The African Commission on Human and People's Rights meets this week in the Gambia capital, Banjul to hear human-rights complaints.
The Commission is designed to protect civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights.
With the birth of the African Union and the call for a new Africa, the Commission has gained importance. But some observers say respect for human rights in many African countries is no better than under their former colonial masters.
Human Rights Watch Deputy Director for Africa Bronwen Manby said she has been disappointed by the Commission's interpretation and enforcement of human rights in Africa. "Some of the reasons why they have failed to do as well as they might, have got to do with resources. But it has also been partly to do with the lack of willingness to be confrontational. To denounce things that need to be denounced in a way that, in fact it does not really cost any money, but can be seen to shame those people who are really committing atrocities or abusing the rights of their citizens," she said.
Algeria's Ambassador to Libya, Kamel Rezag-Bara, is chairman of the African Commission on Human and People's Rights. He said the panel has made progress in recent years, but there is room for improvement. "The fact is now everyone feels that we should have more teeth. Maybe 11 members of the commission is not enough. ... And we also have to give the commission ways to follow up the implementation of their recommendation, which is not the case right now," he said.
The Commission based in the Gambia capital, Banjul, is composed of 11 independent members appointed by the African Union. It meets twice a year for 15 days each session to consider human-rights complaints filed by individuals or groups.
At its meeting this month, the Commission will hear several cases, among them, a complaint filed by lawyers Samuel Kofi Woods and Kabineh Ja'neh of Liberia against the government of President Charles Taylor.
The complaint was filed on behalf of detained Liberian journalists Hassan Bility, Ansumana Kamara, and Mohamed Kamara. They were arrested June 24 this year by Liberian security and have not been heard from since.
In their complaint, the two lawyers said that the journalists' arrest and detention without charges violated the Liberian Constitution, the African Charter on Human and People's Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They called on the Commission to order the release of the journalists.
Ambassador Bara admits his Commission has received a complaint against the Liberian government, but said he would not discuss the details. "When a complaint is on the way to be heard, it is not my right to speak on that. But I confirm that we have a complaint against the government of Liberia. Definitely we will discuss it. At that time, if we reach any decision, I will be in the position to discuss it with you," he said.
In 1996, the Social and Economic Rights Action Center of Nigeria filed a complaint with the Commission against the Nigerian government and Shell Petroleum Corporation. The complaint alleged that the government collaborated with Shell Oil to cause environmental degradation and health problems to Ogoniland.
After nearly six years of postponing decision, the Commission last year found the Nigerian government in violation of several articles of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights.
It called for the Nigerian government to ensure protection of the environment, health, and livelihood of the Ogoni people. The Commission also called for the Nigerian government to ensure adequate compensation to victims of the human rights violations.
Some human rights groups say the commission's decisions often come too late. But Ambassador Bara said quicker Commission decisions may not help eliminate problems. "The commission has just the right to make recommendations, and its decision on complaints is not binding, according to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights. It will be binding when the additional protocol establishing the African Court on Human and People's Rights will enter into force, which is not the case right now," Mr. Bara said.
Ambassador Bara called for human-rights organizations to encourage African governments to ratify the protocol establishing the African Court on Human and People's Rights. Of the 15 countries needed to ratify the protocol, only Burkina Faso, Gambia, Mali, Senegal, Uganda, and South Africa have done so.
In addition, every African country is to submit a report each year on measures it has taken to respect the rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Commission's Charter. But nearly half of the 53 countries have yet to submit a report.
Ms. Manby says the Commission should publicize its findings, like most non-governmental human-rights organizations. "As an international body, I think the power of shame, the power to say this is what we looked into and this is what we found, these are our considered conclusions is a very important one, and they have been reluctant to do that publicly. Of course they are never going to be an NGO. But there is an important role they could play. And I think they are not quite doing that as much as I would like to see," he said.
Senior paralegal officer at the National Society for Human Rights in Namibia, Petrus Festus, said the African Union should give the Commission more power. "I think also that the Commission should be given a mandate to suspend a member country from the African Union, and also to impose sanctions on any country that violates the rights of its citizens," he said.
Mr. Festus also sees a need to establish a committee of inquiry to investigate whether the Commission has been doing its job. He says members of civil society should form part of this watchdog committee because, he said, they are committed to human rights.