Is regional trade the key to human rights enforcement in Africa?

A busy fish market Saint-Louis, Senegal. A more robust trade among African countries could help facilitate progress on a wide range of regional challenges, including human rights. Photo by: Evgeni Zotov / CC BY-NC-ND

African civil society leaders gathered on Wednesday at the U.S. House of Representatives to present a series of recommendations meant to boost peace, human rights, security, democracy and economic growth on the continent.

One key discussion point was the African Union’s ongoing struggle to enforce key human rights agreements. The surprising solution, according to some: more regional trade within Africa.  

Soraya Aziz Souleymane, a development specialist from the Democratic Republic of Congo, said the AU doesn’t have enough coercive power, as countries abide by AU treaties voluntarily, and the only way to enforce those agreements is through economic sanctions.

But, she emphasized, sanctions aren’t very effective because African countries actually trade very little with one another.

“If the AU wants to have more power at an African level, it should be to increase the trade and partnership among African countries in a way that if those trades are cut, the country will really feel the pitch, and that will then become an incentive for them to behave in a way that is compliant with the treaties that they themselves have ratified,” Souleymane said.

More regional trade, separation of powers

While the focus of the first-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit has largely been on transatlantic trade between the U.S. and Africa, African civil society leaders underscored the contention that more robust trade between African countries could help facilitate progress on a wide range of regional challenges — including human rights.

That message will surely resonate with advocates of a consistent and fully-funded trade facilitation program, including capacity building and technical assistance to accompany the so-called “Bali package,” a World Trade Organization agreement signed in December that would compel member states to meet universal customs standards so goods can move across borders more easily.

Some developing country signatories — including many in Africa — have expressed concern that the deal’s requirements will not be accompanied by the necessary funding and technical assistance required to achieve them. The human rights argument for regional and continental trade in Africa could lend further weight to calls for more donor assistance.

Arthur Gwagwa of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum agreed that the AU has an enforcement problem when it comes to issues of human rights, and proposed another solution. He said there’s a need for a “separation of powers” between the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, which proposes human rights agreements, and the African Union, which is supposed to implement them.

 “The African Commission is a human rights organization, whereas the AU is a political organization,” Gwagwa told Devex. The AU, he explained, doesn’t necessarily feel obliged to enforce the decisions of the African Commission. “I think there’s an authoritarian solidarity at the AU level,” he added.

For the most comprehensive coverage of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, check out daily updates via Storify, and be sure to follow Devex on Twitter and Facebook. You may tweet questions and comments to our reporters Michael Igoe @twigoe and Kelli Rogers @kellierin.

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About the author

  • Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.