By Sebhat Ayele MCCJ
The legal concept of Human rights is a relatively recent notion in Africa. The United Nations, International law and the African Union have contributed to the establishment of a human rights perception and system in Africa. It is obvious that, despite some discrepancies, this has positively and irreplaceably influenced the betterment of human rights and of justice. However, some of the promises made about such rights being guaranteed under global, continental, regional and national legal instruments have remained unfulfilled. The black continent lags behind the international community as far as human rights are concerned. The situation of human rights in Africa is generally reported to be dire. It is seen as an area of concern and epidemic according to the UN, governmental, and non-governmental observers. However, it has to clearly be stated from the offset that there are worse countries than Africa. Countries like North Korea, the Middle East, Russia, Venezuela, etc have yet to taste the smell of human rights and democracy. The Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, of late arrogantly vocalized “I don’t care about human rights”.
He threw alleged drug traffickers off a helicopter without going through normal judicial process. African leaders carry the burden of human rights, but this does not immunize other leaders from other continents. But this script concentrates on Africa, for the simple fact that the topic is about human rights condition in the African continent. In Africa, democratic governments seem to be spreading, though they are not yet the majority. According to National Geographic, 13 African nations can be considered truly democratic, of which the majority are in Western and Southern Africa. Many nations, as well, have at least nominally recognized basic human rights for all citizens, though in practice these are not always recognized, and have created reasonably independent judiciaries. Details expose extensive human rights abuses still occur in several parts of Africa, often under the blunder of the state. Most of such violations can be attributed to political instability, often as a ‘side effect’ of civil war. Notable countries with reported major violations include, but are not limited to, the Sudan, S. Sudan, Eritrea, DR Congo, Somalia, Gambia and Côte d’Ivoire. Reported violations include extrajudicial execution, mutilation and rape.
Human Rights Concepts
According to Wikipedia “Human rights are moral principles or norms that describe certain standards of human behavior, and are regularly protected as legal rights in municipal and international law. They are commonly understood as inalienable fundamental rights to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being”. Consequently, they are “inherent in all human beings” regardless of their nation, location, language, religion, ethnic origin or any other status. Human rights are not texts of mercy and clemency, they are legally binding rights! When ones human rights are violated, the person has many opportunities to fight for his/her human rights through international legal mechanisms.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, commonly known as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights(OHCHR) is a United Nations agency that works to promote and protect the human rights that are guaranteed under international law and stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Human Right is something to which one is entitled by virtue of being human. Human rights are based on the principle of respect for the individual.Their fundamental assumption is that each person is a moral and rational being who deserves to be treated with dignity. They are called human rights because they are universal. Whereas nations or specialized groups enjoy specific rights that apply only to them, human rights are the rights to which everyone is entitled – no matter who they are or where they live – simply because they are alive. Yet many people, when asked to name their rights, will list only freedom of speech and belief and perhaps one or two others.
There is no question these are important rights, but the full scope of human rights is very broad: They mean choice and opportunity. They mean the freedom to obtain a job, adopt a career, select a partner of one’s choice and raise children. They include the right to travel widely and the right to work gainfully without harassment, abuse and threat of arbitrary dismissal. They even embrace the right to leisure.
Human Rights deficiency in Africa
According to the 2016/17 Human Rights report, mass protests, movements, and mobilization often articulated and organized through social media – swept the continent in 2016. Protesters and human rights defenders repeatedly found inspiring ways to stand up against repression and campaigns such as the Oromo and Amhara protests in Ethiopia. Similar protests are taking place in Kenya elections, Uganda Age Limit amendment, Zimbabwe “after Mugabe’, etc Given the scale and long history of repression, some of the protests – as in Ethiopia and Gambia would have been unthinkable only a year previously. Demands for change, inclusion and freedom were often spontaneous, viral and driven by ordinary citizens, in particular young people who bear the triple burden of unemployment, poverty and inequality. Although originally largely peaceful, some of the campaigns eventually had violent elements, frequently in reaction to heavy-handed suppression by the authorities and lack of space for people to express their views and organize.
This trend of gathering resilience and the withering of the politics of fear offered cause for hope. People went out to the streets in large numbers, ignoring threats and bans on protest, refusing to back down in the face of brutal clampdowns, and instead expressing opinions and reclaiming their rights through acts of solidarity, boycotts and extensive, creative use of social media. Despite stories of courage and resilience, repression of peaceful protests reached new highs and there appeared to be little or no progress in addressing the underlying factors behind the mass public discontent.
Dissent was brutally repressed, as evidenced in widespread patterns of attacks on peaceful protests and the right to freedom of expression. Human rights defenders, journalists and political opponents continued to face persecution and assault. Civilians continued to bear the brunt of armed conflicts, which were marked by persistent and large-scale violations of international law. Impunity for crimes under international law and serious human rights violations remained largely unaddressed. And, there was much to be done to address the discrimination and marginalization of the most vulnerable – including women, children and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.
