The Status of Human Rights Organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa


Human rights activism in Africa is long-standing. For decades concerned individuals, including lawyers, journalists, trade unionists and members of religious organizations, have monitored and reported upon human rights violations, often in the most hazardous of circumstances. However, what is new for many African countries is the emergence in recent years of open and self-professed human rights organizations. Especially since the late 1980s, these voluntary associations of citizens have taken on the task of monitoring abuse of human rights, educating the people about their rights under national and international law, and making recommendations to governments about how to improve their protection of human rights.

It has become a truism to refer to the democratic changes which have swept across Africa, particularly since the end of the Cold War, and the consequent increase in space for the institutions of civil and popular society--not only human rights organizations, but also political organizations, trade unions, women's organizations, law societies and others. This has been the pattern in countries as widely varied as Benin, Ethiopia, Malawi and Zambia.

However, this process of democratization is only one pattern. At the other extreme are countries such as Rwanda and Angola, where nascent human rights organizations are unable to function in situations of total political breakdown and civil war. In Liberia and Mozambique, which are shakily emerging from civil wars involving gross human rights abuses, organizations still face enormous obstacles--not least the fear that, like Rwanda and Angola, these countries might slip back into uncontrolled violence. In other countries, such as Kenya and Senegal, where civil society has a stronger history, human rights groups are nevertheless firmly restricted from monitoring serious political violence and human rights abuses.

On the other hand, in a few countries, notably South Africa and Zimbabwe, human rights organizations date from earlier than the post-Cold War era. One South African organization, for example, was founded in 1955. It is probable that in these two instances the peculiar contradictions of a white settler society obliged repressive governments to allow a certain political space for their opponents within the white community, in order to validate their claims to be bastions of western democracy. Political and human rights activists were able to take advantage of that space to develop stronger organizations of civil society than was possible in most of Africa which moved fairly rapidly from repressive colonial rule to authoritarian one-party states or military dictatorships.

Thus it should be apparent that although many African human rights NGOs are of recent origin, they have varying histories and operate in different circumstances. The purpose of this introductory chapter is to try to identify some of the common issues facing African human rights NGOs. However, it should be read with the proviso that the organizations themselves differ considerably. Although in many countries respect for human rights has improved in the past five years or so and human rights activists work in a much more favourable environment, this is far from being the dominant trend. Apart from the extreme examples of Rwanda and Angola, respect for human rights and the environment for civil society is weak in a large number of other countries of sub-Saharan Africa, from Mauritania and Chad, through Zaire and Burundi to Swaziland and Lesotho. In many instances human rights groups are able to make sophisticated plans for the future, confident of foreign funding and a growing professional staff, but for many others the future is shaky. The international community still owes these human rights organizations an elementary duty of solidarity in order to safeguard their very existence.

Home || Treaties || Search || Links