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Road traffic accidents in Africa, corruption, and the right to health

Date:10 January 2022

By Michael Woldeyes LLM, International Human Rights Law, mengistumichael@gmail.com

Globally, African countries lead in terms of road traffic accidents (hereafter RTAs) even though in terms of motorization their global rank is among the lowest.[1] For example, Ethiopia – a country with more than 110 million people – had only 1.2 million registered cars in 2020.[2] However, the country loses thousands of people each year as a result of road traffic accidents and many others bear injuries or suffer permanent disabilities.[3] In the second half of 2020 alone, Ethiopia reported that 1,848 people died of car accidents while 2,646 people sustained serious injuries.[4] Similarly, the Kenyan National Bureau of Statistic revealed that 3,975 deaths occurred in Kenya in 2020 as a result of RTAs.[5] A Nigerian news outlet also reported that RTAs killed a total of 5,574 people in the same year in Nigeria.[6]

In addition to the burden RTAs pose on household and national economies, they are a major catastrophe for public health in African countries.[7] Nevertheless, efforts to curb the problem are low and accidents are increasing to the extent that it is common in countries like Ethiopia to hear daily reports of injuries and death on the news. Among the factors that drive RTAs in Africa such as substandard road safety laws and vehicle safety standards, corruption is the most concerning.[8] Corruption affects the whole government structure and allows incompetent and/or illegal drivers to be on the road. In Kenya, for example, drivers pay traffic officials to easily carry out illegal activities such as overloading and drunk driving which are major reasons for car accidents.[9] In Nigeria, bribing officials to get a driver’s license is very common.[10] Similarly, in Ethiopia, bribing traffic police or driving license officials is widespread.[11] However, as most African countries are State Parties to the Iternational Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (hereafter ICESCR). and other human rights treaties, they are obliged under the right to health to step up efforts towards reducing RTAs by acting against corruption. This blogpost discusses how RTAs and corruption are issues of health law and what African countries are required to do to curb the problem.

Road traffic accidents and corruption as health right issues

Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.[12] Therefore, RTAs are clearly a health rights issue even though they are not mentioned in black and white under human rights treaties or the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights’ general comment on health. If we look closely, we can see that the right to health also protects individuals from health issues that arise from car accidents.  Accordingly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate to the health of himself and of his family”.[13] Based on article 12 (1) of the ICESCR, everyone has the right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health. This extends to the protection of individuals from the underlying determinants of health, which, as argued in this article, include  RTAs as they can  lead to injury, disability, or death.[14] As a result, RTAs are a health right issue.

The right to health imposes three obligations on States – the obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill – in order for them to take RTAs seriously and reduce their impact on public health.[15] The obligation to respect compels States to respect the right to health of individuals by observing national and international laws as it requires States “to refrain from interfering directly or indirectly with the enjoyment of the right to health”.[16] The obligation to protect requires States to protect individuals from RTAs by ensuring that their traffic laws are respected.[17] Finally, the obligation to fulfill entails that States should take positive measures that enable and assist individuals avoid car accidents.[18] According to the Maastricht Guidelines on Violations of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights which were prepared by a group of experts in 1997 and discuss a violations approach to economic and social rights, States are said to be in violation of these obligations when they deliberately, by action or omission, contravene or ignore the right to health.[19] Corruption in traffic matters is committed by State officials who deliberately and structurally undermine the State’s obligation under local and international laws. Hence, by allowing corruption that contributes to RTAs, African States are interfering in their citizens’ right to health. Therefore, they are violating their obligation to respect the right to health and committing a serious violation against this right.[20]

What should be done?

African States need to step up and take serious measures against corruption in order to reduce RTAs. A major step towards reducing corruption would be rightfully implementing the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (hereafter UNCAC). Excepting Eritrea, all African States are State Parties to the convention[21] and accordingly, they are obliged to take preventive and law enforcement measures against corruption. For example, they have to “develop and implement or maintain effective, coordinated anti-corruption policies [specific to traffic matters] that promote the participation of society and reflect the principles of the rule of law, proper management of public affairs and public property, integrity, transparency and accountability”.[22] They should also collaborate with each other and with relevant international and regional organizations in promoting and developing measures to reduce and fight the corruption that occurs in traffic management and regulation such as issuing of a driver’s license and holding illegal drivers accountable.[23] By implementing the UNCAC and reducing corruption, RTAs will be reduced, lives will be saved, and the right to health will be respected.

[1] Weforum, “Death rates from traffic accidents are higher in Africa than anywhere else” https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/02/death-rates-from-traffic-accidents-are-higher-in-africa-than-anywhere-else accessed on January 02, 2022.  See also WHO, “Road safety” https://www.afro.who.int/health-topics/road-safety accessed on January 02, 2022.

[2]Abiye Y. “Registered vehicle in Ethiopia reaches 1.2 mln” The Reporter (Addis Ababa, 26 September 2020). The data for unregistered cars in unavailable.

[3] Merga Abissa Aga, Berhanu Teshome Woldeamanuel, Mekonnen Tadesse, Statistical modelling of numbers of human deaths per road traffic accidents in the Oromia region, Ethiopia, (2021) 16 PLoSONE 5 2.

[4] Xinhua, “Traffic accidents kill over 1,840 Ethiopian people in 6 months” http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/africa/2021-03/03/c_139781169.htm accessed on January 02, 2022.

[5] WHO, Global status on road safety: 2018, (2018) 312.

[6] PUNCH, “Road accident leading cause of death in Nigeria – FRSC” https://punchng.com/road-accident-leading-cause-of-death-in-nigeria-frsc/ accessed on January 02, 2022.

[7] See also WHO, “Road safety” https://www.afro.who.int/health-topics/road-safety accessed on January 02, 2022.

[8] See Weforum (n 1).

[9] Transparency International Kenya, Traffic legislation gaps and drivers of corruption in traffic matters (2018) 18.

[10] Blueprint, “Checking corruption in driver’s license production” https://www.blueprint.ng/checking-corruption-in-drivers-license-production/ accessed on January 02, 2022. See also Premium Times, “ICPC arrests 25 FRSC, VIO for driver’s license fraud” https://www.premiumtimesng.com/business/business-interviews/411071-icpc-arrests-25-frsc-vio-for-drivers-licence-fraud.html accessed on January 02, 2022.

[11] I personally have witnessed officers letting pass traffic offences for bribes.

[12] UN General Assembly, the Constitution of the World Health Organization (entered into force 17 November 1947) A/RES/131.

[13] Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted 10 December 1948) A/810 (UDHR), article 25 (1).

[14] UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “General Comment No. 14: The Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health (Art. 12)” (11 August 2000) E/C.12/2000/4 para 4. See also WHO, “Determinants of Health” https://www.who.int/news-room/questions-and-answers/item/determinants-of-health accessed on January 05, 2022.

[15] See ibid, para 33.

[16] Ibid.

[17] See ibid, para 50.

[18] See ibid, para 37.

[19] UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, The Maastricht Guidelines on Violations of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (27 November 2000) E/C.12/2000/13 (The Maastricht Guidelines) 11.

[20] See also Brigit Toebes, Human Rights, Health Sector Abuse, and Corruption, 02 University of Groningen Faculty of Law Research Paper Series (2011) 31.

[21] UN, “Signature and Ratifications Status (UNCAC)” https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/corruption/ratification-status.html accessed on January 03, 2022.

[22] UN General Assembly, United Nations Convention Against Corruption (entered into force 31 October 2003) A/58/422 article 5 (1).

[23] Ibid, article 5 (4).