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4: Africa's Application of UN Human Rights Enforcement Systems

How does the UN promote human rights in Africa?
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The Human Rights Council in session. Photograph by Jean-Marc Ferre/UN Photo.


“Promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all” is one of the principal purposes of the United Nations (UN), and the systems set up to achieve such a goal include two categories of bodies: a) Charter-based and b) treaty-based bodies.

Charter-based bodies refer to those established in accordance with the UN Charter. Among the principal organs of the UN, the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) are explicitly mandated to promote the respect and realisation of human rights. Nevertheless, other UN bodies also often carry out functions involving issues of human rights.

On the other hand, treaty-based bodies refer to those created by the core UN human rights treaties[1], which are charged with monitoring the implementation of treaty obligations by states.


i) The Economic and Social Council and the former Commission on Human Rights

ECOSOC established the Commission on Human Rights and the Commission on the Status of Women in 1946 and the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Minorities the following year. One of the regional commissions created under the auspices of ECOSOC, the Economic Commission for Africa, also incorporates issues of human rights, such as the rights of women and the realisation of the Millennium Development Goals, in its work.

The Commission on Human Rights was later authorised by ECOSOC to “examine information relevant to gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms”; the policy of apartheid in South Africa and southwest Africa was among the first country-specific situations scrutinised by the Commission[2]. Over the years, due to accusations of selectivity and politicisation, the credibility of the Commission was increasingly eroded, which eventually led to the reform of human rights machinery within the UN[3].

ii) Human Rights Council

Following initiatives for reform, the General Assembly established the Human Rights Council in 2006[4], which replaced the Commission on Human Rights. Africa holds 13 seats in the 47-member council, and the Council has three regular sessions each year as well as special sessions in response to situations that require urgent attention. So far, the fourth (Darfur), eighth (eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo), fourteenth (Ivory Coast), and fifteenth (Libya) special sessions have been devoted to country situations in Africa.

a) Special Procedures

In addition to thematic mandates, the system of special procedures currently has 12 country-specific mandates, including four established to monitor and report on the human rights situations in the Ivory Coast[5], Eritrea[6], Somalia[7], and Sudan[8]. Activities of special procedures include responding to individual complaints and conducting studies. Mandate holders also conduct country visits with the consent of visited states. Such consent may be based on the standing invitations issued by states and, as of June 2012, of the 91 invitations extended, 9 are from African states[9]. Practice has also seen African states allowing country visits on an ad hoc basis[10]. After country visits, special procedures mandate that holders prepare reports for the consideration of the Human Rights Council. Debates considering country situations take place during official sessions of the Council.

b) Universal Periodic Review

Through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the fulfilment by each of the UN’s 192 member-states of their human rights obligations and commitments is examined. Once every four years, a state appears before the Working Group of the Human Rights Council (composed of all Council members), and the human rights situation within the state is subject to scrutiny by other states. The first UPR cycle ended in October 2011, and all states reported and participated in the process. During each interactive dialogue with the state under review, members of the Working Group provide comments and recommendations, and the state has the opportunity to express its attitude towards the recommendations given. Reportedly, African states are inclined to accept recommendations from states in the same region, however recommendations regarding the following four categories were most often refused by African states: women’s rights, death penalty, torture, and use of the Council’s special procedures[11].

The second UPR cycle in 2012, saw four African countries reviewed, and the human rights situations in Benin, Botswana, Burundi, Gabon, Ghana, Mali and Zambia will be examined in the next two sessions[12].


UN human rights treaty bodies, or ‘committees’, monitor the implementation of their respective treaties. Their mandate is carried out through a range of activities; however, the precise functions and operation of each committee are determined by the treaty in question, its optional protocol (if any) and the committee’s working methods and rules of procedure.

i) State reporting

Nine out of the ten UN human rights treaty bodies review initial and periodic reports submitted by states parties and provide concluding observations[13]. The reporting procedure has undergone much change and development since its inception in order to address the challenges that it faces[14]. However, some African states still struggle to promptly meet their reporting obligations[15], and it has been suggested that this problem is especially serious with respect to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights[16]. As for the output of this procedure, while it is difficult to clearly evaluate the extent of the impact of treaty body recommendations on the ground, a study of African countries indicates a higher level of implementation than might have been expected[17].

