A Precarious Moment for Africa

The upcoming meeting of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights taking place in Banjul, Gambia could be an opportunity for African States and civil society to stand-up for their rights.

The twelve months have not been kind to Africa, although many Africans may not have noticed as economic development seemed to be pushing ahead throughout most of the continent. But while things seemed to be striving on the local and sometimes national level, international diplomats have been busy trying to shape an international order that will disadvantage Africans for the coming decades.

As a consequence the international framework being put into place may be deadly for generations of Africans. These unfortunate diplomatic maneuvers are being taken at several levels and most apparently within the world’s global body of the United Nations. Moreover, these initiatives almost always come from developing countries. Disturbingly African diplomats seemed to be powerless to prevent the damage.

Perhaps the most potent damage is being done in the global climate change talks. While the time to take effective international action ticks past the hour of no-return, developed countries continue to balk on taking adequate action to address the consequences of climate change.

Global climate action is perhaps most important because the world faces a scientific imperative of either taking adequate action or seeing, as G77 coordinator Lamumba Daping warned a half decade ago, a hundred million Africans perish during the 21st Century due to the adverse effects of climate change.

Given this deadly imperative, developed countries are seeking to use it as leverage against developing countries to effectively replace the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) that they agreed to more than twenty-years ago with language reflecting common obligations for all States in the new climate agreement to be finalized in Paris this December.

This is being done with double-speak. Developed countries say they are not seeking to deny CBDR, but at the same time they are refusing to act in accordance with it. The inaction of developed countries is reflected in their refusing to undertake obligations that are adequate to address climate change.

As the adverse consequences of climate change will most significantly effect developing countries, particularly African countries and some low-lying island States, the result is that these States are left to choose between their development and their survival.

Already, based on estimates that developed countries provided at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009, the bulk of the greenhouse gas emissions cuts are being left for developing countries to undertake. This reality seems confirmed by the Individually Determined National Contributions or INDCs that a few developed countries have submitted to date, which are once again voluntary statements about how much greenhouse gas emissions they will eliminate.

Essentially developed countries are saying to developing countries: ‘We benefited for centuries and we are unwilling to share the advantages we gained. You are own your own’.

In those instances when developing counties have dared to stand up to such actions because they are inconsistent with the terms of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, they have been battered down by back-room political dealings that apparently mix threats with short term incentives.

The Philippines apparently bowed to US pressure to remove its most committed and competent negotiators. Bangladesh and the Maldives became silent after the Nassen initiative and the Climate Vulnerability Forum directed what appear to ‘hush’ money their way. And in Sudan the articulate Ambassador Daping was taken out of the picture when the country was divided in two, another victim of US interference that prioritizes the disorder of member States.

Elsewhere in the United Nations’ General Assembly debate concerning the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) developing countries are trying to put the emphasis on limiting the transfer of funds from North to South by imposing overbearing monitoring and verification requirements while refusing to accept the same control of their obligations to cooperate with developing countries. In fact, to date the biggest problem has been the failure of developed countries to provide the financial assistance, access to technology and affordable capacity building that they have pledged to developing countries. Only a handful of the forty-plus States that pledged to commit 1% and latter .07% of their GDP to overseas development assistance have ever achieved that goal and less than a handful are achieving it today.

In drafting the SDGs, which are intended to guide the Post-2015 Development Agenda, despite a consensus agreement on a set of 17 goals, some developed countries—and only developed countries—are attempting to reopen the goals. One reason for doing this appears clearly to be to weaken the special position of developing countries and to enhance the ability of developed countries to limit their own obligations based on conditionality. While developing countries have fought off this challenge to date there are indications that their resistance is waning under the pressure of the United States, Europe and their allies.

Third, developed countries increasingly appear to be intensifying their attack on developing countries at the United Nations Human Rights Council. To do this they have manipulated the forty-seven State entity based in Geneva, Switzerland to ensure that developed countries interests are prioritized despite the fact that developing countries technically outnumber developed countries by about a two to one margin. One might have thought this body would be a bastion of defense for the less powerful and wealthy developing countries, but especially in last year and even as it had an African President the Council has been turned against developing countries. Consider some recent examples.

Environment and the harmed being caused to it is on of the most important international issues today. Environmental degradation, such as the impending climate disaster that was already mentioned, is also one of the most serious threats to human rights. Nevertheless, developed countries have exerted significant effort to ensure that the Council does not encourage significant action on environment in general or climate change in particular.

