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Analyzing continental democratic and human rights

Analyzing continental democratic and human rights

Solomon Ayele Dersso (PhD) is currently serving as commissioner at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the premier human rights body of the African Union (AU). Solomon is also chairperson of the African Commission’s Working Group on Extractive Industries, Environment and Human Rights. He is also tasked with the responsibility of looking into human rights in conflict situations, and transitional justice and human rights for the Commission. In addition to his teaching roles in human rights and lecturing in various places, currently, Solomon is in the process of setting up an institute, Amani Africa Institute, which is a policy research advisory and consulting think-tank that works on AU issues and peace and security in Africa. He is also a regular analyst and commentator on various African issues. Solomon Goshu of The Reporter caught up with Solomon at his new office, Amani Africa Institute, in Addis Ababa and discussed continental issues. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Tell us a bit about the new institute that you are establishing here in Addis.

Solomon Ayele Dersso (PhD): Amani Africa Institute is the first and the only policy research advisory and consulting think-tank with principal focus on the AU. It offers cutting-edge policy research, analysis and development as well as training on African security, democratic governance and development issues using the prism of the African Union vision.

Previously, as a researcher, you have analyzed and suggested ways on how to improve the AU including the operation of the Commission. Now, you are a commissioner. How do you feel when analyzed by others now? Do you have a different assessment about the AU in general and the Commission in particular when you see their internal operations closely?

It is a very interesting question. I have different hats, one of which is being a commissioner. The other is I still continue to be a legal scholar and analyst on peace and security issues in Africa. I think the position of being in the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights basically gives you insights into the workings of the institution from the inside. It is within that framework that you come to understand the intricacies and various institutional, legal, and human relations dynamics as well as the relationship between the African Commission and the AU, and between the African Commission and members states, and between the African Commission and civil society organizations. It is then that you understand the various forces at play that tend to shape the way that a body of the AU operates, and the various forces that also either facilitate or limit the performance and capacity of an institution.

Being analyzed from outside is a very refreshing and exciting one in the sense that without necessarily rationalizing why certain things happened you get a sense that there are certain things that you would have loved if people knew and understood so that they would have a clear sense of why certain things are not happening because there is expectation that they should have happened. The Commission has the advantage of being independent. Using that independence it may be able to advance certain issues and agenda relating to human and peoples’ rights. As difficult as the task that is entrusted to the African Commission is, and that it can do so only if the Commission is able build alliances and support base across the entire spectrum of the African constituency and stakeholders including civil society organizations, media, policy researchers, academics, and obviously, national institutions of various types such as national human rights institutions.

Ultimately, the success or failure of the Commission is measured not only on the basis of the opportunity that it avails for enabling citizens to vindicate their interests and rights nut also by giving them recourse beyond and above the state. It is also by how it is able to shape the failure of member states. You can see the works of the Commission in three ways. One is whether or not the Commission is able to articulate norms, human rights understanding that advances the awareness and consciousness of the African public, member states, and various other stakeholders with specific reference to a particular human rights issue. It is about promoting how human rights should be understood, interpreted, and applied with respect to various issues ranging from the role of civil society organizations in the country to freedom of the press and expression, to social media and its regulation, to the issue of addressing poverty and inequality, to the management and governance of natural resources.

The other area is whether or not the Commission, through its work, benefits citizens who despite their efforts are not able to get protection within the national system for them to have an alternative recourse for seeking protection and getting vindication. The wrong has been done against them in the state to which they belong should be recognized and legally established. That is basically done through the communications provision which is a semi-judicial process that involves the receipt of complaints by individuals who feel that their rights have been violated.

Finally, the third one relates to the extent to which the Commission’s work affects the behaviors of member states. These are the ways in which the works of the Commission needs to be looked at and examined. As I am settling down in the Commission there is the realization that what you see from the outside and what you get once you are inside are not always one and the same. There is huge role for the Commission to push the boundaries of the protection of human rights on the continent forward. One of the major limitations for the effectiveness of the Commission has to do with the fact that myself and other members of the Commission work on a part-time basis. So what that means is basically you spent much of the rest of your time doing other activities. That doesn’t give you enough mileage in terms of the amount of delivery that the Commission can be able to provide.

