By Musa Sunusi Ahmad
The Pan-African Parliament (PAP) has reiterated that respect for human rights across the spectrum including economic, social, civil and political rights, will be critical to a successful public health response to the Covid-19 pandemic in Africa.
The call was made during a webinar on the impact of Covid-19 on upholding human rights in Africa, held on 28 July 2020. The virtual engagement sought to contextualise the centrality of human rights in dealing with health disasters, and the role of an informed legislature in addressing the human rights challenges arising from such pandemics, especially in the context of Covid-19.
The webinar aimed to identify the human rights violations that are likely to occur in Africa during COVID-19 and to promote parliamentary involvement in the upholding of human rights during pandemics.
According to Fortune Charumbira, vice-president of PAP, the human rights transgressions have featured extensively in most African countries as part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He further called on African Parliamentarians to hold governments accountable to their commitments to continental and international human rights instruments.
“As part of its mandate, the PAP is called upon to promote human and peoples’ rights, consolidate democratic institutions and the democratic culture, good governance, transparency and the rule of law by all organs of the union, regional economic communities and member states. Our obligation remains to ensure that our states protect and promote human rights for all groups especially the vulnerable. This is imperative at this time to assist societies to emerge more resilient from this pandemic,” said Charumbira.
Salah Hammad, head of the African Governance Architecture (AGA) Secretariat within the African Union Commission Department of Political Affairs, addressed the webinar on the African Union (AU) human rights mechanisms that protect citizens against abuse of power during health emergencies. Hammad reminded participants that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced AU member states to use unusual methods of governance to address the health crisis.
“Areas of human rights, justice and rule of law as well as democracy and constitutionalism have suffered setbacks as part of states of emergency declared to combat the Covid-19 pandemic in African countries. In the light of this, AU mechanisms, organs and institutions are working closely to provide technical support to member states in the fight against Covid-19 through a human rights-based approach. The approach seeks to mainstream specific areas of focus including human rights, human security, gender equality, youth empowerment and women inclusion as well as protection and promotion of the rights of marginalised groups such as children, cultural minority and old persons among others,” said Hammad.
It was recalled that in October 2019, the PAP Plenary adopted the model law on policing in Africa, which establishes guidelines for law enforcement agencies engagement with state, community and oversight actors. It envisages and prioritises the protection of life, liberty, security, and upholding the rule of law and human rights.
The PAP has previously hailed the AU for endorsing a joint continental strategy to combat Covid-19, complementing efforts by member states and the regional economic communities by providing the public health platform. Dr. Raji Tajudeen, Africa CDCs’ head for public health and research told the meeting that the continental coordination of Covid-19 by the institution has focused on the socio-economic impact of the pandemic on vulnerable populations. He also highlighted efforts made to address stigma and discrimination in access to healthcare and funds made available as part of the fight against pandemics in general.
Patience Mungwari Mpani, project manager at the Women’s Right Unit at the Centre for Human Rights (University of Pretoria), shone the light on the plight of women and old persons. She emphasised that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities. ‘’Mitigation strategies need to take into account the fact that certain categories are more exposed than others. In the case old people, they usually carry underlying health problems and merit specific attention in these times. On the other hand, it is important to highlight the inability of women to access social care in times of Covid-19 as they are also confronted with gender-based and domestic violence during these times.”
According to Kudakwashe Dube, CEO of Africa Disability Alliance (ADA) disabled people has more health-care needs than others and are therefore more vulnerable to the impact of low quality or inaccessible health-care services than others. “We must ensure that people with disabilities are not left behind during the Covid-19 outbreak and that they are treated with respect, dignity and without discrimination.”
PAP recently passed the African Model law on Disability, which provides a legal and institutional framework for the protection and promotion of the rights of persons with disabilities. Drafted in line with the existing international and regional, legal and policy instruments, these strides were made by the PAP in upholding its commitment to protecting the rights of every citizen of this continent.
Bonolo Makgale, project coordinator: Democracy, Transparency and Digital Rights Unit at the Centre for Human Rights, underscored the role of parliamentarians in protecting human rights during pandemics. “Parliamentarians need to strengthen checks and balances to ensure that the health burden caused by Covid-19 is not worsened by human rights violations across the continent. African parliamentarians are therefore called upon to protect human rights during pandemics by actively being involved in providing legislative guidance and parameters to emergency measures put in place by governments. Once these parameters have been established, parliamentarians should monitor the implementation phase and use their oversight powers to safeguard the rights of the citizens,” she said.