The threat to human rights posed by environmental degradation is not new. Already in the mid-1990 the UN’s main human rights forum was adopting resolutions on it. After considering human rights and the environment between 1994 and 1996 the issue was killed by developed countries. In 2011 these same developed countries revived this topic. They did this only when the Council expressed concern about climate change, which unlike the more general topic of the environment, contained numerous binding legal obligations and a deadline for action from Mother Nature that States cannot ignore.

Developed countries did not want a UN special Rapporteur telling them they had to respect the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities that is enshrined in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. To prevent this they created the post of an independent expert on the right to a healthy environment. This was a mandate to study the phenomena.

Furthermore, developed countries made sure that the mandate holder was from a develop country, the United States that had opposed the Council consideration of both environment and climate change in relation to human rights. And the mandate holder himself was a skeptic about whether or not a right to a health environment existed.

A recent resolution that was pushed through the Council by Costa Rica acting for the European Union, the US and their allies and ignoring the objection of States representing the overwhelming majority of the people in the world, changed the independent expert’s mandate into that of a Special Rapporteur, a more active mandate usually reserved for rights on which there is consensus and aimed at implementing them. How a mandate holder who does seem convinced that the right at the very basis of his mandate exists will function in this post has yet to be seen.

At the same time, in another related UN forum after having failed to prevent the creation of an UN Decade of People of African Descent, developed countries have hamstrung it by allocating de minimus resources to the Decade and devaluing the call for reparations for colonialism and trans-Atlantic that is championed by a large number of developing countries.

Perhaps most strikingly, in March 2014, the Council chose a new Special Rapporteur on Palestine an issue that has often been a rallying point for developing countries. The Advisory Group of five ambassadors representing each of the five regions of the world, but chaired by the Canadian Ambassador, proposed a person to the Council’s expert on Palestine based on the fact, which they put to paper, that the person had little experience with the Palestinian question. In other words, an expert was suggested because the alleged expert possessed no or little expertise. It was alleged at the time that the Canadian Ambassador exercised her influence over the drafting of the proposal. The proposal itself contravened the Institution-Building package that had been agreed in Council resolution 5/1. The saga eventually ended in a compromise candidate, but the damage had been done, the person with the highest degree of expertise and experience had been eliminated.

The examples of developing countries interfering with the integrity of the UN Human Rights Council are numerous. The common tread of these efforts at interference is that they are almost exclusively contrary to the interests of developing countries, especially African countries.

Nevertheless, it is a shame to be discussing developed countries as opposing developing countries. The Charter of the United Nations in fact calls for all countries to cooperate. But this ideal runs in the face of the reality of politics and the stark reality that the development strategies that have been deployed for the past half century have done relatively very little to provide for a more equitable world order.

Approximately 85% of the world continue to live on less than 10 USD per day and almost all live in developing countries. But event the 15% of the world’s population that live in developed countries aren’t even a good example. The consumptive-capitalist lifestyles of many developed countries has led to the rich getting richer and the poorest getting poorer.

At the same time, developed countries still drain human and natural resources from developing countries. For example, some West African countries struggling to combat Ebola were doing so when most of their doctors and nurses were living abroad having fled their own country for hefty salaries and higher standards of living being offered to them aboard. In stark contrast, when some of the most vulnerable Africans take their chances trying to get to Europe clandestinely, thousands are drown as Europe’s Coast Guards’ and Navies’ fail to take adequate humanitarian action to protect these migrants.

Viewing the way Africans have been treated within the UN it is hard to see much equity and little or no equality emerging in the international community. The message developed countries are sending to Africa seems to be: Either conform or perish.

Developed countries, however, may be sorely misinformed about Africans options. Africans have the option to fight for their own development, their rights, and that their continent be free from interference from the former colonialists and slave traders from Europe and the Americas. While Africans have suffered greatly they have also gained a resilience and a strength that is rarely found elsewhere. If developed countries don’t learn to share their wealth, their technology, and their capacity, one day it may literally be taken from them by the most resilient Africans. Perhaps this would be a fitting next chapter in a centuries old history of exploitation.

Dr. Curtis FJ Doebbler is a visiting professor of law at Webster University in Geneva, represents International-Lawyers.Org at the United Nations, and is a practicing international human rights lawyer in The Law Office of Dr Curtis FJ Doebbler.

Curtis FJ Doebbler is a visiting professor of international law at the University of Makeni, Webster University (Geneva) and the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations. He is attending the climate talks in Paris on behalf of International-Lawyers.Org, an UN ECOSOC accredited NGO.