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Defending Human Rights
Many governments in Africa continued to equate human rights advocacy with disloyalty and opposition. There was a discernible trend of state attempts to enfeeble human rights NGOs by denying them free access to external technical and financial resources. Some governments were openly critical of donor assistance to NGOs and insisted that funding for and the organization of NGO work be centralized, enabling the state to determine the conditions under which NGOs do their work. Even in South Africa, where the government had shown great openness to contributions from NGOs towards its reform efforts, President Mandela, in an address to the African National Congress December 1997 conference accused NGOs of becoming “instruments of foreign governments and institutions” who funded them “to promote their own political agenda.”

In the Great Lakes region, armed conflict and repressive government measures seriously compromised the position of human rights defenders, causing some to flee for their lives and continue their monitoring and advocacy from outside the country. On April 3, the same day the United Nations Human Rights Commission passed the Declaration for the Rights of Human Rights Defenders,the Congolese government banned the African Association for the Defense of Human Rights (ASADHO). One week later the government banned all human rights organizations except a government-selected list of twenty-two NGOs which were granted provisional authority to operate. Many leaders of human rights NGOs in Kinshasa, such as Roger Sala Nzo of National Human Rights Center (CENADHO) and Paul Nsapu and Sabin Banza of the League of Electors, were detained for several months due to their human rights activities. Human rights defenders in eastern Congo faced particular danger due to their documentation of massacres of Hutu refugees in 1996-97 and rampant insecurity near the borders with Burundi and Rwanda. Many of them were forced into exile.

In Sudan, all human rights organizations except those approved by the government remained banned, and the only human rights defense work was done by independent attorneys who represented people accused of anti-state conspiracies. In two rebel areas, the central Nuba Mountains and the Menze area of the eastern front, independent human rights monitors were trained and operated to document government abuses committed in the war in those areas. The existing political climate in Rwanda continued to impose severe limitations on the independence of many Rwandan NGOs and profoundly impaired their ability to report on human rights violation. Threats and insecurity caused Rwandan defenders to slide further into silence in the face of massive human rights violations. In Uganda, many human rights organizations continued to operate, though constrained to practice “self-censorship” to avoid harassment from the government. Domestic NGOs in Uganda reported on prison reform and education. In Ethiopia, eight members of the board of directors of the Human Rights League, and the organization’s secretary, remained in detention, having been arrested in October and November 1997 on charges of conspiracy with the Oromo Liberation Front. Ethiopia’s Human Rights Council continued its work, although appeals for human rights reform were virtually ignored by the government. Twice during 1998, Kenya’s President Moi threatened to shut down NGOs, leading to concerns that the outspoken human rights community would be targeted.

The arrest, detention and forcible return to Angola of Angolan human rights activist Dr. Manuel Neto on May 19, 1998 by the Namibian Ministry of Home Affairs, despite Dr. Neto’s refugee status, sent shocks throughout the human rights community in southern Africa and beyond. Manuel Neto was the executive director of the Angolan Human Rights League (LADH) which was established on May 6 and legally recognized as a not-for-profit nongovernmental organization in Namibia. The Namibian authorities claimed that Neto’s activities constituted a threat to national security, but critics of the expulsion contended that this “threat” was perceived only after he formed the LADH and that this was the real reason for the expulsion.

In Angola itself, despite a hostile environment for human rights advocacy, the Dominican Order set up the Mosaiko Cultural Center near Luanda, by 1998 a fully established human rights center. Both the center and the Catholic radio station, Radio Ecclesia, promoted human rights using the media to disseminate information. The Council of Christian Churches (CICA), the Alliance of Evangelicals of Angola (AEA), and Trocaire Angola also supported training in human rights. In the wake of intense pressure by government authorities during the previous two years, Zambia’s AFRONET conducted work on police brutality, published its first annual report on human rights, and conducted a joint field mission with Human Rights Watch to the Angolan border and refugee camps in Zambia.

Nigeria’s human rights movement, among the most vigorous and sophisticated in sub-Saharan Africa, continued to monitor abuses and advocate for human rights despite persistent harassment under the Abacha regime. With the new transition program announced by General Abubakar, human rights activists in detention were released, conditions to operate improved significantly, and a coalition of human rights groups announced their intention of closely monitoring the return to civilian rule.

Despite efforts to silence them, the NGO community in Africa continued to grow and become more sophisticated. An expanding number of NGOs throughout Africa made strides in acquiring and mastering electronic communications technology, thus substantially boosting their access to the latest information and ideas. The speed with which information crossed borders continued to erode governments' capacity to control and contain civil society initiatives.

