Over the past ten years, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has developed a number of instruments to aid in the interpretation and implementation of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, specifically relating to matters of criminal justice. In 2017, the Principles on the Decriminalisation of Petty Offences in Africa were adoped by the African Commission, becoming the latest development in a broader regional effort to articulate standards for acceptable human rights practices, specifically concerning matters of access to justice. Uniquely, this new soft law standard advocates for a holistic approach to the challenges that arise in Africa at the intersection between poverty, justice and human rights.
While significant efforts have been made to transform criminal justice systems and outcomes across Africa, poor and other categories of marginalised persons remain vulnerable to violations of their fundamental human rights upon entering the criminal justice system, an effect which is compounded and multiplied across different factions of the criminal justice chain. Such violations extend to both the enactment and enforcement of criminal laws in relation to petty offences, and to the policing of certain spaces, which actively seek to exclude categories of people from areas of public life, namely the poor.
In this regard, laws that criminalise petty offences have the effect of punishing, segregating, controlling and undermining the dignity of persons on the basis of their socio-economic status. By restricting the ability of individuals to engage in life-sustaining activities, particularly for those living in poverty, petty offences infringe on the autonomy of persons, further degrading their right to human dignity. The enforcement of these laws also perpetuates the stigmatisation of poverty by mandating a criminal justice response to what are essentially socio-economic issues. In this regard, the criminalisation of petty offences reinforces discriminatory attitudes against marginalised persons. The criminalisation of petty offences contributes to discrimination and marginalisation by criminalising poverty, homelessness and unemployment, and impact the poorest and most marginalised persons in our communities.