Africa: Human Rights Watch World Report 2003

Reproduced with Permission

This posting contains excerpts of several parts of the Africa section of the 2003 world report by Human Rights Watch (HRW). The full Africa report is available on the web at:
The HRW report also has country sections on 13 countries:

Dem. Rep. of Congo (DRC):
Sierra Leone:
South Africa:

1. Ambiguity and Duplicity on Human Rights

African leaders' efforts throughout 2002 demonstrated a commitment to peace and stability but sent ambiguous messages as to the primacy of human rights. The A.U. successfully pressured Rwanda and Uganda to reach an agreement with President Joseph Kabila's government to move towards an end to the war in the DRC; as of this writing both Rwanda and Uganda had for the most part disengaged from the war in the DRC. However, the A.U. gave no indication of what, if anything, would be done to hold Rwandan and Ugandan forces and other parties accountable for human rights violations and war crimes committed in the DRC.

Even more disconcerting was the A.U. decision to select Libya, with its long record of human rights abuse, as chair for the 2003 session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). Libya had a long record of detaining government opponents without charge or trial, prohibiting the formation of political parties or independent nongovernmental groups, and muzzling its press. The Libyan government had also been responsible for torture, "disappearances" and the assassination of political opponents abroad. In selecting Libya to chair the UNCHR, African leaders demonstrated disrespect for the commission and for human rights in general.

Meanwhile, oppressive governments continued to deny basic freedoms and new or renewed conflicts led to greater repression, increased human rights abuse, and large numbers of refugees and displaced persons, without any effective African response. In the context of the strong NEPAD [New Partnership for Africa's Development] and A.U. [African Union] commitments to promoting and protecting human rights, African leaders' customary silence on many of these developments was all the more discouraging. One commonly cited example of this silence was African endorsement of the election in Zimbabwe. The election was strongly criticized within and outside Africa for not being free and fair. It took place amidst widespread, politically motivated violence by supporters of President Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) against supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the main opposition party. These abuses were highly publicized in the international and African press. Yet, SADC's official monitors -- though not, significantly, the SADC parliamentarians' delegation -- determined that the elections were legitimate. African leaders, including South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki and Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo, two of NEPAD's architects and champions, failed to speak out against the violence inflicted on MDC supporters. However, in the end, both Mbeki and Obasanjo voted to suspend Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth in the "troika" set up by that intergovernmental body to consider irregularities during the elections.

African leaders may have been justified in criticizing Western governments for placing undue emphasis on events in Zimbabwe when they had overlooked so many other oppressive situations in Africa, including the simultaneous election crisis in Madagascar. But African leaders also said little as across the continent, in country after country, endemic human rights abuse continued, and daily violations of civil and political liberties persisted. There were several nations in sub-Saharan Africa that were all but invisible to public attention and scrutiny where severe human rights abuse went unabated in 2002, including Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Gabon, Swaziland, and Togo. In Swaziland and Eritrea, political pluralism was banned. The only party allowed to operate in Eritrea was the government-affiliated People's Front for Democracy and Justice. In both countries, civil liberties were basically nonexistent and civil society was severely restricted. Labor unions were the only CSOs allowed in Swaziland, and they were allowed only in the interest of maintaining trade relations with the United States (U.S.). The Swaziland government maintained tight control of the media; in Eritrea the government completely silenced the private press and arrested all the editors and publishers except those who managed to flee abroad. In June, the Swazi nongovernmental organization Lawyers for Human Rights filed a complaint with the OAU's African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights against King Mswati for consistent human rights abuses despite Swaziland's 1995 ratification of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

The hostile environment often faced by civil society in sub-Saharan Africa was yet another example of the ambiguity that characterized African leaders' statements in support of human rights. In general, nongovernmental organizations, human rights defenders and other CSOs operated in highly limiting political environments and faced serious security risks. Research and advocacy efforts were significantly constricted and even entirely shut down in many countries, among them Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, the DRC, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Liberia, Mauritania, Sudan, and Togo. Nevertheless, human rights advocates and defenders managed to increase the pressure on their governments to address human rights abuses and hold accountable those who committed human rights violations. And, a handful of countries, including Botswana, Kenya, Mauritius, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Tanzania, enabled civil society to operate in an environment of relative freedom and openness.

