African Union Human Rights Commission COVID19: Widespread Poverty, Political Instability

July 4th, 2020

In an article in the Mail and Guardian, South Africa, Solomon Derrso, head of the African Union Commission on Human Rights expressed his concerns regarding the economic fallout hitting Africa.

“The first worry that I have is that the socioeconomic and humanitarian fallout from the Covid-19 response measures may descend into a human rights catastrophe as millions of peoples lose jobs or have their livelihoods in the informal sectors wiped out, and are pushed into extreme poverty; and as millions of others face hunger and starvation”

As the pandemic drags on, so its economic effect becomes clearer: this week, the International Monetary Fund estimated that sub-Saharan Africa’s gross domestic product will contract by 3.2% this year, putting between 26-million and 39-million Africans at risk of falling into extreme poverty.

“The fear is that we will undo some gains that have been made over the years,” Dersso said, citing trends in maternal mortality rates, child marriage and the enrollment of girls in school as the areas he is particularly worried about.

He also states his concerns that an overwhelmingly young population will increase the issues, leading to potential serious political instability, sinilar to the situation in Mali where there are on-going anti-government protests. He admitted that his own commission is not always popular with African governments when they are challenged on human rights violations. In an opinion piece for the M&G last month, Dersso called out states that resorted to police brutality to enforce Covid-19 restrictions, including Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. In the long term, he is worried about those same restrictions becoming permanent fixtures — much like emergency anti-terrorism legislation has a habit of remaining on the books even once the threat has passed, and is used to censor free speech, media and human rights activists.

“We have been consistent in saying that whatever emergency rules and measures have been put in place in response to Covid-19 have to be temporary, absolutely temporary. There is a danger of these things being institutionalised, thereby putting undue restrictions on rights.”

But it’s not all bad news.

“I am comforted by the ever increasing awareness and consciousness of members of the public about their rights. I am encouraged by the rise in the willingness and ability of young people to demand respect for and protection of their rights. I feel hopeful about the sense of ownership of the human rights agenda on the continent with national institutions, civil society organisations and the media increasingly working on rights issues or approaching the governance and socioeconomic ills afflicting our societies from a human rights perspective,” Dersso said.

Comment: Similar concerns need to be voiced in Europe. In the UK the Corona Virus Bill has already extended limitations on rights and freedoms, ostensibily for two years with regular reviews. We need to ensure that such measures don’t move onto the statute books.