From 14–16 September 2020, the Regional Campaign to Decriminalise Petty Offences in Africa (the Campaign) co-hosted with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), a virtual conference to discuss the impact of measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 on poor and marginalised people. The conference brought together over 200 participants, and panellists shared both continent-wide perspectives, as well as country-specific examples from the Central African Republic, Guinea, Kenya, Malawi, Morocco, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tunisia and Uganda.

As noted by ABDUL NOORMOHAMED of the International Commission of Jurists, Kenya (ICJ Kenya) and TEM FUH MBUH of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) in their opening remarks, the COVID-19 pandemic is the defining global health crisis of our times and, in a bid to reduce the spread of the virus, African states deployed a range of extraordinary measures. However, the crisis also exposed the perniciousness of criminalising life-sustaining activities and further entrenched the marginalisation of millions of people already struggling from the legacies of failed economic, social and legal policies. It magnified structural weaknesses within the continent’s criminal justice systems and spiralled into a human rights crisis.

COMMISSIONER MARIA TERESA MANUELA, the ACHPR Special Rapporteur on Prisons, Conditions of Detention and Policing in Africa, welcomed the opportunity to discuss the impact of COVID-19 and re-enforced the ACHPR’s commitment to convincing state parties to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights that petty offences can be dealt with in ways that do not undermine the dignity and rights of the most under privileged members of society.