2. South Africa and Nigeria: Regional Leaders

South Africa was a key political force throughout the year. President Thabo Mbeki was one of the five principal NEPAD architects and was the de facto point person for dealings with the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries in the run-up to the June Kananaskis G8 Summit -- at which he presented the NEPAD program. Mbeki was elected inaugural A.U. chair at the Durban summit. South Africa's leaders were active participants in the many controversies and challenges that faced the region during the year. Recognizing that the international "face-off" surrounding Zimbabwe's presidential election threatened NEPAD's future, Mbeki balanced competing pressures to preserve relations between Africa and the West. Western leaders looked to Mbeki as a spokesperson for all of Africa, pressuring him, as a symbol of the new African commitment to good governance, to denounce Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and reject the election results. Meanwhile, many Africans judged such pressure to be based on concerns for the white farmers in Zimbabwe -- an assessment ably played upon by Mugabe himself -- and judged Mbeki's words and actions as indicators of whether NEPAD truly meant African leadership or was simply pandering to Western interests for foreign aid. Others were simply appalled at this politicization of the African response to the precipitate descent of a relatively prosperous and stable country into a self-reinforcing cycle of ever-worsening disrespect for the rule of law, economic chaos and hunger.

Mbeki was the principal mediator in the DRC peace process. He was a constant voice for peace and compromise from the initial Inter-Congolese Dialogue in Sun City, through the conversations between DRC President Joseph Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame during the A.U. Summit, and into the talks in Pretoria that led to the signing of a "memorandum of understanding" on the withdrawal of Rwandan troops from the DRC and the disarming and disbanding of the ex-FAR (former Rwandan armed forces) and the Interhamwe (Rwandan Hutu militia) forces in the DRC. In the last week of October, Mbeki again hosted the Congolese factions in Pretoria to reach an agreement on an interim power-sharing government.

South Africa also played a key role in bringing Burundi closer to peace. Without incident, South African troops, deployed late in 2001, protected the interim power-sharing government. The interim government had been agreed to in 2001 during talks mediated by former South African President Nelson Mandela. South African Deputy President Jacob Zuma made numerous attempts to bring all fighting parties to the negotiating table for a peace based on the 2000 Arusha Accord. On October 7, the transitional government signed a cease-fire with two rebel factions at the Great Lakes summit convened by regional African leaders. The leaders gave two hard-line factions thirty days to begin talks for a cease-fire agreement.

President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, like Mbeki, was outspoken about the need for change in Africa and the importance of good governance and human rights. Yet his actions cast serious doubts on the veracity of his words. At this writing, Obasanjo was under impeachment by the National Assembly: he was charged with violating the constitution by not implementing the approved national budget, abetting corruption, and ordering army forces to attack civilians in two incidents in 1999 and 2001.

Since Obasanjo took office in 1999, inter-communal violence and ethnic tensions escalated in Nigeria and threatened to undermine elections scheduled for 2003. The authorities made little effort to prevent conflicts or limit the escalation of political violence. Human rights abuses by the Nigerian police forces abounded in 2002. This pattern of abuse, coupled with the general failure of Nigerian authorities to provide security, spurred vigilante activity. In some instances, state governments supported these vigilante groups as they committed brutal executions, systematic torture and unlawful arrests. In August and September, efforts were made to crack down on vigilante activity in the southeast but little was done to address the underlying conditions that had led to its proliferation. Further, the efforts of the Independent National Electoral Commission to register voters were marked by significant irregularities, and in a closed decision process, the commission approved only three new parties. Given Obasanjo's leading role in NEPAD and the A.U., the significant level of ongoing human rights abuse in Nigeria did not reflect well on the degree of reform to be expected from other African leaders.

Towards Peace in Sub-Saharan Africa?

