The African Commission’s Response to the COVID-19 pandemic

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The African Commission’s Response to the COVID-19 pandemic

The African Commission has emerged as a key voice promoting a continent-wide human rights response to COVID-19, while urging a shift in focus to tackle the massive underlying structural inequalities starkly exposed by the pandemic.

Africa is no stranger to calamity. While the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading on the continent, East Africa faced two simultaneous crises, a scorching drought and a locust plague, threatening food security in the region. One year earlier, in 2019, the impact of Cyclone Idai and subsequent flooding in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe resulted in thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of displacements. And Ebola outbreaks, including in 2020 in the Democratic Republic of Congo and 2014 to 2016 in West Africa, mean that epidemics are also not unknown on the continent. Nevertheless, in respect of long-term and widespread impact, it seems that COVID-19 will be the most challenging yet.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Commission) is an independent human rights organ of the African Union (AU) with the mandate to promote and protect human and peoples’ rights on the continent. It also has the role of interpreting the rights in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which has been ratified by 54 of the 55 African states and provides equal protection to civil and political, economic, social and cultural rights, as well as peoples’ communal rights.

While the start of the pandemic in Africa lagged behind many other regions in the world, the African Commission was one of the first human rights organisations to express concern about the continent’s unreadiness for COVID-19. It has since continued to be a leading voice on making human rights a key part of the response.

Preliminary responses to the COVID-19 pandemic
The African Commission issued its first press statement on the pandemic on 28 February 2020, providing 10 broad guidelines to African states on preparedness and how to ensure that any restrictions imposed are lawful, necessary, proportionate and respectful of human rights. This was followed less than a month later by a press statement on a human rights-based effective response to the COVID-19 virus in Africa. It set out 12 human rights principles that states should comply with in dealing with the crisis, including standards of legality, equality and solidarity, safeguarding of vulnerable groups, the protection and realisation of rights to health and access to information. Individual members of the Commission also issued statements on various areas of concern arising from COVID-19, including impacts on human rights defenders, women and indigenous populations/communities, as well as human rights challenges resulting from policing of lockdown measures, prison overcrowding and infringements of socio-economic rights.

The African Commission did more than reach out to states however. In early May 2020, it sent a letter to AU Chairperson, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, urging the AU to make human rights a key pillar of its response to the pandemic. The Commission also offered the AU its expertise to help develop an inclusive continent-wide response to COVID-19 that would take full account of human rights. In addition, the Commission contacted its wider stakeholders on the continent. During its 66th Ordinary Session, held virtually in July and August 2020, the Commission engaged with states, national human rights institutions and civil society organisations working across the continent on the human rights challenges experienced in different countries and regions as a result of COVID-19. States were eager to show how their actions were in line with the Commission’s guidance by commenting on the status of human rights during the pandemic. NGOs also used the normative benchmarks set by the Commission to report violations and draw attention to areas of concern. The normative guidance, together with the open space the Commission created, therefore enabled a fruitful exchange on the best practices in addressing the pandemic and its consequences.

Building back better in Africa
As the pandemic progressed, the African Commission came to realise that, apart from the health care and related human rights challenges the virus caused, and the fact that human rights have been violated in the course of enforcing regulations to curb its spread, COVID-19 has also exposed structural inequalities and human rights gaps. In normal circumstances we could ignore these gaps, however, the pandemic has highlighted the far-reaching consequences in times of crisis if these are not addressed. With regard to this, the African Commission Chairperson, Dr Solomon Dersso, issued a joint statement with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, warning that ‘tens of millions may become destitute in Africa as a result of COVID-19 and its economic impact, with catastrophic human rights consequences’.

In a statement delivered at the 12 August Dialogue between Regional Human Rights Protection Commissions in the Context of the Pandemic, hosted by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, Dr Dersso cautioned against a business-as-usual approach for human rights institutions and urged the need for ‘proactive action for addressing structural issues’.

The African Commission has thus started to shift its attention from responding to the immediate challenges to concentrate on the underlying causes of suffering during this pandemic, including lack of access to basic necessities, most notably, water, sanitation, housing, education and sustainable employment. The Commission has stressed the deficiencies of current development models and political and financial governance, which directly impact on peoples’ socio-economic wellbeing and resilience in times of crisis, as the next frontier of human rights challenges that should become a central focus of those fighting for human rights.

During the 12 August Dialogue, the African Commission Chairperson warned that the human rights system faces a stark choice. It can continue in a business-as-usual fashion and face irrelevance in the effort to overcome the structural conditions of oppression affecting the vast majority of people in the world. Or it can reprioritise its focus, approach and sense of urgency to deal with the existing human rights concerns which have, in the context of COVID-19, become the defining issues of our time. These are massive poverty, widening inequality, gender oppression, racism, the democratic governance crisis and the climate emergency.

While this is a daunting challenge, it is also an exciting one, and one which I believe should be taken up by all human rights systems at local, regional and international levels, to start undoing the massive structural inequalities characterising our age and delivering on the lofty ideals of human rights instruments.

Elsabe Boshoff

Written by Elsabe Boshoff

Elsabe is currently working as Legal Fellow at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. She holds an LLM in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa from the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria.

Cite as: Boshoff, Elsabe. "The African Commission’s Response to the COVID-19 pandemic", GC Human Rights Preparedness, 29 October 2020,


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