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Dispatches from the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights

Senior partner Martyn Day and solicitors Oliver Holland and Alex Wessely were invited to attend the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights NGO Forum which took place in Banjul Gambia from 28 to 30 October 2017.

Martyn Day presenting to the forum
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Oliver is a solicitor in the international and group claims department. During that time he assisted Martyn Day on the successful claims against Shell on behalf of over 15,000 Nigerian fisher folk which settled in 2014 for £55 million.

Alex first started working for Leigh Day in 2012, when he joined as a paralegal working on the “Mau Mau” litigation. He qualified into the international department in September 2017.
2 November 2017 represents the 30th anniversary of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights which was established under the African Charter in order to protect and promote the rights of people across Africa.

The Commission meets bi-annually and in order to help inform the discussion and reporting of the situation across the states of Africa, NGOs and civil society meet at the NGO Forum organised by the African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies.

2017 has been an important year for how the African Commission can provide justice and remedy to victims of human rights abuses, as shown by two landmark judgments.

Firstly, in May, the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights ruled that the Kenyan government were committing human rights violations on the Ogiek People: an indigenous group of about 35,000 hunter-gatherers.

The case, relating to forced evictions from the Ogiek’s home forest, had been brought by the African Commission, who represented the Ogiek people throughout the trial. This was the first ruling by the African Court on the issue of indigenous peoples’ rights, and the first case which went to trial after being referred to the Court by the Commission.

Secondly, the Commission awarded $2.5m to survivors of a 2004 massacre in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A DRC court had cleared 12 defendants of all offences, but the Commission found that these prosecutions must be reopened.

The decision is non-binding, and DRC’s response is awaited, but this is an important demonstration by the Commission that human rights violations will not be ignored. The 30th Anniversary meeting took place within this promising context.

The NGO Forum was attended by around 300 NGOs from across the continent from Morocco to Swaziland and everywhere in between. The 3 days involved a busy schedule of plenary sessions, group discussions, side events and heated debate on topics as diverse as women’s rights through to data protection law and the protection of human rights defenders.

The opening session included a key note speech from the African Commission Chairperson and Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Information, Ms Pansy Tlakula, whose term as Chairperson comes to an end this year - a highly impressive individual who has championed human rights across Africa for many years.

Following the opening session on the first morning, plenary panel sessions were held including updates on the human rights situations in the regions of Africa and a session on the state review procedure before the African Commission.

Martyn Day was invited to speak on the third panel of the day in order to talk about his on the ground experiences of business and human rights particularly in the extractive industries of African states.

He was joined by Brigadier Siachitema from the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, Angela Nabwowe from the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights in Uganda, and chaired by Oludayo Fagbemi from the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa.

Martyn provided some specific insight into the issues in Africa in terms of corporate accountability, redress and the importance of providing victims with a legal remedy.

On the morning of the second day Martyn and Oliver held an early breakfast meeting which was well attended by some 60 NGOs from across the continent. They spoke about the cases that Leigh Day had brought relating to issues in Africa, the challenges that the firm has faced in relation to jurisdiction which was followed by an interesting discussion on the issues with many questions and comments from the attendees.

In the plenary sessions the highlight of Day 2 was undoubtedly a speech by Stavros Lambrinidis, the EU’s Special Representative for Human Rights. Mr Lambrinidis gave an impassioned speech about the dangerous idea that Africa can have economic development or human rights’ protection, but not both. He said that human rights are the “prerequisite to development”, rather than an obstruction. 

In the afternoon the forum broke into fifteen special interest groups in order to provide recommendations to the African Commission on the different issues.

Oliver attended the Special Interest Group on Extractive Industries; Environment and Human Rights Violations where it was agreed to recommend that a framework is established for properly compensating those communities whose land is taken from them in the exploration of natural resources, as well as progressing with a binding treaty in relation to corporate accountability.

Alex contributed to the Special Interest Group which looked at the rights of youth and children, where a South African NGO discussed their work in protecting intersex children from “corrective” surgery across Africa.

The African continent clearly faces many challenges in relation to human rights but this 30th Anniversary event suggests that substantial steps are being taken to move things forward. As Stavros Lambrinidis said in his speech, human rights can only be properly protected if you have independence of the judiciary and the proper institutions and mechanisms in place first. With the excellent and innovative NGO Forum and hugely impressive African civil society, this appears to be a future reality rather than simply an intention. 

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