Moves towards peace were not limited to the Great Lakes. Fighting in Angola came to an end in 2002, prompted by the February 22 death of Jonas Savimbi, leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). In March, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, under considerable pressure from Western and African leaders, as well as Angolan civil society, announced that the government and the UNITA rebels had agreed to a truce. The cease-fire went into effect on April 4. Shortly thereafter, the UNITA soldiers were quickly demobilized and the various UNITA factions began unity talks, which were successfully completed in early October. Lasting peace would depend largely on the Angolan government's ability to rehabilitate and reintegrate demilitarized UNITA combatants and Angola's displaced -- 4.1 million internally displaced persons and 430,000 refugees, according to UN sources.

Sierra Leone moved closer to ongoing stability after January 18 when President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah declared that the decade-long civil war had ended. Kabbah lifted the four-year state of emergency on March 1. Then in May, presidential elections were successfully completed with little violence. The successful disarmament of combatants by the U.N. Mission in Sierra Leone and their subsequent rehabilitation through British-led efforts contributed significantly to prospects for continued and ongoing peace and stability. Major steps were made towards justice and accountability with the establishment of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. However, the poor performance of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) cast serious doubts over the Special Court. In addition, concerns for Sierra Leone's peace rose as the year progressed and the civil war in neighboring Liberia intensified. (See below.)

Peace was, for the first time in at least twenty years, a possibility in Sudan due to the joint efforts of the U.S., the United Kingdom (U.K.) and Norway. U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Peace in Sudan John Danforth brokered four significant agreements between the Sudan government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in early 2002, all of which specifically highlighted the importance of human rights. In particular, the government and the SPLA agreed to end attacks on civilians and civilian objects in the south, with independent international monitoring.

Subsequently, the Sudan government and the SPLM entered peace negotiations, which were sponsored by the Kenya-led Inter-Government Authority on Development. The parties signed a peace protocol in Kenya on July 20, agreeing that after an interim period of six and a half years, a self-determination referendum would be held to determine whether the south wished to secede. The interim period would begin after a final peace agreement had been signed. They also agreed that shari'a (Islamic law) would not apply in the south for the interim period. Although, during negotiations, the government continued to deny humanitarian access in the south and to bomb oil-rich areas despite the presence of civilians, on October 15 the parties agreed to a military standstill until December 31 and later agreed to full humanitarian access during that period.

Elsewhere on the continent, these positive trends were contradicted. In mid-September, Cote d'Ivoire erupted in conflict when roughly 750 soldiers mutinied out of anger over their imminent dismissal, returning the country to the instability that took hold following a 1999 military coup. The incident provoked rapid international support of the government, with Nigeria and Ghana committing military support to government efforts to suppress the rebellion. ECOWAS dispatched a mediation team of high-level delegates to Bouake, the rebel stronghold, in early October, and on October 21 the rebels conceded to sign a cease-fire agreement. Multinational ECOWAS troops under Nigerian leadership were dispatched to monitor the peace. However, concerns arose over Cote d'Ivoire's long-term prospects for stability as violence caused by reignited ethnic, religious and political tensions spread independently of rebel activity. It was uncertain that this violence would subside once the rebels and the government had come to terms.

While concerted regional efforts seemed to prevent the Cote d'Ivoire rebellion from escalating into civil war, internal conflicts continued in Liberia and Uganda, and abuses in these countries received little attention. Fighting between the Liberian government and Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) threatened stability in the Mano River Union area (Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea) as Liberians sought refuge in neighboring countries such as Guinea, where serious violations of their human rights were documented. While abuses inside Liberia were generally worse in areas under government control, both government and LURD forces committed serious human rights violations against civilians, including killing, torture, rape, forced labor and forced recruitment. Liberia's President Charles Taylor declared a state of emergency for a large portion of the year, enabling the government to harass all perceived opponents or rebel supporters.

Civilians in northern Uganda and southern Sudan were subjected to similar abuses due to fighting between the government and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). LRA forces in particular targeted civilians, though the Ugandan army also committed abuses. The LRA raided and looted villages and refugee camps and abducted children, forcing them to fight as child soldiers. It also attacked humanitarian aid workers and camps. As in Liberia, the Ugandan government arbitrarily arrested and detained those suspected of being rebel sympathizers or political opponents. In addition, the already limited political activity permitted under Uganda's no-party "Movement" system was further constrained when the parliament passed the Political Organizations Law.