National Human Rights Commissions
The establishment of government-sponsored national human rights commissions became a growing trend on the African continent. By year’s end, fifteen sub-Saharan African governments had formed such commissions, including Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, Togo, Uganda, and Zambia. Two more governments—Ethiopia and Tanzania—had plans underway to create commissions. For the most part, these commissions proved a disappointment. Many were created with flawed mandates that limited their ability to investigate effectively, monitor, or make public statements, or were headed by members unwilling to protest abuses due to fear of reprisal. Others, such as the Malawian and Rwandan commissions, had yet to begin their work.

Yet the activities of the more promising commissions were proof that these government bodies had the potential to contribute positively toward strengthening the human rights culture. The Ghanaian, Senegalese, South African, and Ugandan commissions—a testament to the integrity of these commissions’ members—appeared to be the most promising in their willingness to actively speak out against government abuses and to exhibit their independence. Uganda’s Human Rights Commission, for example, issued its first annual report in August and documented many cases of torture by security forces, inhuman prison conditions, and many cases of interference with political opposition events. In South Africa, the Human Rights Commission joined with NGOs to hold hearings on poverty, and criticized the government record on prison conditions, immigration policy, and other matters. Ghana’s commission, which the government had attempted to silence, continued to speak out on a wide array of issues, including harmful traditional practices against women, prison conditions, and government corruption. Even in constrained political circumstances, such as in Nigeria, the commission established by General Abacha carried out some useful work on prison conditions before his death, and thenmade useful recommendations to the new government.

The proliferation of national human rights commissions was a sign that African governments appeared to be buying into the international human rights discourse, and an acknowledgment that human rights protection should be part of the government portfolio. International donor pressure and financial support for these bodies was another factor in spurring governments to create commissions. However, most governments formed these commissions without showing any intent to follow through with the necessary action to ensure that they could actually improve the situation. Some appeared largely designed to deflect international criticism of serious human rights violations. There was usually little or no coordination or consultation with the local nongovernmental community, and in some cases, the commission sought to downplay the work of NGOs—most commissioners appointed were not experienced or trained in human rights work, and the commissions were largely under-funded and urban-based. In some cases, the work of the commission was not public and statements made by commissioners were difficult to obtain.

At the regional level, there were some attempts by the commissions to coordinate and exchange ideas. In February 1996, the first regional meeting had been held in Cameroon and in July 1998 a second regional meeting was held in South Africa. This emerging regional initiative could be used more effectively to provide advice, support, and even protection to its member groups.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda made significant progress in its effort to ensure accountability for the Rwandan genocide. By mid-year, it had arrested more than thirty important leaders and by October, it had found two guilty and sentenced them to life in prison. One was the former prime minister of Rwanda, who confessed and pleaded guilty. The other, Jean-Paul Akayesu, a former mayor, was tried and became the first person found guilty of genocide under international law. In making rape part of Akayesu’s genocide conviction, the decision also advanced the world’s legal treatment of sexual violence.

This success in bringing to justice the leaders of a defeated government was not matched by similar success in securing accountability from those still in power. The governments of the DRC, led by former rebel Laurent Kabila, and of Rwanda, enjoyed relative impunity despite their apparent responsibility for the alleged massacre of tens of thousands of Rwandan noncombatants who had been living in refugee camps in eastern Congo in late 1996 and early 1997. After having agreed to an inquiry by the U.N. Secretary-General’s Investigative Team (SGIT) when it came to office, Kabila’s government hindered the team’s work every step of the way. Government officials first obstructed its travel and when it reached the northwestern town of Mbandaka organized “demonstrations,” intimidation, and extortion to force it to leave without completing its investigation. They arrested witnesses who gave testimony to the team and disrupted meetings with witnesses. After they arrested a U.N. investigator and took reprisals against the witnesses whose testimonies he carried, the U.N. withdrew the mission. Yet the Congolese government appeared ready to talk about the killings by its former allies once those allies became enemies in the new rebellion of 1998. DRC Foreign Minister Jean-Charles Okoto Lolakombe accused Rwandan-backed rebels of grave human rights abuses during the fighting that started in August and said that “these ugly crimes remind us of the killings perpetrated against Hutu refugees by the elements of the same Rwandan Patriotic Army.”

