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The Role of the International Community
Africa remained overshadowed by events elsewhere. Tragedies such as those in Burundi, the DRC, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, and Sudan largely escaped the attention of the international community. Atrocities against civilians in these countries and their serious human rights and humanitarian implications were hardly on the radar screens of key strata in the international community. When they did finally raise a limited level of awareness, it merely provoked the dispatch of roving envoys to the region and the convening of high profile conferences with little or no follow-up to address and ameliorate the dire human rights and humanitarian situation. Clear and consistent messages on human rights were the exception. When positive changes occurred, for example a significantly improved political climate in Nigeria, it was hardly an outcome deliberately and consistently pursued for which the international community could claim credit.

Overall levels of aid to the African continent remained low, despite its poverty and need. At the same time, the international community, except in a few instances, stubbornly resisted the consistent application of aid conditionality and trade penalties as a way of encouraging African countries toward democracy and human rights. Such resistance was based on a mistaken assessment that trade liberalization and free enterprise policies were more important and sufficient in themselves to bring about other necessary reforms, even without any robust human rights angle. It was argued that continued aid to repressive governments was a tool that allowed the international community to have a positive influence on recipient regimes. The evidence suggested the contrary—that unconditional aid kept repressive regimes in power and immunized them from pressure for reforms; and also that the stability that was a prerequisite for economic development remained unattainable without fundamental political change and respect for the rule of law. In Kenya, international pressure to crack down on corruption was undermined by the lack of an independent judiciary and an unchecked executive.

Appeals for international humanitarian intervention in the crises of 1998 were answered at best by words of encouragement to African mediation efforts and at worst by callous aloofness. The promotion of “African solutions to African problems” continued to allow the international community to relinquish its responsibility for addressing conflict on the continent; an excuse all the more welcome to those anxious to shed cold war and colonial responsibilities. At the same time, the international community was too inclined to approve flawed electoral exercises—for example in Lesotho—turning a blind eye to abuses that amounted to tacit complicity and contributed to later crises. Similarly, bilateral donors and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights were eager to provide support and technical advice for national human rights commissions, but often without sustained follow-up to ensure that these bodies carried out their responsibilities effectively.

The United Nations
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan appeared to be on a major public relations offensive for the U.N.’s African programs, addressing Africa-related issues in major speeches and undertaking visits to a number of African destinations. He appeared to be seeking to reshape his own image and that of the U.N. as an engaged, caring, and effective development and conflict resolution institution; aiming to rescue the U.N.’s severely tarnished reputation following the 1994 Rwandan genocide and its aftermath. However, it was evident that without stronger political will on behalf of U.N. members to turn around the situation in Africa, and if necessary to invest more resources, Annan’s efforts would be not better than those of his predecessors.

Two major reports to the Security Council were delivered, one on the general African crisis and the other on the massacre of thousands of Hutu refugees in the DRC during 1997. In his report on the African crisis, Secretary-General Annan laid the blame for the civil wars and economic failures that continued to ravage African lives largely on Africans. He challenged Africa to address the root causes of conflict: “Where there is insufficient accountability of leaders, lack of transparency in regimes, inadequate checks and balances, non-adherence to the rule of law, absence of peaceful means to change or replace leadership, or lack of respect for human rights, political control becomes excessively important and the stakes become dangerously high.” While acknowledging that African peacekeeping and mediation efforts had become more significant in recent times, he also decried the inadequate responses from the Security Council to African crises contending that “No one—not the U.N., not the international community—could escape the responsibility for the persistence of African conflicts.”

The secretary-general’s report presented a strategic assessment which should have led to a much more radical conclusion. Thereview approached the state of the African continent with commendable frankness; but unfortunately, for political reasons, the secretary-general’s recommendations were vague and unhelpful. If Annan’s strategic assessment of the desperate state of Africa was correct, there was need for a more radical response from the U.N. than that proposed. The review promised better support from the U.N. to African regional bodies and governments, and emphasized cooperation between the same bodies. More specifically, he urged the introduction of better coordination of peacekeeping and related exercises. Annan appeared to have premised his report on major assumptions. First, the existence of viable African collective mechanisms for conflict resolution, largely ignoring their institutional paralysis and inadequacy of resources. Second, that the international community could afford to respond to African issues at a leisurely pace. Third, that security problems and concerns had few or no repercussions on the rest of the globe—yet another manifestation of retreat from Africa by the international community. In sum, the U.N. did not seem prepared to take any real action to address the human rights crises in Africa.