When the OAU transitioned to the AU, many promises were made to the peoples of the continent in terms of delivery. ‘Giving an African solution to African problems’ is one of the highly promoted promises. However, the AU and its different organs are still highly criticized of being dependent on others in terms of finance and operation.  Other organs are still interfering in the affairs of Africa and attempt to provide solutions as the AU is not quick enough to provide its own. What is your take on these widely held views?

One of the political ideals that the AU advocates and promotes as a mantra is the idea of ‘African solutions to African problems’. But despite the proclamation for Africa taking responsibility for its own issues, when it comes to making that a reality, there are a number of shortcomings. There are a number of issues that we need to address within the framework of this question. The first one is there is huge dependence on external sources. It raises questions. If the source of funding and finance for activities undertaken by the AU are not from within Africa, then how far can Africa be in control of the peace and security and the development agenda.

This is a very legitimate issue. Even at the level of the AU and at the level of the heads of states and governments there is recognition that if we are going to give any meaningful substance to the ideals of ‘African solutions to African problems’, we must be able to finance our agenda. The extent to which pronouncements made available of the AU translated into action is another problem. Very nice sounding policies and decisions are taken when member states come together for the AU summit here in Addis. But they don’t carry those decisions with them back home. AU doesn’t implement them by itself. Whatever decisions that are taken at the level of the AU can be translated into concrete actions only through the instrumentality of member states.

So, if member states do not take the necessary measures for the domestication and internalization of those decisions, then whatever decisions made would be left here in Addis. One of the missing links is basically creating this national level implementation and follow-up mechanism. This may require legislative action or mobilization of financial resources. We have been good at the level of the AU in terms of good policies and coming up with decisions including at the level of the Peace and Security Council. But implementing those decisions requires mobilization of resources, personnel, and diplomatic and political capital.

Now the question really is when decisions are taken do member states factor in the resource considerations. On some of the issues there is a question of fundamental problem of leadership. We must act on those issues we said we should do. This depends on the extent to which we are committed. It is only member states that bear the primary responsibility for mobilizing the necessary resources and capacity to implement decisions. So, we need to have our house in order. We also need to have the right priorities. Decisions have to be realistic at the AU level as well.

What ‘African solutions to African problems’ means is not necessarily to say that Africa has to basically provide everything for all the problems. It is important to understand that in this time and age that we live in not all the sources of the crises that we see in Africa is not necessarily Africa’s doing. Some of the crises are the products of the actions and doings of actors outside the continent. After all, within the frameworks of the international collective security system, anchored on the United Nations (UN) Charter, primary responsibility for peace and security lies with the UN to which African countries are a member.

‘African solutions to African problems’ does not mean that Africa is going to be an island and does everything on its own. What it essentially means is when it comes to the analyses and diagnoses of the problems, Africa needs to take a leadership role. Africa needs to be an active part in the all the process including the articulation of the problems. That does not exclude the participation of other actors who are implicated one way or another. But it is important that the stake for making the ultimate decisions among different choices should principally lie in the hands of Africa. We are in a time when a lot of reform processes are happening at the level of the AU including the AU reform agenda that President Paul Kagame is leading. And then you have the financing of the AU and peace and security.

The post-cold war democratic reforms have also reached Africa. But when it comes to one of the key component of democracy, transparency and accountability, the continent is lagging behind than any other places. What are the AU and its organs including the African Commission and the African Court doing to improve this issue?

In post-Cold War era, the ideals of democracy and its place in Africa have been established and everybody now accepts that it is the only game in town. That is why you see even leaders who are authoritarian or dictators still use elections as a means for legitimizing their rule. That is quite a very interesting development. But that development hasn’t been translated into accountable and responsive system of governance in many parts of the continent. This is reflected in the struggle that you see play itself out between member states and the human rights and governance bodies of the AU. Sometimes the African Commission takes certain decisions against member states and the latter do not want to accept those decisions and implement them despite the fact that they have subscribed voluntarily to abide by the decisions of these bodies.

We would like member states to honor their obligations. It would strengthen state-society relations. The decisions give citizens one framework on the basis of which they can hold governments accountable. It recently worked in Burkina Faso in relation to the extension of term-limits and to force the president out. The AU wants to be a peoples-driven body.  The issues of leadership, building institutions and national capacity, and political activism of citizens are also central in this context. The way the state is designed and functioned has to be transformed to serve the interest of the people. It is important that there are accountability processes and measures at the national level and regional level. All sections of the society also need to provide support for their effective functioning. The continental level is only complimentary to the national level.