In Rwanda and Burundi, governments conducted trials stemming from massive killings in preceding years, from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and from massacres carried out in Burundi following the assassination of President Melchior Ndadaye in 1993. In many trials in both countries, the accused did not have access to legal counsel or in other ways were tried in conditions that failed to meet international standards of due process. In both Rwanda and Burundi, military courts brought some soldiers to trial for abusing the rights of civilians. Meanwhile, the Rwandan government, which suspended the operation of the United Nations Human Rights Field Operation for Rwanda in May, precipitated the closure of the field office in late July by refusing further U.N. monitoring of the human rights situation and insisting that it would accept only educational and technical assistance.

In Burundi, some 10,000 persons were in prison, many charged with participation in massacres that took place in late 1993 or early 1994 following the assassination of President Melchior Ndadaye. Some 250 people had been found guilty and condemned to death, virtually all of whom were Hutu.

In Ethiopia, no significant progress was reported regarding the trial of thousands of officials of the previous Derg regime for crimes against humanity. The exemplary value of these trials was seriously tarnished by their slow pace. Of the 5,198 Derg officials charged in 1997 of a variety of offenses, some 2,200 remained in prison on remand since their arrest in 1991. Their trials in Addis Ababa and around the country were interrupted by repeated adjournments and court recesses. On September 10, the government announced the release of thirty-one of the group. Having considered their cases “at length,” the Special Prosecutor’s Office in charge of the trial had decided that “there was not enough evidence to justify keeping them in custody.”

Despite a long period of military rule in Nigeria during which widespread and wanton abuses of rights took place, the new military administration made no commitment to accountability for past abuses. It was not clear whether civilian politicians due to be elected in 1999 would show a greater determination; but human rights and radical opposition groups called for a National Crimes and Restitution Commission.

In Liberia, the peace accords that led to the end of seven years of civil war expressly granted an amnesty of sorts to those responsible for committing atrocities in the course of the war. Hence no leader of any faction, no matter how guilty of atrocities, was brought to justice. Since his election as president in 1997, Taylor continued to allow government security forces, heavily dominated by his own supporters, to behave with the same impunity. At least partly as a consequence, renewed fighting broke out between government forces and those of one of Taylor’s losing rivals, Roosevelt Johnson, on September 18 and 19, just a year after the end of the war. Without justice for past human rights abuses, conditions in Liberia deteriorated to renewed lawlessness.

In Sierra Leone, many of the rebels responsible for gross atrocities—including mutilations, rape, and killings—during the civil war remained at large, and continued to terrorize civilian populations in rural areas. In Freetown, the Sierra Leonean capital, dozens of captured rebel leaders and collaborators, including their commander Foday Sankoh, faced charges including treason under a fledgling legal system. Amidst public calls for revenge killings and appeals for clemency from the U.K. and international human rights NGOs, the trials constituted the first major test of the Sierra Leonean government’s effort to guarantee due process while holding perpetrators of gross abuses accountable for their actions.

In Zimbabwe, the government continued to deny the alleged massacres of thousands of noncombatants in Matabeleland during the early 1980s. In Kenya, President Daniel arap Moi announced the creation of a judicial inquiry into longstanding allegations of state-sponsored political violence against ethnic groups that supported opposition parties. There was little expectation that this inquiry would bring any real action: previous inquiries concluding that high level government officials were involved had been ignored. Following the judicial dismissal of the case against Kamuzu Banda in 1997, Malawi’s government appeared to have abandoned efforts aimed at accountability for human rights violations from 1964 to 1994. Even the National Compensation Tribunal (NCT), seemed to be on the brink of failure. Established in 1996, the NCT was set up to compensate Malawians who were thrown into detention without trial on political grounds. Most detainees had their property confiscated by the Banda regime. The NCT struggled to fulfill its mandate and respond to the numerous compensation claims from the public. However, since its inception, it had been crippled by funding problems. The Tribunal had received 7,272 claims from victims of political incarceration and torture during the former regime, but had processed only 1,555 claims. Many private citizens believed that only politicians and relatives of people well positioned in society were being compensated. To date the commission had only disbursed U.S. $800,000 in interim payments to claimants.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) continued to draw international attention as it pioneered a new way of dealing with the problems of accountability in transitions. Although many were critical of the commission’s ability to grant indemnity from prosecution for gross violations of human rights, these powers were limited and conditioned on full disclosure of offenses and other criteria. At the same time, the amnesty procedure strengthened the commission’s efforts to uncover as complete a picture as possible of past abuses. Notable hearings during the year focused on the involvement of the previous government in chemical and biological weapons production, on the killing of Steve Biko, and on political violence in KwaZulu-Natal and elsewhere. The TRC completed its hearings of witness testimony about past human rights abuses, and was due to present its report to the president in October; amnesty hearings were set to continue well into 1999, when a supplementary report would be published.

