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Justice and Accountability in Africa

Over the past four years, CGHR has dedicated research to a range of subjects it has grouped under the theme “Right to Life”.  This has largely been the space in which researchers at the Centre have provided material research assistance to the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns (2010-16). It has provided an opportunity for researchers to reflect on the question, how can one of the most fundamental of human rights be better protected, or what kind of interventions might lead to a reduction in levels of “unlawful killings”, particularly in Africa.

One heuristic which was frequently employed by the Special Rapporteur, and which was underlined in CGHR’s research report Unlawful Killings in Africa, was the extent to which ensuring the right to life has two key dimensions – a prospective (preventative) dimension and a retrospective (accountability) dimension. These two dimensions are mutually reinforcing, in that preventative steps to stop violations from happening lessen the need constantly to be pursuing accountability for violations, while doing accountability properly may well deter future violations, and may give practical recommendations on how better to prevent future violations. 

While the Special Rapporteur is an international mechanism, his research on this issue underlined the importance of processes taking place at the national level: the right to life cannot be effectively protected if accountability can only be pursued through international avenues. Two substantial research projects were founded upon this contention: firstly, the revision of the “Minnesota Protocol” (the UN document aimed at elaborating how properly to investigate potentially unlawful deaths), and secondly, a project based at the University of Pretoria on the effectiveness of national commissions of inquiry in Africa.

Moving forward, as part of a broader research project aimed at violence reduction, and specifically the reduction of the incidence of unlawful killings, attention will be focused on questions of how standards elaborated by international documents such as the Minnesota Protocol can best be implemented at the national level—for example by police oversight bodies or NHRIs—and how they can be used as reference points by regional human rights actors, such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

At a time when the ICC is under criticism especially by African political elites for its selective bias, Critical Transitional Justice is important in providing evidence on victims’ and citizens’ understanding and agency during the implementation of transitional justice programmes at the everyday level. The complexities and frictions presented in the Kenya project provides new evidence on the agency of local actors in undermining the ICC. At a time when the ICC is facing legitimacy challenges in Africa this research illustrates the effects of the ICC interventions beyond The Hague and introduces everyday vernacular discourses of transitional justice.