The Status of Human Rights Organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa


Four years after independence, Namibia is struggling to put behind it a past of egregious human rights violations under the South African colonising power. In order to do this, it has adopted a two-faceted policy--one of redress, the other of national "reconciliation". Although there have as yet been no major problems with the implementation of the policy, both aspects are very finely balanced and face the ever-present danger of causing more problems than they solve. Within this paradigm, the activities of SWAPO (now the ruling party) as a liberation movement have also come under scrutiny, with demands for the establishment of a "Truth Commission" to deal with the legacy of human rights violations by both sides in the guerrilla war. National reconciliation is designed to encourage a collective working together of all Namibians to build a new nation and heal the wounds of the past. This theme is abundantly clear in Namibia's constititution, which is recognised as an exemplary document as far as the protection of human rights is concerned.

There are several problems inherent in the policy of national reconciliation, not least of which is SWAPO's extreme reluctance to allow a thorough investigation of its past. In addition, many South Africans who were allegedly deeply involved in atrocities during the liberation struggle today occupy prominent positions in the Namibian government and law enforcement agencies. Every so often an event, such as the opening of the Anton Lubowski inquest, 7 will bring this issue to the fore. The question of redress has been manifested in the land question, as well as in unemployment and problems of housing for the majority black population. The measures so far adopted, coupled with economic restructuring, appear to have exacerbated the problem.

One issue on which the performance of the Namibian government has been extremely negative is the question of refugees, although human rights organizations report that there appears to have been a relaxation in the garrison attitude that prevailed in the period immediately following independence. Otherwise, the government has been notorious for forcibly returning refugees fleeing from some of its neighbours, and is extremely sensitive to accusations of having done so. On the positive side, the Namibian government is generally sensitive to the need for reform of the law enforcement agencies inherited at independence and reconstitution of the juvenile justice system.

Human Rights and Documentation Centre (University of Namibia)

Following the establishment of the University of Namibia in 1992, a Faculty of Law was established, with a strong emphasis on the need for a human rights component in its curriculum. At the same time, the Ministry of Justice wanted to set up a human rights and documentation centre. Soon after independence it was decided to locate the centre at the Faculty. After several bureaucratic bottlenecks, the Centre came into existence, albeit without any personnel.

Still in its formative stages of development, the Centre intends to have both a national and regional focus. The latter has already begun to crystallize, with the Centre forming part of a twinning linkage with several Southern African and European universities. Locally, the Centre is involved in the translation of the Namibian Constitution, and, in particular, the Bill of Rights, into simple and accessible language. The Centre has already begun collecting library materials.

Legal Assistance Centre

LAC was established in mid-1988 to address the issue of public interest litigation before independence. At that time the work of LAC mainly related to the liberation war, access to the legal system, relief to security victims (especially in Northern Namibia), and the persecution of persons accused of hosting guerrillas. Since independence there has been a reassessment of the goals and needs of the Centre, leading to an emphasis on legal education rather than litigation. In this regard, the Centre has carried out extensive work, and publications in several languages are disseminated over a large part of the country. The Centre has developed several other facets of human rights work, including women and children's rights; legal work and litigation, especially related to unlawful police action; police education and training; the status of refugees; cooperative unions; housing; AIDS; reform of criminal law and justice; test case litigation; and networking.

The Namibia Institute for Democracy

The researcher was unable to interview any NID official during his visit to Namibia, and thus the following information relating to NID was culled from publications received.

Set up towards the end of 1991, the NID is a kind of think tank that develops educational programs and utilizes the media, seminars, discussion groups and community information programs, in a quest to " support and advice for the development and execution of training and information programs aimed at educating and informing Namibians about the content of the Namibian Constitution and principles of multi-party democracy." To this end NID has held a number of seminars and conferences on a variety of issues, with a focus on civic education, public information and what it refers to as "Education for Democracy". The NID has also published a number of documents on women's rights, affirmative action and ethnicity, under the rubric of a publication called Namibian Views. It evidently operates in close collaboration with the German Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, the aid agency of the German Christian Democratic party. Although it carries out many human rights-related activities, it is apparent that the community at large does not quite consider it as a human rights organization.

National Society for Human Rights

The National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) was established on December 1, 1989 as an organization to address both the colonial past and the independent future. It is involved in monitoring, campaigning and lobbying, legal defence, research and reporting. One of its primary areas of focus has been the past violations of SWAPO (the ruling party), when it was still a liberation movement, and allegations made against it of torture and "disappearance" of opponents. The Society is organized around a branch network, linked to the headquarters based in Windhoek, but is premised on what the Director described as an "ethnolinguistic" philosophy, with a cross-section of the nationalities of Namibia represented on its National Secretariat. NSHR also has observer status at the African Commission on Human Rights.

7 Anton Lubowski was SWAPO's Deputy Election Director and its highest-ranking white member. He was assassinated on September 12, 1988. Reports in the international press implicated members of the South African police in the killing.,

- Joe Oloka-Onyango

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