ii) Individual communications

This procedure allows an individual to issue a complaint regarding a state party’s violation of his/her rights under a specific treaty, provided that the state in question has accepted that treaty body’s competence in this regard. Of the committees charged with this function, the individual communication procedure of the Human Rights Committee receives most participation from African states. However, the Committee’s communication with the state concerned has not always been met with a cooperative response[18].

iii) Country visits

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) are mandated to conduct country visits, and in particular, country visits form the core of the mandate of SPT. The SPT’s visits to Africa include those to Benin, Liberia, Mali, and Mauritius,[19] and the only report currently made public demonstrates positive cooperation and dialogue between the state and the treaty body[20].

iv) Inquiry procedures

Two treaty bodies, the Committee against Torture (CAT) and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), may initiate confidential inquiry procedures if reliable information suggests the possibility of serious and systematic violations of the respective convention in a state party that has accepted the committee’s inquiry jurisdiction. According to the existing public records, with regards to Africa, so far only CAT has conducted such a procedure in Egypt[21].


In addition to the Charter- and treaty-based bodies introduced above, the High Commissioner for Human Rights is the primary UN official responsible for human rights activities. In addition to supporting the work of the Human Rights Council and the treaty bodies, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) also carries out activities on the ground through its field presence[22]. The OHCHR has set up regional offices (Central: Yaounde[23]; East: Addis Ababa[24]; Southern: Pretoria[25]; West: Dakar[26]) and country offices (Guinea, Mauritania, Togo, and Uganda). Their activities include monitoring, reporting, technical assistance, capacity building, and cooperation with regional human rights mechanisms.

Additionally, various UN Peace Missions integrate human rights components in their work, with the assistance of the OHCHR. Lastly, a number of UN country teams also benefit from the OHCHR’s deployment of Human Rights Advisers, who contribute to the mainstreaming of human rights in the work of country teams and provide support to governments, national institutions, and civil society. Overall, the OHCHR is currently operating 23 field presences in Africa and its work has led to the establishment of regional and sub-regional human rights institutions and governmental committees coordinating engagement with UN human rights bodies[27].

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)[28], the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF)[29], the UN Development Programme (UNDP)[30], the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women)[31], the International Labour Organization (ILO)[32], and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)[33], among others, also integrate human rights into their activities in Africa. In addition, the protection and promotion of human rights has become of increasing relevance to the work of financial institutions affiliated with the UN, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. For instance, the Work Bank Inspection Panel’s work involving Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria dealt with issues affecting human rights such as poverty reduction and political oppression[34].


Since the UN’s inception, the protection and promotion of human rights has been an essential aspect of its work, and the UN human rights system has seen gradual evolution and reforms. Despite its incremental development, the UN human rights system remains relatively weak. As mechanisms for assessing and improving human rights situations increase and expand, the effect of their output and the extent of implementation remain to be evaluated. Nevertheless, the UN human rights enforcement and protection systems are indispensable for ensuring the enjoyment of human rights in Africa.

With enhanced engagement between African States and the UN, continued efforts in strengthening the human rights treaty body system[35] and dedicated contribution from various stakeholders at both international and national levels, the UN human rights enforcement and protection systems have the potential to transform rights on paper into tangible impacts on the lives of people on the ground.

For more information about the course please read our introductory blog post.

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1. What is the difference between a charter-based and treaty-based body? What are their objectives?

2. What types of activities do human rights treaty bodies engage in?

3. What are the objectives of the other treaty bodies and how do they operate?

[1] Examples include: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Convention on the Rights of the Child, Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

[2] ECOSOC Res 1235 (XLII) (1967).

[3] Report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, UN Doc A/59/565 (2 December 2004) paras 282-91.

[4] GA Res 60/251 (2006).

[5] The current Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Ivory Coast is Mr. Doudou Diène (Senegal). He can be reached at

[6] The mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea was established in 2012 and the mandate holder will be appointed at the 21st session of the Human Rights Council.

[7] Independent Expert appointed by the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights in Somalia <> accessed 24 July 2012. The current mandate holder is Mr. Shamsul Bari (Bangladesh) and can be reached at

[8] Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Sudan, <
sd/mandate/index.htm> accessed 24 July 2012. The current mandate holder is Mr. Mashood Baderin (Nigeria) and can be reached at

[9] The nine States are Chad, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tunisia, and Zambia. Special Procedures Invitations <> accessed 11 July 2012.

[10] For a list of country visits, see Country and other visits by Special Procedures Mandate Holders since 1998 <> accessed 11 July 2012. Recent examples in this regard include visits to Algeria by the Special Rapporteurs on the right to adequate housing and on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, respectively, in 2011, visit to Egypt by the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons in 2010, and visit to Botswana by the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples in 2009.

