African Court declares vagrancy offences are incompatible with the African Charter and other key regional human rights instruments.

On 4 December 2020, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights unanimously held that vagrancy laws and related by-laws are incompatible with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the Maputo Protocol on the Rights of Women.

A request for an Advisory Opinion on the compatibility of vagrancy laws with the African Charter and other regional normative frameworks was submitted to the African Court in 2018 by the Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU) on behalf of the Regional Campaign to Decriminalise Petty Offences in Africa. In its request for advisory opinion PALU submitted that many Member States of the African Union retain laws which criminalise the status of individuals as being poor, homeless as opposed to specific reprehensible acts (“vagrancy laws”) and many African countries abuse vagrancy laws to arrest and detain people even when there is no proof of criminal conduct. PALU submitted that vagrancy laws are overly broad and they thereby confer too wide a discretion on law enforcement officers as to how to enforce the law, thereby opening up the possibility of abuse.


The Court unanimously determined vagrancy laws are incompatible with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the Maputo Protocol on the Rights of Women. The Court also determined that State Parties to the African Charter, the Children’ Rights Charter and Women’s Rights Protocol have positive obligations to repeal or amend their vagrancy laws and/or by laws to conform with the rights protected thereunder. This is a victory for the Campaign on the Decriminalisation of Petty Offences in Africa following many years of advocacy on the adverse effects of archaic vagrancy laws and petty offences which plagues the continent.

A summary of the Advisory Opinion can be accessed here.

Information on the Campaign to Decriminalise Petty Offences in Africa can be accessed here.

 

 

 

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