37th AU Summit: Rule of law and human rights must be at the heart of concerns

Press release
Michele Spatari / AFP

On 17 and 18 February 2024, the African Union Heads of States and Governments will convene in Addis Ababa for their annual summit. The meeting will be held against the backdrop of continued decline in the state of governance and human rights in Africa, with serious crises and conflicts festering. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its members organisations have monitored the Sahel region and Sudan as two of the most concerning crises and conflicts, that demand decisive action from African leaders. The unfolding decline of the rule of law situation in Senegal equally calls for attention and action.

Paris, 16 February, 2024. African presidents will convene in Addis Ababa this week-end, against the backdrop of the Sudan crisis aggravating and the Sahel Region experiencing a surge in gross human rights violations. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’s (OCHA) most recent situation report indicates that in Sudan over 12,000 people have been killed. Those displaced by conflict inside and outside of Sudan has reached 7.76 million. 17.7 million people face acute hunger, 4.9 million of those being in emergency levels. Against these staggering numbers, the 2024 Sudan Humanitarian Needs and Response Plan appeal is only 3.5% funded as of 12 February 2024.

FIDH and its member and partner organisations the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS) and Sudanese Human Rights Monitor (SHRM) have publicly condemned alarming trends emerging from the conflict in Sudan. This includes the deliberate targeting of internally displaced persons in the Darfur region, high levels of targeted sexual and gender based violence against women and children, the persistent use of child soldiers in the armed conflict in South Darfur, deteriorating humanitarian crisis across the country, which has now reached a critical juncture, and the distressing reality of daily attacks on political and human rights activists. The recent shutdown of internet across the country has meant the loss of the ability for the conflict situation being visualised by the outside world, and fear has heightened on the possibility of the escalation of gross human rights violations being committed against civilians in Sudan without scrutiny. Many families are unable to reach their loved ones or use their e-wallets that have become the common platform for transacting, following the collapse of the banking system.

The situation in the Sahel is distressing with little relief for human rights advocates. FIDH and its member organisations have long warned of the declining state of human rights and the rule of law in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, all now under military junta rule. On 28 January 2024 Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger announced their intention to withdraw from Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a move that will leave citizens without the political and accountability cover offered by ECOWAS.

The authorities in Burkina Faso "systematically use forced recruitment as army auxiliaries (VDP) and the use of requisitions as a weapon to muzzle and attack human rights defenders (HRDs)", according to OMCT. In early December, Dr Daouda Diallo, Rasmané Zinaba and Bassirou Badjo, all members of the human rights group Balai citoyen, as well as Issaka Lingani and Yacouba Ladji Bama, journalists, along with Gabin Korbéogo, General Secretary of the Organisation démocratique de la jeunesse du Burkina Faso, were abducted and enlisted to government-led anti-terrorist operations. These scare tactics are part of the application of the "Decree on general mobilization and warning", adopted by the Burkinabe authorities in April 2023. Meanwhile, the Malian authorities have developed a new repressive approach aimed at dissolving associations with accusation of “foreign interference”. In December 2023, they dissolved the association Observatoire pour les Elections et la bonne gouvernance, which had just called for elections to be held in order to restore order, on the basis that its sources of funding were not known to the authorities.

All of these repressive measures and more are increasingly difficult to report, as they coincide with the targeting of critical and independent voices of the media. FIDH and its member organisations have condemned these restrictions of civic and democratic space, violations of freedom of opinion, expression, demonstration and press freedom, through intimidation, judicial harassment, arbitrary arrests and other forms of threats and pressure exerted on people expressing opinions critical of the transitional authorities. The media has been especially targeted, with many violations of the right to information and freedom of the press, through increased attempts of control and the suspension of international media (RFI, France 24, Le Monde, etc.), and the progressive practice of self-censorship by journalists and national media, especially in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

The decision by Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger to withdraw from ECOWAS, calls for increased attention on the human rights situation in the three countries. Without the human rights protection framework offered by ECOWAS civilians are at great risk of the derogation of their rights. The AU should not falter in securing human rights of the citizens of these countries”, said Alice Mogwe, FIDH President.

Equally concerning has been the recent developments in Senegal after President Macky Sall announced the postponement of the elections scheduled for later this month. The outbreak of citizen demonstrations have been met with excessive use of force by the police which killed at least three people. On 15 February 2024, the Constitutional Council ruled that the decision to delay the election was unlawful because the President Macky Sall had no authority to postpone the elections and asked that the elections be held as soon as possible. As ECOWAS steps up efforts to stem the situation, with a planned meeting between President Macky Sall and the Chairman of ECOWAS President Bola Tinubu on the margins of the 37th AU Summit, FIDH and its members reiterate the calls for the African Union together with ECOWAS and the EU to work towards the ensuring adherence to the rule of law and the smooth running of a credible electoral process in Senegal at the earliest.

The AU response on the crises in Sudan, the Sahel region and Senegal needs to be reinvigorated with action stemming from the highest levels of the organisation. As the African Union convenes FIDH calls on the Heads of States to:

1. secure a ceasefire in Sudan and to ensure the protection of civilians is prioritised in all interventions;
2. establish or strengthen existing mechanisms to monitor and respond to human rights violations in these countries experiencing conflicts;
3. establish a direct reporting procedures that ensures the Heads of States are constantly appraised on the unfolding situation in Sudan and the Sahel, through which urgent responses can be initiated at the Heads of States level;
4. urge the transitional authorities of Sahel countries to immediately cease repression and human rights violations against citizens, human rights defenders, journalists, the media and civil society, with particular reference to Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad;
5. urge Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger to reconsider their decision to withdraw from ECOWAS;
6. support ECOWAS efforts to address the electoral crisis situation in Senegal, ensuring that a predictable and urgent timetable that leads to the scheduling of elections at the earliest;
7. urge the Sahelian authorities to follow up the various ongoing judicial investigations and prosecute the perpetrators of human rights violations, including war crimes such as the Moura massacre;
8. urge Senegal and the Sahel transitional authorities to release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally, and to guarantee the right to demonstrate as a means of peaceful expression in a democracy.

Read more