But in recent years, as democracy has spread across the continent, the vital importance of human rights for Africa's long-term security and development has been gaining recognition. More and more African national and intergovernmental institutions are now taking up rights issues.
Earlier on, the continent took an important step in advancing human rights when the African Union (AU) officially established the African Court on Human and People's Rights. The court adds an enforcement arm to existing human rights institutions on a continent known more for the impunity of those who govern than the strict defence of the rights and liberties of citizens.
The ratification of the protocol to establish the court was welcomed by acting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Bertrand Ramcharan as "another major advance towards the international rule of law and the fight against impunity for gross violations of human rights." The court will strengthen the work of the African Commission for Human and People's Rights, established in 1987 to promote the continent's principal human rights manifesto, the African Charter for Human and People's Rights (see box, below).
The court's inauguration is but the latest indication that many African governments, acting nationally and also collectively through the AU, are becoming more serious about strengthening human rights protections and ending what many observers describe as a "culture of impunity" for violators. Even the toughest critics of African governments -- African human rights activists -- agree.
The main judicial issue in Africa today, lies between the question of an independent judicial system and the question of impunity. Many African judges are unwilling or unable to rule against their governments, he noted, because they are dependent on the ruling parties for their positions, lack the authority to enforce their rulings or, in some cases, may face arrest or assault for challenging government actions.
Africa's human rights record has generally paralleled its political history. The denial of human and civil rights by the colonial powers was an important weapon in the hands of the anti-colonial movements of the 1950s and 1960s -- mobilizing domestic and international opinion in favour of African self-determination.
Then, as the Cold War increasingly took hold in Africa, many independence-era governments were replaced by authoritarian, often military regimes. Human rights abuses became more common. Freed from any effective accountability at the ballot box, and with economic and military aid influenced more by superpower allegiances than good governance, some African governments felt at liberty to violate their citizens' rights. The studied silence of other African leaders to the abuses of their peers, justified under the OAU doctrine of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states, led critics to deride the body as a "dictators club."
A Guest Editorial