Recently Ethiopia has faced a series of challenges in relation to its peace and security. What has triggered this crisis?

The past two years have been the most trying times for Ethiopia and its people. Many of us have been very concerned about the events and how those events may evolve over the course of time. There is no single individual cause. There are a number of actors and causes that we need to take into account. One important area relates to the issue of democratic governance in the country. This relates to the extent to which citizens feel that their voices are heard and their rights and interests are adequately taken care of. Above and beyond that, there are issues related to the functionality of the federal system, which is one of the pillars of the post-1991 political dispensation of the country.

It runs into trouble in the course of the past two years. The other thing has to do with one of the premises of the Ethiopian constitutional order is multi-party politics. But in the most recent times the extent to which the system operates as a multi-party system has been put into question. This became prominent particularly in the context of the fact that the ruling coalition took 100 percent of the seats of parliament. In a country that is diverse and plural not only in terms of ethnic identity but also in political ideology, questions have been raised as to whether or not that is actually representative of the political diversity of the country. And then you have also the question of economic issues that affect various sections of the society particularly the youth.

Lack of employment opportunity coupled with a sense of alienation, and not being heard and included led us to the situation of the past two years. Therefore, over the course of a number of years, the nature of the relationship between the state and the society has been eroded. Trust between government and society has also been put into question. This is compounded by issues related to corruption, lack of accountability of people who run various structures of the state or government, and of course, the fusion of party, government, and state, and lack of separation. All these things basically come together to create that condition. It only requires one or two issues to trigger it.

The proposed Addis Ababa-Oromia Integrated Master Plan was the triggering factor that led to the situation. We also know that the situation has been compounded by the internal issues that affected the various members of the coalition as well.

In terms of giving sustainable solutions to the problems, many perspectives have been forwarded. What do you think should be fundamentally addressed to resolve these problems?  

We need to address all of the issues raised in the process. The reform should address all of the dimensions of the issues. Internally, there are issues that need to be sorted out among the members of the coalition. It is important that there is an arrangement like a social contract that needs to be forged between the state and the people whereby the social contract gives people confidence that their interests are given priority that their rights are respected, and that government functionaries are accountable and responsible to their demands. In terms of the reform or solution; we need to look into the functioning of the federal system as well.

We have reached a point where we need to ask questions about whether or not there are certain changes that need to happen to the way the federal system has been operating. As much as there is a desire and demand for giving full effect to the federal design of the Constitution, it is equally important that we also look at the other side of the equation. Wherever you are, you also have an Ethiopian citizenship. As a citizen, your rights and interests need to be respected. Wherever you are, you shouldn’t be targeted or your rights and interests shouldn’t depend on the good will of a particular region.

There are questions that people ask whether or not we have reached a point where we need to look into how the Constitution has articulated and responded to the issue of the rights of nations, nationalities, and peoples, and how it responded to their equality. A society that is committed to the rights and interests of nations, nationalities, and peoples or ethnic groups can only thrive if it has equal, if not more, commitment to the rights of individuals as citizens of the state. There has to be balance between the two. It is that balance that would enable to address some of the most troubling manifestations of violence.

The structure of the government has to reflect that. Multi-party politics has to be properly implemented and realized. As much as possible, it is important that there is legal and political space that enables the diversity of political views to be reflected at the structure of government and parliament. One of the agendas that have been announced by President Mulatu Teshome (PhD), when he delivered the State of the Union address at the beginning of the year, was that there could be a reform of the electoral system of the country. It is in the interest of the country and its stability that it is acted upon.

In the context of the economic dimension of things, I think one may not dispute whether the developmental state model is the model that works better for Ethiopia. But the way it is acted upon and implemented leaves so much to be desired. It raises questions on whether or not some of the approaches taken in implementation would make you doubt whether it is a developmental approach particularly when it affects communities to an extent that it leads to a sense of alienation and people rising up against those developmental processes and projects. FDI is good but the terms and conditions are more important. What kind of say do people have when those investments are directed to their areas? To what extent their interests and needs adequately protected? Addressing issues related to dispossession of land and displacements are so important. It is the provision of all these kinds of reforms that is going to determine whether or not we have successfully reversed the course of events and we are on a path for a more peaceful, stable, and people-centered order.