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Powell Goes to Africa: A Human Rights Agenda
Human Rights Watch Backgrounder
May 2001

Focus on Human Rights
  • South Africa
  • Kenya
  • Sudan
  • Uganda
  • Ugandan-Occupied Areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo

  • Mali: The Crisis in Sierra Leone

    The crisis in Sierra Leone will be a focus of Sec. Powell's stop in Mali. The U.S. was instrumental in galvanizing the U.N. Security Council to support a special court for Sierra Leone, but the process has slowed considerably in recent months. The U.N. Secretary-General has set a deadline of May 23 for interested states to contribute to the U.N. fund for the court. Sec. Powell's visit comes at a critical moment for the U.S. to make a strong and public commitment to the special court.

    Secretary Powell's trip to Africa should focus on:

  • The Crisis in Sierra Leone
  • South Africa's Response to the Crisis in Zimbabwe
  • Rule of Law and Constitutional Reform in Kenya
  • Head off a Bloody Border War and Stop Slavery in Sudan
  • Freedom of Expression and Assembly in Uganda
  • International Investigation into War Crimes in the Congo

    The United States is training and equipping seven West African battalions for peacekeeping duty in Sierra Leone, including five battalions from Nigeria. Given that the Nigerian military has been responsible for serious abuses in Sierra Leone in January 1999, as well as atrocities in Nigeria itself, any U.S. training must be accompanied by vetting of participating troops, effective training in international humanitarian and human rights law, and monitoring of their behavior in the field. The U.S. should call on President Olusegun Obasanjo to carry out thorough and credible investigations and prosecutions for human rights abuses by the Nigerian armed forces in Nigeria as well as in Sierra Leone. Similar concerns apply to the Guinean military, which is being considered for inclusion in the U.S. "train-and-equip" program and has already received limited military assistance. The Guinean military has been responsible for recent abuses in Sierra Leone, including indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas.

    Related Material
    Powell: Focus on Human Rights in Africa
    HRW Letter , May 18, 2001

    Human Rights in Sierra Leone
    HRW web focus page

    Human Rights in the Congo
    HRW web focus page

    Human Rights in Sudan
    HRW web focus page

    Tens of thousands of Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea have been victims of violence by various state security forces and rebel groups in what is essentially a regional war in West Africa. The U.S. should provide greater financial and logistical support for the protection of refugees in Guinea by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the Guinean government to deal with the current crisis.

    South Africa

    South Africa has an important role to play in response to the current crisis in Zimbabwe. South African President Thabo Mbeki has reportedly made behind-the-scenes representations to President Robert Mugabe, but he has not openly condemned the Zimbabwean government's mobilization of arbitrary violence against commercial farmers and farmworkers and critics of government policy. Sec. Powell should urge South Africa to play a more active role in resolving the Zimbabwe crisis, to speak out against the government's deliberate undermining of the rule of law and to mobilize other countries in the region to do the same.


    The government of President Daniel arap Moi continues to undermine the rule of law. Despite years of promises, President Moi has yet to begin the process of constitutional reform, although he agreed this month to let civil society groups participate. Sec. Powell should publicly recognize the importance of constitutional reform and the need for it to proceed without interference from the executive.


    While in Kenya, Sec. Powell will also focus on the crisis in Sudan. The government of Sudan remains a gross human rights abuser; rebel groups also commit human rights abuses. In the eighteen-year civil war, the government has recently stepped up its brutal expulsions of southern villagers from oil production areas and trumpeted its resolve to use the oil income for creating a domestic arms industry.

    The United States has begun a high-level review of its policy toward Sudan, which should make human rights conditions its centerpiece. The Sudan government should allow complete access for U.N. and humanitarian groups to rebel areas and the Nuba mountains, and end all flight bans. It should also cooperate with the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Sudan, providing him full access to the country. The abduction and slavery of women and children, a practice conducted almost entirely by the government-backed militia of the Baggara tribe in western Sudan and by the Sudan army, must stop, and those responsible prosecuted.

    Factional fighting among rebel forces in the southern Sudan could widen into a devastating famine unless the U.S. intervenes diplomatically with rebel forces and others. Sec. Powell should try to use U.S. leverage with both the Dinka and Nuer communities to head off what could become a bloody border war.


    Uganda's presidential election in March 2001 was marked by arrests, harassment and violence against opposition supporters. New legislation is now being discussed that would restrict the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Uganda - another attempt by President Yoweri Museveni to muzzle his critics. Sec. Powell should criticize that attempt, and clearly enunciate U.S. support for freedom of expression and assembly. He should also indicate that the US government will closely follow the campaign for the upcoming parliamentary elections and condemn any arrests, harassment or other attacks on parliamentary candidates and their supporters.

    Ugandan-Occupied Areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo

    Although some Ugandan military forces are withdrawing from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), these troops have played a decisive - and sometimes brutal - role in local affairs in the areas they have occupied. In the northeastern DRC, Ugandan troops have intentionally exacerbated local ethnic disputes in order to enhance their own control. In the last two years, as many as 7,000 people have been killed in what began as a small-scale dispute over land between Hema and Lendu peoples. At least 150,000 people have been displaced from their homes. The assistance of Ugandan soldiers as well as the provision of training and arms to local forces resulted in a larger number of civilian casualties in these conflicts than would otherwise have been the case. All parties to the conflict, including the Ugandans, have recruited and trained children to serve as soldiers. A recent U.N. report has also documented Uganda's role in the illicit exploitation of Congo's natural resources.

    Secretary Powell should publicly call for Uganda to investigate these reports of war crimes committed by its troops in the Congo. The United States should be supporting calls for an international investigation into war crimes against humanity by all parties to the war in Congo.