El-Sisi’s chairmanship may undermine the African Union’s human rights mechanisms

Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who led an active reformist tenure as the chairman of the African Union, on Sunday February 10, 2019, passed the chairmanship baton to Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Despite a unanimous selection of Egypt as the next chair, human rights group, Amnesty International still has its reservations as the group warns that El-Sisi’s chairmanship might undermine the African Union’s human rights mechanisms.

According to Najia Bounaim, Amnesty’s North Africa Campaigns Director, “During his time in power President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has demonstrated a shocking contempt for human rights. Under his leadership, the country has undergone a catastrophic decline in rights and freedoms. There are real fears about the potential impact his chairmanship could have on the independence of regional human rights mechanisms and their future engagement with civil society.”

Amnesty International noted that since 2015, Egypt has orchestrated a sustained political attack against the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the body that aims to monitor African states’ human rights records. “Dozens of cases alleging serious human rights violations have been lodged against Egypt at the ACHPR,” the human rights group said.

The AU has been long criticized for its redundant bureaucracy and ineffectual decisions, and to reform the body. Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame was elected in 2016 and tasked with reforming the organisation. Some of the reforms include reducing the AU’s priorities to key areas like security, politics and integration.

However, over two years and five African Union summits later, analysts say key member states like Egypt are still not on board with the reforms. Their fear is how El-sisi can marry chairing the union and propagating those reforms when he is not on board with them.

Elissa Jobson, head of African advocacy for the International Crisis Group (ICG) had noted that, “The concern is that Egypt is very unlikely to push the reforms forward, even if it does not try to reverse them.”

Meanwhile, an African diplomat told AFP that Egypt is not keen on a powerful AU because the North African country has not forgotten its suspension from the AU in 2013. In 2013, Egypt’s army deposed the country’s first democratically elected president, Muhammad Mursi, one year after his election in 2012. For that, the AU suspended Egypt.   

Egyptian leaders have been absent from African Union meetings since 1995 when an assassination attempt was made on the life of former leader Hosni Mubarak. But with El-sisi chairing the commission, it is expected that Egyptian leaders would grace the meetings more often.

El-sisi is expected to focus more on security, peacekeeping and post-war reconstruction. “Our work must continue to improve peace and security in Africa in a holistic and sustainable manner. Mediation and preventive diplomacy will remain one of the priorities of the African Union.” El-Sisi said as he addressed the summit as the newly elected chairman.