New Guidelines Seek to Humanize Africa’s Justice Systems

During its 10th biennial conference in Yaoundé, Cameroon, in October 2015, the Network of African National Human Rights Institutions (NANHRI) declared April 25 to be Africa Pretrial Detention Day. The date commemorates the day in 2015 when the Guidelines on Conditions of Arrest, Police Custody, and Pretrial Detention were officially set by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Banjul, Gambia.

At the time, I outlined the challenges that African states confront, and the bold step taken by the commission to articulate far-reaching guidance for states and institutions on pretrial detention. I also argued that the “launch and anticipated implementation of the guidelines is a call to invest in the future of criminal justice in Africa.”

That call is as valid today as it was a year ago. In 2014, the commission observed that justice systems in several African states are characterized by “arbitrary, excessive, and at times abusive recourse to police custody and pretrial detention.” What is perhaps different now is that the special rapporteur on prisons and conditions of detention in Africa is leading efforts, together with civil society, across the continent to implement the guidelines in several countries, including Uganda, Tunisia, Zambia, Malawi, Ghana, and Sierra Leone.

Animated still
Still image from “The Most Overlooked Human Rights Crisis of Our Time.” The arbitrary and excessive use of pretrial detention is a massive and widely ignored pattern of human rights abuse that affects—by a conservative estimate—15 million people a year.

The implementation process includes conducting baseline studies on the state of pretrial detention, developing national implementation plans, engaging with critical stakeholders in identifying activities that directly impact on pretrial detention, and, over time, monitoring and reporting on the implementation of the guidelines.

The guidelines are an important opportunity for state parties to meet their obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Beyond that, they offer practical strategies for humanizing pretrial practices across the region. The guidelines are not designed to supplant existing national instruments. On the contrary, they are meant to supplement and strengthen them.

Implementation will require adjustments to laws, policies, practices, and attitudes that lead to suspects being treated as criminals and make pretrial incarceration standard practice. These changes will be the responsibility of governments, who must lead the reform process with civil society’s support. This is why NANHRI’s leadership on Africa Pretrial Detention Day deserves commendation and the support of all.

The process to reform pretrial detention practices ought to be led by groups within the continent—groups who understand and are impacted by Africa’s challenges more than those abroad. NANHRI’s efforts represent a great model for engagement in this respect.

To deepen this engagement, NANHRI might want to explore the possibility of producing and compiling data on the issue. Right now, in regards to this subject, there is a dearth of data produced in Africa, by Africans. This endeavor could of course be supported by institutions within and beyond the continent.

I hope that by the time we observe Africa Pretrial Detention Day in 2017, the situation will have improved significantly. All stakeholders must play their roles in a way that brings the continent closer to achieving the objectives for which the guidelines were drafted. 

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