By Paul Sixpence
For all the victims of human rights abuses in Africa, including those of the slave trade and colonialism, and particularly the genocide in Rwanda (1994), the Alem Bekagn prison massacres (1937 & 1974), the Red Terror (1977-78) in Ethiopia and Apartheid in South Africa.
Unveiled on the occasion of the commissioning of the AU conference and office complex, 18th summit of heads of state and government
Addis Ababa, 28 January 2012
Inscription on the recently unveiled foundation stone planted in front of the new AU Building
The African Union Human Rights Memorial (AUHRM) is a significant continental initiative that touches on the emotive subject of human rights and its relationship to governance, peace and security on the African continent. The AUHRM is set as a reflective symbol on some of the dark episodes in the history of Africa, namely, slavery, colonialism, Ethiopia’s Red Terror era, apartheid in South and the Rwandan genocide. The significance of the AUHRM is that it approaches serious human rights violations in a non-retributive manner focusing on recognition of rights violations and reflection upon them so that similar acts are never repeated again. By extension the memorial is also empowering to current and future generations by focus on the dignity of the people of Africa.
Human rights violations by their nature have a dehumanising effect on the victims. The victims sense of self-worth is negatively affected which often results in calls for punitive action against perpetrators. Again, noting the emotive and psychological scars to communities that are subject to gross rights violations there is always a sense of revenge against the communities from where perpetrators are drawn from. It is with regard to this point that cases of human rights violations have in most instances been accompanied by the vexing questions on the moral demand for justice and political considerations of making peace. As the world reflects on the AUHRM it is imperative to revisit the questions and reflect on the symbolic meaning of the memorial with regards to how issues of justice and peace were handled with regards to cases of human rights violations that the memorial commemorates and reflects upon.
By reflecting on the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of South Africa and Rwanda’s Gacaca court system it becomes apparent that at times it is not only retributive justice that vindicates victims and protects them from further abuse but rather engagement in cathartic dialogue which is able to address the concerns of all parties to a conflict. The AUHRM presents an opportunity to the present generation of Africans to reflect on victim centred justice systems that focus on restoring the dignity of victims rather than focusing only on punitive measures against perpetrators. It is within this approach that one can identify the expression and meaning of AUHRM as a symbol of education and recognition of the importance of preserving the dignity of all peoples of Africa.
The AUHRM places a burden of obligation on African leaders and the AU to be responsive to human rights violations in the continent. By ratifying the AU Constitutive Act African nation–states made a commitment to never shy away from gross human rights violations should they occur in member states. As the people of Africa commemorate and reflect on human rights violations through the AUHRM they also monitor and evaluate the commitment of the AU and African leaders in working towards the promotion of peace and respect for human rights on the continent.
As highlighted above, the AUHRM does not only serve as a symbol of commemoration, its significances extend to being a centre of education and empowerment to current and future African generations. It reminds humanity of the centrality of respecting human dignity and sets the base for the world to learn from the past and chart a clear course into the future underlain by a commitment by all to avoid the replication of serious human rights violations as those that are commemorated by the AUHRM.
Paul is a journalist from Zimbabwe who is a student of Human Rights at the Central European University