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Africa’s human rights record worrying

Mubatsi Asinja Habati

Human Rights Watch, an international human rights organisation, works for the promotion and protection of human rights globally. The Independent’s Mubatsi Asinja Habati spoke to the organisation’s Africa Division Executive Director, Daniel Bekele.


What do you make of Human Rights Watch work in Africa?

In Africa we have serious systematic human rights challenges. We work to contribute to better policy and practice in respect to human rights. This involves overall legal framework in a country, the extent to which laws in a country are consistent with the international laws and treaties. By practice we look at what the law says on one hand and how the state institutions and authorities behave in respect to human rights.

Can you pick up a case of human rights violation and take it to court?

No. Our mandate is monitoring and exposing human rights violations, standing with victims in demanding justice, advocating protection of human right, violators to be brought to justice, laws promoting human rights. Prosecuting for human rights violations is within the mandate of national governments and the international criminal court for issues within its jurisdiction. In situations where powerful people in governments and institutions fail to take accountability for their human rights violations, we stand together with the victims to give them solidarity to get justice. We have such cases in Chad.

When you stand with the victims, what kind of assistance do you  usually  give them?

In some instances victims of human rights abuses are organised to make their voices heard and call for justice.  We research on human rights violations. Evidence is obtained from victims and families and people who have information on violation. We study the pattern of abuses and bring our findings to the attention of authorities to take necessary measures.  Such measures can include violators to account or to further investigate. That’s the support we give.

What is your assessment of African countries’ human rights record?

It is a mixed bag.  The human rights situation in Africa remains extremely disturbing.  It is simply worrying though there are hopeful signs given that a number of African countries have subscribed to several international laws regarding protection and respect of human rights. And a number of countries have incorporated these internationally acceptable standards in their national constitutions, which is a positive step. However, actual practice by authorities remains contrary to the internally acceptable human rights standards and what is written on paper. There is a huge dichotomy between the rhetorical promises and actual behaviour of state authorities. So the human rights situation in Africa overall remains worrying and a huge challenge for everyone concerned about Africa. We still have a long way to go.

Which countries are performing worse than the other?

We have situations where the right of freedom of expression and political opinion is violated. People are persecuted for their views, people cannot demonstrate peacefully, journalists are harassed and arrested whenever governments are dissatisfied with their work.  We have situation where people are held without trial, extrajudicial killings, people disappearance, credible reports of torture being committed by security agencies, etc. these are day to day violations in most African countries.

You said countries have ratified some international laws on human rights but that remains only on paper. In your opinion what is the missing link?

We need to realise that it is a complex problem not solved by only one branch of government. It’s a challenge to be solved by all branches of government. What is missing is filling the gap between what seems to be nicely written laws and practice. Many of the human rights violation are committed directly by state actors. What is missing is authorities demonstrating a genuine commitment to enforce respect for human rights including taking measures to hold people in government office for human rights abuses committed while in office. Respect for human rights is probably a complex challenge which requires human rights education and building and institutionalising human rights respect culture. But what governments can in the meantime do is to bring violators to account for abuses.

What have you achieved on the continent?

We are one of the biggest achievement in the past decade is documenting systematic human rights abuses some related to conflict in some areas, some committed by soldiers, abuses in Displaced Peoples Camps, we have recommended and brought to the attention of governments to bring violators to account. We have registered some achievement along these lines but it remains a complex problem like I said which will take time to change. We are however, encouraged by incremental change towards a better policy and practice in some countries where we work although serious concerns of deteriorating human rights respect in a number of countries which used to improve is worrying.

There remain deteriorating human rights conditions as opposed to improvement in a number of African countries. The space for democratic and political activism is closing down in many African countries resulting in denial of fundamental rights like freedom of expression and association. We have seen cases where demonstrations are violently crushed by states and extrajudicial killings that appear politically motivated. We have these disturbing accounts in Burundi, Ivory Coast, South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Somalia, DR Congo, Zimbabwe, etc. These are examples of various human rights violations.

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