Regional Cooperation: Africa Adrift
The events of 1998 once again demonstrated that regional cooperation and rights regimes needed new scripts. The DRC and other crises raised tough questions about the state of regional integration in Africa. The challenge to African leaders was not simply to ride out the storms of 1998. It was also to reconstruct the crumbling architecture of the region’s collective security mechanisms. Areas that appeared to be crying out for urgent institutional overhaul included, at minimum, the vague notion of regional leadership, cumbersome decision-making procedures, the need for further surrendering of sovereign power to supranational bodies, and the rules and procedures for collective intervention.

The Organization of African Unity (OAU)
Crucial to any proposed regional solutions to Africa’s problems should have been a determined effort by the OAU to reinvent itself. Yet the fumbling when crises exploded created the impression that the OAU had no clue about what to do of its own volition, as opposed to the initiatives forced upon it by the recurrent crises. No significant moves were made or announced to solve the OAU’s chronic organizational problems. The OAU’s Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management, and Resolution, established in 1993, remained aspirational rather than effective in practice. The events of the year confirmed that there were major shortcomings but that the OAU did not yet know how to fix them.

The OAU’s initiatives remained marginal to every major crisis on the continent. It was powerless to mediate regional conflicts in the Great Lakes area, Guinea Bissau, or between Eritrea and Ethiopia. It seemed that it merely went through motions of mediation, sending inconsequential missions to investigate claims and counterclaims. In the DRC crisis, its mediation efforts resulted in the documentation of mechanisms for a ceasefire, but no steps forward on the ground. At the same time, the OAU made no progress towards framing a policy on multilateral interventions by member states in other member states. The interventions in Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, Lesotho, and above all the DRC emphasized the critical need for the formalization of regional and subregional peacekeeping standards to ensure that such operations included a strong human rights component, training in humanitarian and human rights law, mechanisms of accountability to hold errant troops responsible, and blueprints for lines of command or coordination for and between the OAU and U.N. In the absence of any such efforts, subregional initiatives were doomed to be a string of interventions on a case-by-case basis without safeguards to prevent political manipulation, human rights violations, and misuse by subregional governments.

The African troops sent to restore peace were in many cases responsible for human rights violations themselves. For example, West African peacekeepers in Liberia had been accused of the torture and ill-treatment of Liberians, trading arms and ammunition with rebel factions, and creating proxy rebel groups that prolonged the war. In Sierra Leone, the same peacekeepers had failed to consistently take precautions to minimize civilian casualties. Senegalese troops in Guinea Bissau were accused of torturing and raping civilians; even South African troops in Lesotho were accused of rape and of causing unnecessary civilian deaths.

The African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights did no better than its parent body, the OAU, failing even to adopt hard-hitting resolutions in the face of the major human rights violations facing the continent. The commission continued to postpone taking decisions on cases brought before it from Nigeria, including applications relating to the trial and execution of minority rights leader Ken Saro-Wiwa that were filed before his execution in November 1995. There were rumors that the commission would even decide not to rule on these cases at its October 1998 session, on the basis that the changed situation in Nigeria made them no longer relevant, shirking its responsibility to interpret the African Charter. The commission’s special rapporteur on prison conditions, Professor Victor Dankwa of Ghana, visited prisons in several countries, with some positive effects. Otherwise, although individual commissioners did some work in terms of human rights promotion and education, the commission as a whole continued to be too timid to challenge governments on their records.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)
The ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), set up to intervene in Liberia’s civil war, continued to expand its operations, while ECOWAS also discussed but failed to reach agreement on the institution of a permanent subregional peacekeeping force.

Following the 1997 coup in Sierra Leone, the OAU called on ECOWAS to help restore constitutional order to Sierra Leone. With the failure of diplomatic efforts and the escalation of tension, ECOMOG’s mandate was upgraded from sanctions enforcement to actual military intervention, resulting in the ousting the leaders of the previous year’s coup in February 1998. The ECOMOG contingent in Sierra Leone was composed of approximately 5,000 troops, predominantly Nigerian with support from other west African states.