[11] Edward R. McMahon, ‘Herding Cats and Sheep: Assessing State and Regional Behavior in the Universal Periodic Review Mechanism of the United Nations Human Rights Council’ <
McMahon_Herding_Cats_and_Sheeps_July_2010.pdf> accessed 12 July 2012, 26, 30.

[12] For dates of future sessions and the corresponding deadlines for stakeholders to submit written contributions, see OHCHR, Contributions and participation of “other stakeholders” in the UPR <
HRBodies/UPR/Pages/NgosNhris.aspx> accessed 24 July 2012.

[13] For Calendar of State party reports to be considered by the treaty bodies in 2012-2013, see Tentative timetable for the consideration of State parties’ reports <
StateConsidered_2012-2013.xls > accessed 24 July 2012.

[14] See Michael O’Flaherty and Pei-Lun Tsai, ‘Periodic Reporting: The Backbone of the UN Treaty Body Review Procedures’ in M. Cherif Bassiouni and William A. Schabas (eds), New Challenges for the UN Human Rights Machinery: What Future for the UN Treaty Body System and the Human Rights Council Procedures? (Intersentia 2011).

[15] States parties’ reporting status to human rights treaty bodies as of June 2012 <
Documents/HRBodies/ReportingStatus2012.xls> accessed 24 July 2012.

[16] Viljoen (n 5) 117.

[17] Savitri Goonesekere, ‘Law Reform and Children’s Rights in Plural Legal Systems: Some Experiences in Sub-Saharan Africa’, in Protecting the World’s Children: Impact of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in Diverse Legal Systems (CUP 2008) 238.

[18] Viljoen (n 5) 109.

[19] Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT) Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture: SPT visits <> accessed 12 July 2012.

[20] Report on the visit of the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment to Benin, UN Doc CAT/OP/BEN/1 (15 March 2011).

[21] Confidential inquiries under article 20 of the Convention against Torture <
bodies/cat/confidential_art20.htm> accessed 12 July 2012.

[22] OHCHR in Africa <> accessed 24 July 2012.

[23] UN Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Central Africa, Contact information and summary of work in 2010-2011 <> accessed 24 July 2012.

[24]OHCHR East Africa Regional Office, Contact information and summary of work in 2010-2011 <http://www.> accessed 24 July 2012.

[25] OHCHR Regional Office for Southern Africa, Contact information and summary of work in 2010-2011 <> accessed 24 July 2012.

[26] OHCHR West Africa Regional Office, Contact information and summary of work in 2010-2011 <http://www.> accessed 24 July 2012.

[27] OHCHR Report 2011, OHCHR in the field: Africa <
version/ohchr_report2011_web/allegati/21_Africa.pdf> accessed 24 July 2012.

[28] UNHCR, 2012 Regional Operations Profile - Africa <> accessed 24 July 2012.

[29] UNICEF, Information by country and programme <> accessed 24 July 2012.

[30] UNDP in Africa <> accessed 24 July 2012.

[31] UNIFEM Worldwide: Africa <> accessed 24 July 2012.

[32] ILO in Africa <> accessed 24 July 2012.

[33] UNESCO, Africa <> accessed 24 July 2012.

[34] Viljoen (n 5) 79-82.

[35] Strengthening the United Nations human rights treaty body system: A report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (June 2012) <
HCreportonTBstrengthening210612.doc> accessed 24 July 2012.

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i wish to acknowledge that the presentation was well done, on firm grounds and that the authors reached out to the core issues. however, i have taken notice of a major omission, there is no concrete explaination on the procedure to enforce the human rights. because when we talk of promoting human rights, we have to also talk of how to enforce them. there would be litigants would want to know on how to litigate lest their rights are violated. because i thought you would talk about the african court of human rights under this topic, or maybe i have made a pre-mature observation? i mean maybe you plan to bring this under a different topic? i just thought that under this topic, we could have discussed the effectiveness of the african court of human rights as a tool in promoting and protecting human rights.
otherwise thanks for the nice presentation.

Dear Elvis, Thanks for the comment and interest in this project. Your observation is very valid. For the time being, this article was intended to give an accessible overview of the international framework, in a way that's easy to learn. There's some more on the Court in the following article: In the future, there will be a specific article on the Court itself.Hope this helps!Rom

thanks i will look forward to that, let's keep building Africa!