The Status of Human Rights Organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa

Some Issues Facing Sub-Saharan African Human Rights Groups

The purpose of this section is to identify some of the particular human rights issues confronting organizations in a number of African countries in the present context of political transition and increased international interest in human rights. The section is not intended to be an inventory of all such issues, but instead an analysis of a few that pose particular problems or challenges to African NGOs.

Many African countries are plagued by political violence, which creates enormous difficulties for the work of human rights organizations. In an increasing number of cases this violence is instigated by government agencies and carried out by surrogate bodies. In part, the intention is to evade detection by human rights monitors, both local and national. It is perhaps the flip side of the somewhat unwilling transition which many African governments have made to multi-party political systems. By presenting violence as somehow "traditional" and resulting from deep-seated ethnic rivalries, African governments succeed both in pandering to the common Western caricature of the "dark continent" and in evading responsibility for their own actions.

The very characterization of such abuses as "violence" rather than "human rights violations" serves to conceal their real nature and carries the implication that all bear an equal responsibility for its resolution. Thus, in South Africa "the violence" was largely instigated by the government-supported Inkatha movement against supporters of the then-illegal African National Congress. It was inaccurately represented as stemming from "tribal" rivalry between the Zulus of Inkatha and other ethnic groups. In reality, as the recent elections showed, many Zulus support the ANC and the violence is largely political in nature.

In Kenya, the government sponsored members of the Kalenjin ethnic group to attack settled Rift Valley communities which were expected to vote for the opposition in the country's first multi-party elections in 1992. Many voters were disenfranchised by being driven from their homes and sixteen government candidates were returned to parliament unopposed. Yet this repression is usually referred to as "tribal clashes". The former ruling party in Malawi, which has close links with its Kenyan counterpart, attempted to use a similar tactic in the campaign for the May 1994 multi-party elections, while use of surrogate repression has also been reported in Zaire and Nigeria, among other countries. The clearest example of the potential outcome of these tactics can be seen in Rwanda, where a government which was obliged to accept a transition from one-party to multi-party rule employed party militias to harass and repress the opposition. In that case, government tactics were well documented by human rights groups, yet the international community ignored the issue until "violence" spilled over into genocide.

This new use of "privatized" or surrogate repression poses particular problems for human rights groups, not least the need to ensure that the international community clearly understands the complicity of governments in instigating violence. This will require greater cooperation among human rights groups from affected countries in order to share an understanding of these new repressive methods. Groups will also need to develop and refine their investigative techniques in order to ensure that these abuses are fully documented.

This is not the only technique used by governments to deflect international pressure. Most African governments now understand that the international community is highly intolerant of the use of detention without trial. Arresting authorities--aware of the constant refrain from human rights groups that political prisoners should be "charged or released"--increasingly respond by the use of criminal charges against political opponents, journalists and human rights activists themselves. In some countries a pliant judiciary is prepared to comply with the wishes of the executive and imprison critics of the government in a parody of due process. This has been the case in, for example, Togo, Côte d'Ivoire, Cameroon and sometimes Kenya. Elsewhere, criminal charges have been used frivolously, with no intention that the accused will ever be brought to court. Instead opposition politicians, journalists and others must labour with the threat of outstanding sedition or subversion charges. In the worst cases the accused are refused bail and spend months or years in prison before charges are dropped. For example, in recent years in Uganda more than one hundred people have been charged with treason--an offence where the courts have no discretion to grant bail. Few of these cases have ever come to trial.

The effectiveness of using criminal charges to punish political dissent lies in the reluctance of the international community to "interfere" in the domestic affairs of a country by criticizing the workings of its judicial system. If criticized, governments can claim that their human rights critics are "moving the goalposts" by complaining when they invoke criminal law rather than administrative detention. At the same time, legal proceedings can tie down the domestic human rights and legal community in costly and time-consuming preparations to defend cases which never materialize.

A more positive development on the legal front in some African countries has been the recent adoption of enforceable guarantees of human rights in constitutions or through statutory human rights institutions such as national commissions or ombudsmen. The possibility of constitutional litigation or the pursuit of complaints through a statutory body both gives legitimacy to the activities of non-governmental human rights bodies and provides them with a new and potentially effective area of activity.

Home || Treaties || Search || Links