While residents of Freetown and Sierra Leonean refugees expressed gratitude for ECOMOG’s role in returning the democratically elected president to power. Some ECOMOG operations, particularly its attack on Freetown, led to a high number of civilian casualties. ECOMOG received significant praise for its role in Sierra Leone, and for significant improvements in its conduct since its intervention in Liberia. ECOMOG also evacuated dozens of war victims via helicopter and road, saving many civilian lives. From February through May, however, ECOMOG commandeering of humanitarian vehicles was blatant and prevalent.

ECOWAS was also involved in attempts to resolve the crisis in Guinea Bissau, though its role was much more low key. Together with the Community of Portuguese-Speaking States, ECOWAS mediated a ceasefire agreement on August 25. However follow-up talks mediated by ECOWAS collapsed on September 16. ECOWAS, in particular Senegal, reportedly pressed for a peacekeeping force. Senegal wanted, at minimum, a buffer zone between Guinea Bissau and its rebellious province of Casamance, and also made a bid for a major role in a peacekeeping force. The community of Portuguese-speaking states rejected both the concepts of an international peacekeeping force across the country and specifically a buffer along the border between Senegal and Guinea Bissau.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC)
It was a difficult year for SADC. The war in the DRC brought a conflict over policy and strategy regarding intervention, which dealt a body blow to the aspirations of SADC to develop a credible subregional conflict management mechanism. Following an August meeting in Zimbabwe of SADC defense officials, Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia dispatched troops and equipment to Congo. President Mandela of South Africa, currently chair of SADC, strongly opposed the decision, arguing that a central principle of SADC’s Organ for Politics, Defense and Security, established in 1996, had been violated. It stated: “military intervention of whatever nature shall be decided upon only after all possible political remedies have been exhausted.”

The disagreement immediately began to spill out in the open and a debate over the future of the organization ensued. Lines were quickly drawn for a battle that pitted Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia against South Africa, supported by Botswana, with both sides claiming to be the true custodians of the legitimate objectives and interests of SADC. In particular President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, chair of the SADC Organ, who had apparently resented President Mandela’s international stature for some time, challenged South Africa for the dominant role. Mugabe shunted aside a call from Mandela for a peaceful solution to the Congo conflict. Plans for regional security seemed to be in disarray. At the next SADC annual meeting in Mauritius the summit communiqué “commended the Governments of Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe for timeously providing troops to assist the Government and the people of the DRC defeat the illegal attempt by rebels and their allies to capture the capital city Kinshasa and other strategic areas.”

Surprisingly, considering its position on intervention in the DRC, South Africa led a SADC-endorsed intervention in Lesotho to rescue the government from opposition challenges to its legitimacy following disputed May elections. A SADC-sponsored independent report had criticized the way the poll had been run but stopped short of calling it fraudulent, saying that “apparent irregularities and discrepancies are sufficiently serious concerns.” That however proved inadequate to mollify the opposition which intensified its civil disobedience tactics to force the government to step down. Stating that they feared a military coup, South Africa and Botswana staged a disastrous military intervention on behalf of SADC, during which Lesotho’s capital, Maseru, was comprehensively looted by civilians taking advantage of the temporary power vacuum, and the government and the opposition agreed to a new poll within twelve to fifteen months. South Africa, in justification of its action, cited SADC principles—in the same way as Mugabe and his allies had done in the case of their intervention on Congo. The botched intervention, which took several days to secure the capital, Maseru, and the resulting widespread looting of the city, was bitterly attacked by the opposition in Lesotho, and heavily criticized in South Africa itself. While fresh elections were agreed on, the basic divisions within Basotho politics had been widened, not narrowed.

The problems within SADC and the Lesotho intervention brought into focus the disappointing role of South Africa in continental conflict resolution in general and human rights protection in particular. South Africa had the required diplomatic andmilitary resources, but these were time and again squandered. Although South Africa played an important role in several international initiatives supportive of human rights, including the Ottawa landmine treaty, the International Criminal Court, and the early stages of the campaign to ban the recruitment of child soldiers, its touch was much less sure when faced with African crises. As a result, despite Mandela’s acclaimed role on the world stage, South Africa had still to establish a distinguished record for leadership or as a consequential and dogged exporter of human rights ideas and practices.

The InterGovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)
IGAD (composed of Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti) sponsored peace negotiations in May and August between the government of Sudan and the largest rebel army, the SPLA, but no settlement resulted. The parties remained deadlocked on the role of religion in the state and the geographical scope of a self-determination referendum.




The Democratic Republic of Congo







Sierra Leone

South Africa





Stop the Use of Child Soldiers

Abduction and Enslavement of Ugandan Children

Human Rights Causes of the Famine in Sudan


Copyright © 1999
Human RIghts Watch