it has taken to remedy the situation. Within a time period decided upon by the Commission, the complainant will have an opportunity to respond to the state's version or interpretation of events and, if necessary, provide additional information.
If both parties are willing to settle the Charter violation amicably, the Commission will mediate a “friendly settlement” between the complainant or victim(s) and the state. If an amicable resolution is reached, the terms of this resolution are communicated to the Commission at the next session. If no settlement is reached, the Commission will proceed to make its own decision and recommendations on the case.
Communications are considered during the private sessions of ordinary sessions. When the Commission is considering a complaint, both parties have the opportunity to make written and oral presentations to the Commission. If the state fails to submit any written or oral information, the Commission will make its decision on whether a Charter violation has occurred based on the available evidence.
If the Commission agrees with the complainant that Charter rights have been violated, the Commission will communicate this to the complainant and forward its recommendations to the state. These recommendations may detail how the state should provide redress to the victim, investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of the violation and/or prevent such abuses from occurring in the future. The Commission does not publish its recommendations separately. Rather they are included in its activity report, which is submitted to the AU Assembly once a year. The report becomes public once it is authorised by the AU Assembly. The Commission has no enforcement powers; however, if a state fails to comply with its recommendations, it will refer the case to the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights.
The Commission can send members to states on “promotional visits” with the consent of the government. (The Commission must be invited by the government to conduct such a mission, but can request an invitation.) In such visits, the Commission's representatives meet with government officials, the public and civil society members to raise awareness about the ACHPR and to encourage states to fulfil their obligations under the African Charter and relevant protocols.
The Commission does not need permission to conduct fact-finding or investigative missions, as long as such missions are approved by either the AU General Assembly, AU Chairman, or by the AU Peace and Security Council. Due to political influence from members, the AU Assembly and its Chairman have yet to authorise the Commission to conduct a fact-finding mission. For this reason, in requesting permission to conduct an investigative visit, the Commission now turns to the AU Peace and Security Council, which is much more likely to order or approve a mission. During investigative visits, the commission tries to meet government officials, police authorities, NGOs and the national human rights institutions, and may visit prisons, refugee camps and other places. The Commission will often appoint a Special Rapporteur or working group to conduct the fact-finding mission. Following either a promotional or investigative trip, the Commission adopts a “mission report” in a private meeting in a regular session. Once adopted, mission reports are public documents and should be posted on the website, though this does not always occur in a timely manner. In practice, the Commission will send the report to the state concerned for its observations on the findings of the Commission before publishing the report. This can sometimes delay the process further. The ACHPR is currently working on adapting procedures so that mission reports are released in a timelier manner.
Finally, the Commission can hold events such as conferences, seminars and workshops to promote human rights and support government officials, organisations and individuals in their efforts to protect human rights.
Special Rapporteurs have been established on six different human rights issues including freedom of expression and access to information. In addition, the Commission oversees a handful of working groups, such as the Working Group on the Death Penalty in Africa. To see a list of the rapporteurs and working groups and read about their mandates, reports and activities, click “Special Mechanisms” on the ACHPR website. The role of most of these mechanisms is to promote specific areas of human rights and advance recommendations, disseminate information and carry out research in these areas. As with the ACHPR, the special rapporteurs and working groups have no enforcement powers.
Submitting shadow reports
After a state has submitted a report, NGOs can provide “parallel” or “shadow” reports that refute or provide further information to the facts and analysis contained in the official state report. Organisations do not need to have observer status to submit a report. There is no set format for the report, but organisations should include the country's name, the organisation's name and the session time and number at the top of the report. NGOs may wish to include recommendations to the government in their shadow repot, which may then be taken up by the Commissioners and adopted as their official recommendations to the countries. The state reports to be reviewed in the session will be listed in the “Draft Agenda,” which is posted ahead of a session on the ACHPR.
The state reports can be found on the left hand side of the main ACHPR webpage: http://www.achpr.org/english/_info/news_en.html
For examples of shadow reports that reflect best practices, see:
Disseminating ACHPR reports and information for use in advocacy and lobbying
Organisations should publish and translate copies of reports adopted by the Commission that concern the state(s) or issue(s) they focus on. Public reports and information disseminated by the Commission include mission reports, communiqués on sessions, press releases from special rapporteurs and “concluding observations” of state reports that are adopted by the Commission. These reports are made available on the ACHPR's website can be useful in campaigning and lobbying. These documents can be helpful when appealing to the state to take certain measures to advance freedom of expression and other human rights.
