The Charter recognizes most of what are regarded universally accepted civil and political rights. The Charter also recognizes certain economic, social and cultural rights, and overall the Charter is considered to place considerable emphasis on these rights. In addition, the Charter also recognizes collective peoples' rights. They have a much more important role than in other human rights texts as they are even mentioned in the title of the Charter. The Charter is also unique as a regional human rights instrument because it not only awards rights to individuals and peoples, but it also includes duties.
It was an explicit intention of the drafters of the Charter that it should account for the special features of the African tradition of human rights. The following formulation in the preamble of the Charter is pertinent:
The African states (… take into consideration) “the virtues of their historical tradition and the values of African civilization which should inspire and characterize their reflection on the concept of human and peoples’ rights.”
A provision in Article 17 has been regularly called into question: “The promotion and protection of morals and traditional values recognized by the community shall be the duty of the State.” Some critics of the Charter claim that it thus defends some human rights violations in certain African states by referring to African traditions.
Compared to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there are some elements missing in the African Charter. For example, neither the right to privacy nor rights against forced or compulsory labour are explicitly recognised. Furthermore, there is no guarantee to freely choose one’s spouse. No article refers to the concept of nationality. Some rights are subject to restrictions of the national right in the respective state.
The right to development is included in the Charter – this right is considered as a very modern approach, although at the global level there is still no sound agreement. Human rights from the perspective of the Charter encompass not only individual rights but also collective or solidarity rights of the society or community of which the individual is part of.
Another specialty of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights is the formulation of duties of the individual. Only the American Convention on Human Rights of 1969 knows similar duties in regard to the family, the community and mankind. Other human rights conventions only state rights of individuals and duties of states.
With all its positive aspects of defending human rights in Africa, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights is – despite all criticism – a milestone. The development of human rights’ instruments is always a continuous cultural process of acquiring rights after having experienced injustice.