VIOLATIONS OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN AFRICA
Attacks on human rights defenders and journalists
One area of human rights violations is over Human rights defenders and journalists who were frequently in the front line, with the right to freedom of expression suffering both steady erosions and new waves of threats. Attempts to crush dissent and tighten the noose around freedom of expression manifested themselves across the continent, including in Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Kenya, Mauritania, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo and Zambia. Some had to pay the ultimate price. A prominent human rights lawyer, his client and their taxi driver were subjected to forced disappearance and extrajudicial killing by police in Kenya.
They were among more than 177 cases of individuals extra judicially executed at the hands of security agencies during the year. Elsewhere, the whereabouts of politicians and journalists arbitrarily arrested and forcibly disappeared in Eritrea since 2001 remained unknown, despite the government’s announcement that they were still alive. On the positive side, there were some hopeful signs of judicial activism and courage even in extremely repressive countries which challenged governments’ use of the law and judiciary to stifle dissent. In DRC, four pro-democracy activists were released, a rare positive step in a very difficult year for freedom of expression in the country.
A landmark court ruling against repressive laws in Swaziland in September was also another victory for human rights. Zimbabwe’s High Court overturned a ban on protests. Although another High Court ruling subsequently made this void, the courageous decision – made after President Mugabe threatened the judiciary represented a victory in defence of human rights and sent a clear message that the right to protest cannot be stripped away on a whim. In Gambia, more than 40 prisoners of conscience, some of whom had been detained for as long as eight months, were released on bail pending appeal immediately following the elections.
Impunity and failures to ensure justice
Impunity remained a common denominator in all of Africa’s major conflicts, with those suspected of crimes under international law and gross human rights violations rarely held to account. Despite having a clear mandate, the AU had yet to take concrete steps towards setting up a hybrid court for South Sudan, as required by the country’s peace accord. Such a court would represent the most viable option for ensuring accountability for crimes such as war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the conflict and for deterring further abuses. Some progress was made towards setting up the Special Criminal Court in CAR, but the vast majority of suspected perpetrators of serious crimes and gross violations of human rights remained at large, free of any arrest or investigations. In addition to the serious weakness of the UN’s CAR peacekeeping mission, impunity remained one of the key drivers of the conflict and civilians faced deadly violence and instability.
In Nigeria, there was compelling evidence of widespread and systematic violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by the military, leading to more than 7,000 mainly young Nigerian men and boys dying in military detention and more than 1,200 people killed in extrajudicial executions. However, the government did not take any steps towards investigating such allegations. No one was brought to justice and the violations continued. The International Criminal Court (ICC) declared the charges against Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto and radio presenter Joshua Arap Sang dismissed and thus all cases before the ICC in relation to Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007-2008 collapsed. This decision was seen as a major setback by thousands of victims who had yet to see justice.The AU also continued to call on states to disregard their international obligations to arrest Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir despite his being wanted by the ICC on charges of genocide. In May, Uganda failed to arrest visiting President Al-Bashir and hand him over to the ICC, failing hundreds of thousands of people killed or displaced in the Darfur conflict.
In March, the ICC convicted Jean-Pierre Bemba, former Vice-President of DRC, for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in CAR. The ICC’s sentence of 19 years followed its first conviction for rape as a war crime and its first conviction based on command responsibility. The guilty verdict was a key moment in the battle for justice for victims of sexual violence in CAR and around the world.
Sexual Discrimination and marginalization
Women and girls were frequently subjected to discrimination, marginalization and abuse often because of cultural traditions and norms and discrimination institutionalized by unjust laws. Women and girls were also subjected to sexual violence and rape in conflicts and countries hosting large numbers of displaced people and refugees. High levels of gender-based violence against women and girls were reported in many countries such as Madagascar, Namibia and Sierra Leone. LGBTI people, or those perceived to be so, continued to face abuse or discrimination in countries including Botswana, Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Togo and Uganda. In Kenya, two men petitioned the High Court in Mombasa to declare the anal examination, HIV and hepatitis B tests they were forced to undergo in 2015 were unconstitutional. However, the court upheld the legality of anal examinations on men suspected of engaging in sexual activity with other men. Forced anal examinations violate the right to privacy and the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment under international law.
More effective measures are still needed to tackle the cycle of impunity – including moving away from politically motivated attacks on the ICC and working towards ensuring justice and accountability for serious crimes and gross human rights violations being committed in countries like South Sudan and elsewhere. The AU has embarked on designing a 10 Year Action and Implementation Plan on Human Rights in Africa, providing yet another opportunity to address its key challenges. The starting point should be recognition that Africans are rising and claiming their rights, despite repression and exclusion.
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