Monitoring compliance of states to recommendations
Organisations should also monitor government's compliance with recommendations and resolutions, and share findings in this regard with media or civil society partners. As the Commission has no follow-up mechanism, civil society organisations are vital in ensuring states adhere to recommendations. Groups should report on non-compliance to the ACHPR, which may then decide to forward the case to the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights.
Calling for and assisting in fact-finding missions
Civil society organisations can encourage the Commission to conduct fact-finding missions by addressing requests to the Chairman or Secretary at the address below or directly to the special rapporteur or working group who would be likely to conduct such a mission. (See section on special mechanisms regarding contact information for rapporteurs and working groups.) Once the Commission has decided to undertake a fact-finding or investigative mission, NGOs should bolster the Commission's work by providing information, reports, and advice on places to visit and people to contact.
According to Amnesty International, the Commission's recommendations are often ignored by governments. The ACHPR cannot force states to follow its recommendations, which depend on the “good will” of the state. The most that the Commission can do in a case of non-compliance is send letters or reminders asking the states to honour their Charter obligations. However, the Commission may refer cases of mass violations of human rights or non-compliance to the Commission's recommendations to the newly formed African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights.
It can take years to make a decision on a communication, or complaint. This is due to the short time period in which Commissioners gather to deliberate on cases (usually two or three days per ordinary session). Only in rare cases does the ACHPR rule on a complaint within a year of its initial submission and in the past, the Commission has taken up to eight years to make its recommendations. For example, in a communication submitted by ARTICLE 19 concerning the unlawful imprisonment of 18 journalists in Eritrea, the Commission took more than four years to make a decision on the case. (For the ruling and recommendations in this case, see: http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/africa/comcases/275-2003.html
Most states do not submit their periodic reports every two years, despite this being a requirement. Fifteen AU states have yet to submit a report at all. Organisations should encourage governments to follow this requirement of the ACHPR. To see the most recent reports of AU states that have been published by the ACHPR, visit: http://www.achpr.org/english/state_reports/.
This database provides information on AU countries' track records on submitting their periodic reports: http://www.achpr.org/english/_info/statereport_considered_en.html.
In the past, the Commission's membership has included government officials and cabinet ministers, raising questions about their independence. Amnesty International and other groups have expressed concern that states nominate members to the Commission who lack impartiality, independence and competence. In response, the organisation has developed a set of criteria that states should consider when choosing commission nominees: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/IOR63/002/2007/en.
According to Amnesty International, human rights organisations should encourage states to make public their nomination processes for Commission members and involve civil society to ensure the nominees are independent from the state, of high integrity and are experts in the field of human rights. They further encourage organisations to advocate that governments follow these criteria ahead of the swearing in of the election of new members.
The NGO Forum is a gathering of organisations ahead of the regular ACHPR sessions. The Forum is put together by the African Centre for Democratic and Human Rights Studies (ACDHRS), a group based in Banjul, Gambia. During the Forum, civil society members can share information and best practices, formulate and decide upon resolutions and collaborate on initiatives to address human rights violations in Africa. More than one hundred NGOs routinely attend the Forum. It is a great opportunity for organisations to network and develop solutions together. The ACHPR's commissioners are also invited to attend some of the Forum's meetings and sessions.
The Forum normally takes place in the three days before the official session of the Commission and is usually held in the same venue. The first day of the Forum involves general presentations on the human rights situation in Africa as well as on specific human rights themes or countries of pressing concern. On the second day, NGOs can attend specific focus groups, during which they draft resolutions on a number of human rights themes, including freedom of expression. On the third day, a discussion takes place with all NGOs present on the most urgent or current human rights issues and, in the afternoon, the draft resolutions are presented to the wider forum, edited and voted on. The adopted resolutions are formally presented at the opening session of the ACHPR meeting.
African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights
31 Bijilo Annex Layout, Kombo North District
P.O. Box 673
Telephone: (220) 4392962
Fax: (220) 4390 764
African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights:
African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights Official Website:
Amnesty International: Guide to the ACHPR
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Guide for NGOs at the ACHPR and NGO Forum:
Fatou Jagne-Senghore, Africa Programme Officer Senegal, ARTICLE 19