Last week, I traveled to the West African country of Niger to attend the 60th ordinary sessions of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The African Commission is the primary independent human rights body within the African Union, charged with promoting human rights on the continent and holding African governments accountable for human rights violations.

The Commission began operating 30 years ago, and its biannual public sessions have become an important forum for the continent’s top human rights defenders and lawyers to gather and organize around key threats to human rights. On the sidelines of the sessions in Niamey, human rights defenders spoke on topics ranging from LGBT rights in Uganda, threats to NGOs in Kenya, the deterioration of the rule of law in Swaziland, enforced disappearances in Zimbabwe, and the suppression of dissent in Rwanda -- all critical points of engagement where Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights is partnering with local advocates to seek structural change.


Thulani Maseko, human rights lawyer from Swaziland, and Wade McMullen, Managing Attorney at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. In 2015 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organized a campaign to help free Maseko from prison where the government had unjustly and arbitrarily detained him because of his human rights work.

However, despite the immense value of convening the most prominent human rights defenders continent-wide and the important work the Commission has carried out to promote human rights across Africa, the mandate of the Commission to hold governments accountable for violations remains vastly underutilized. In fact -- similar to its regional counterparts in the Americas and Europe as well as the United Nations treaty bodies -- when justice is denied at the national level, individuals have the ability to file a case before the African Commission which will then initiate a quasi-judicial process to determine whether an African government has violated its human rights obligations and result in recommendations for redress and reparations.

For many, the African Commission -- and increasingly, the more nascent African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights as well as sub-regional courts housed within the economic communities of West and East Africa -- may be the only forum where they can directly confront their government and obtain a measure of accountability for widespread human rights violations. For example, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights currently works with Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights to represent Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) who have been repeatedly subjected to police brutality, arbitrary arrests, threats, and harassment for their work in organizing peaceful protests. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has also partnered with the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA) to represent the Ethiopian Human Rights Project (EHRP) to challenge the 2015 elections as a violation of the right to vote given the widespread suppression of civic space that resulted in the ruling party taking 100% of the seats in parliament. Both cases stand to set important new legal precedent for the respective countries involved, and also for the entire region where civic space is currently under attack.

During the sessions I joined colleagues from The Gambia and Zimbabwe to lead a workshop for participants on how to file a case before the African Commission. While there are many challenges and obstacles -- it can be costly for local NGOs to engage in regional litigation and it can take years for the process to come to completion -- there still exists great untapped potential for the African Commission to be a forum to hold African governments accountable, and particularly to protect civic space.

Later this year, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria, with the support of the National Endowment of Democracy, will be convening a meeting with top legal experts from Africa and Latin America to identify ways in which the African Commission and its counterpart in the Western Hemisphere -- the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights -- may be better utilized to protect civic space. As the trends continue to worsen in many parts of Africa, regional and international advocates should look anew for how the African Commission can be utilized as one of several important tools to protect civic space and the ability of human rights defenders on the continent to continue to speak truth to power.