Over the last two years and largely out of the glare of media attention, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) has been moving toward the creation of an African regional mechanism for the protection and promotion of human rights. When it finally comes into operation, the OAU human rights mechanism will become the third regional system of its kind, alongside the European and InterAmerican human rights systems.
The decision to set up an African human rights system in the form of a charter and a commission was made during the 1979 OAU summit meeting in Monrovia , Liberia. Prior to that date, the OAU did not possess any institutional framework for dealing with problems of human rights violations within independent African countries.
Since 1963 when African leaders founded the Organization of African Unity in Addis Ababa, the primary preoccupation of African states in international affairs has been the complete decolonization of the continent and the eradiction of apartheid in South Africa. In the 1970's, however, the OAU paid increased attention to socioeconomic and political developments within the independent African states.
Among the major developments influencing the activities of the OAU have been declining economic conditions in many countries, disasters such as the Sahelian drought, and famine conditions in Eastern Africa.
In some parts of Africa, the problem of refugees has compounded the already difficult situation resulting from economic difficulties. Conflicts in Western Sahara, Chad, Uganda, and Ethiopia are currently the cause of the most serious refugee situations in Africa.
Besides the tragic problem of refugees, the rise and fall of the notorious regimes of Idi Amin in Uganda, Jean Bedel Bokassa in the former Central African Empire, and Macias Nguema in Equatorial Guinea compelled African leaders to confront human rights problems in independent Africa. The callous murder of political opponents in these three countries embarrassed African leaders and placed them in the dilemma of having to choose between condemnation of the dictators, thus risking a major disruption of African political unity, or keeping quiet and appearing to acquiesce in the atrocities. This dilemma was highlighted with the assumption of the honorary chairmanship of the OAU by Idi Amin following the convening of the 1975 Summit in Kampala, Uganda.
Apart from developments within the African states, the increased international attention which was paid to the problem of human rights following the accession of Jimmy Carter to the American presidency in 1977 must be considered as one of the factors which had a direct bearing on the attitude of African leaders. In the last five years, human rights have become a major issue in international politics. African leaders could hardly think about the Vietnamese "boat people" or the Pol Pot atrocities without being reminded of Idi Amin, Bokassa, and Macias.
The OAU's draft "Charter of Human and People's Rights" was positively received by African leaders at their annual meeting last summer, and, barring any further modifications, will be presented to OAU member states for ratification. The charter provides for a human rights commission which not only will carry out promotional activities but is empowered to receive complaints concerning alleged human rights violations from states party to the charter as well as individuals and organizations.
The commission is empowered to carry out investigations and attempt to bring about an amicable settlement or, in the absense of such an outcome, make a report to the OAU heads of states and government. The charter will come into force following ratification by a simple majority of the 50 member states of the OAU.
The establishment of an effective African human rights mechanism will mark an important step in the evolution of political cooperation in the continent. Equally significant, it will strengthen the voice of Africa in the global struggle against racial and other forms of discrimination as well as other types of human rights violations