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Human rights under continued threat in Africa: report

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Human rights under continued threat in Africa: report

Carien du Plessis

23 Jan 2020

5min min read
  • Human rights

The latest review from Human Rights Watch focuses on events from late 2018 until November 2019 in more than 100 countries and territories worldwide. Carien du Plessis attended the launch of the report in Johannesburg.

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nternational non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to push a human rights agenda as chair of the African Union (AU) this year, as more than 20 countries on the continent prepare to head to the polls. 

“Some of these elections are so tense, [including] the electoral environment in which the campaigns are going to take place. The history of entrenched human rights abuse has been going on for so long that the citizens themselves and the leaders of these countries might not be able to take the necessary action,” said the organisation’s Africa advocacy director, Carine Kaneza Nantulya. 

Nantulya was speaking at the launch of HRW’s World Report 2020 in Johannesburg on 15 January.

Its Southern Africa director, Dewa Mavhinga, urged leaders in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to promote human rights in the region, adding that South Africa, with its strong institutions, should take the lead. “With the SADC tribunal stripped of its human rights mandate and domestic mechanisms too weak to protect rights, Southern African countries struggled to improve protection of social, economic and political rights over the past year,” he said. 

HRW highlighted South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and eSwatini as concerns. Mavhinga said the SADC  “has been a huge disappointment” for failing to address human rights issues in countries like Zimbabwe. The report identifies the lethal clampdown on protests and the arrest, abduction, beatings and torture of Zanu-PF critics as concerns. “Little to no efforts were made to bring those responsible for the abuses to justice,” it notes. Former long-time ruler Robert Mugabe, who died last year, was “never held to account for his corrupt and abusive rule”.

In turn, Mozambique’s 2019 elections campaign was “marred by political violence targeting mainly opposition supporters”, and preceded by increased attacks in the northern province of Cabo Delgado by a suspected Islamist armed group. Soldiers deployed to the region “were implicated in acts of intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and ill-treatment of detainees”, the report noted. Journalists also continued to face harassment.

Women’s rights were advanced in eSwatini when the high court ruled last August that the common law doctrine of marital power, giving a husband the ultimate decision-making power over his wife and matrimonial property, was unconstitutional. “This progressive ruling builds on eSwatini’s ongoing law reform process," according to the report, although it noted opposition parties were still not legally recognised.

South Africa was criticised for failing to bring perpetrators of xenophobic violence to account. The report highlighted various attacks against African foreign nationals, many of them truck drivers, and said "virtually no one has been convicted" of recent or past acts of xenophobic violence. The country was also hamstrung by domestic problems such as corruption, unemployment and economic insecurity, which means Ramaphosa might not be able to play a leadership role on human rights in the region and the continent, Mavhinga noted.  

Elsewhere in the region, Tanzania’s human rights record "continued to deteriorate" under President John Magufuli, the report noted. His government did lift some restrictions on the publication of independent statistics, but the media and government critics are still restricted, civil society groups were deregistered, and the rights of women and children were undermined. Magufuli is up for re-election this year.

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s newly elected president Felix Tshisekedi promised his administration would guarantee citizens their fundamental rights and many political prisoners were released and exiles returned. There were still serious problems, though, such as senior security officers with histories of human rights abuses remaining in their post, and violence displacing 4.5 million people internally.

Nantulya highlighted Burundi and Guinea as two countries going to elections and at risk of increased human rights abuses, which could prevent citizens from freely choosing their public representatives. Burundi has jailed journalists and also clamped down on dissent, she said. In Guinea, “protests have taken place month in, month out" since 2018, with the government similarly cracking down on freedoms of speech and assembly. Dozens of protesters were allegedly killed by security forces and "impunity for past human rights violations" continued, HRW noted.

In Uganda “violations of freedom of association, assembly, and expression continued in 2019” with new restrictions on online activities and independent media. Political opponents were arrested and political and student rallies were banned - tactics that bode ill for the 2021 elections. 

In neighbouring Rwanda, the governing party continued to exert total control over the political space. HRW alluded to reports of intimidation and torture and said it continued to “document the illegal detention and ill-treatment of street children in Kigali”. 

Despite a peace deal in February last year, armed groups controlling more than 70 percent of the Central African Republic (CAR) continued to commit serious human rights abuses against civilians. There were also attacks on humanitarian workers. The CAR “continues to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world for humanitarian actors", the report noted.

In South Sudan sporadic fighting continued between warring parties, despite a peace agreement in September 2018. “Armed actors committed serious abuses including indiscriminate attacks against civilians including aid workers, unlawful killings, beatings, arbitrary detentions, torture, sexual violence, looting and destruction of property. Some of the abuses may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity," the report noted.

Ongoing violence by insurgent groups like Boko Haram was found to have had a massive impact on human rights in Nigeria. HRW’s deputy program director, Babatunde Olugboji, said the insurgency, now in its tenth year, targeted the military as well as aid workers, which meant that citizens could not get the services they needed. Before the February 2019 elections, attacks in Borno state left more than 60 people dead, including eight killed in a suicide bomb attack in Maiduguri days before the elections. Thousands of alleged Boko Haram members are being detained without trial in overcrowded military barracks in the northeast, according to the report. 

In Libya the report called for a Commission of Inquiry by the United Nations Human Rights Council to “document abuses and identify those responsible [for indiscriminate attacks by armed groups loyal to the two governments] with a view to future accountability”. Rival armed groups and their international backers have carried out drone and air strikes in and around the capital Tripoli since the start of the conflict in April 2019, killing and displacing civilians.

The report highlights the continued absence of a constitutional court in Tunisia as a key obstacle to dismantling repressive legislation that undermines citizens' freedoms of expression, assembly, association and conscience. For example, authorities have continued to prosecute and imprison presumed gay men under article 230 of the penal code, which allows up to three years in prison for 'sodomy'", the report said. 

Other African states are among more than 100 countries and territories flagged for similar and severe human rights violations in the report. In particular, HRW executive director, Kenneth Roth, underscored China’s global threat to human rights and its attempts to “undermine the international institutions that are designed to protect them”. 

Downoad the full report here

(Main image: Police officers patrol near Tredgold Magistrates courts on 19 August 2019, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. - Troops and police were out in force to prevent a planned opposition march, days after brutally dispersing a similar banned protest in Harare.  Zinyange Auntony/AFP via Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.