The other major report presented by the secretary-general to the Security Council during 1998 showed once again the extent to which effective action by the U.N. is dependent on the commitment of its member states, especially the “permanent five” members of the council. During 1998, the U.N. aborted its most ambitious human rights investigative mission in Africa, the Secretary General’s Investigative Team (SGIT) into the alleged massacres of Hutu refugees in the DRC during 1997, after the team had been persistently blocked by the Kabila government from examination of massacre sites. Secretary-General Annan pledged in pulling the team out from the Congo that “the search for the truth will continue through other means” and presented the report of the SGIT to the Security Council. The council faced a critical choice: would it authorize a renewed inquiry to discover the truth behind horrific massacres, or would it allow the killers to remain unidentified and unpunished? The Security Council had been expected to follow the SGIT’s recommendation and strike a blow against the cycle of impunity in the region by allowing the probe. Instead of seizing that opportunity to reinforce the moral and principled tenor of the secretary-general’s report to the Security Council, it reconfirmed its previous disinclinations to become involved in solutions to African crises. The U.N. statement condemned massacres and other crimes against humanity committed in 1996-97 in the former Zaire, currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), but it stopped short of authorizing an independent investigation and prosecution of those responsible for these crimes.

Rather, it simply called on the Congolese and Rwandan governments to investigate and prosecute their own officials, a futile gesture. Both governments had already failed to cooperate with previous U.N. probes of these crimes. The response sent a feeble signal about the Security Council’s willingness to stamp out human rights abuses. Despite the secretary-general’s rhetoric about the U.N. turning a new leaf on its approaches to Africa human rights crises, the Security Council opted for a weak and ineffective option.

There were some other attempts to increase the profile of African affairs on the international stage: on July 29, the U.N. Department of Political Affairs organized an all-day Special Conference on Sierra Leone, chaired by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to solicit support for the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration program; humanitarian and rehabilitation needs; and ECOMOG. High-level delegations to the conference drew attention to the horrific human rights situation in Sierra Leone, but failed to offer concrete support for human rights initiatives.

An urgent need not addressed during 1998, but highlighted by the events in Africa, was the formalization of standards for regional peacekeeping. Under Chapter VIII of the U.N. charter, regional organizations are permitted to take coercive action to address threats to international peace and security, though whether such regional action requires Security Council approval is subject to debate. The interventions by ECOMOG, SADC and individual countries reinforced the need for the U.N. to define more clearly the lines of authority between the U.N. and regional interventions, for status of forces agreements governing the interaction of the various bodies to be part of the operations prior to any intervention, for adequate funding to be pledged to allow for initiatives by trained professional to occur, for codes of conduct for intervention forces and for mechanisms to punish troops responsible for violations of human rights and humanitarian law.

European Union
Robust and consistent human rights-related messages from the E.U. were the exception rather than the rule, thanks to the lack of a common foreign policy and the heterogeneous national interests of member states. When action was taken it often amounted to no more than the lowest common denominator.

Nevertheless, during 1998 the E.U. did make some timely and critical interventions particularly in situations of humanitarian disasters. The E.U. issued several strong statements denouncing the human rights violations committed by the AFRC/RUF in Sierra Leone. On May 21, 1998, the E.U. and the U.S. Department of State issued a joint statement which urged all parties to call “an immediate end to the senseless slaughter, mutilation, and torture of the civilian population and show full respect for human rights.” In June, the E.U. and the U.S. sent a joint high-level assessment mission to the region led by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Julia Taft which resulted in financial pledges for humanitarian assistance in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. The E.U. in July was considering a U.S. $6.6 million global aid package for assistance in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, and pledged further aid to Sierra Leone.

Under the U.K. presidency, the E.U. issued a number of statements condemning abuses by General Abacha’s regime, including the unfair trial in April of soldiers and civilians implicated in yet another alleged coup plot. However, under French pressure, visa restrictions were “clarified” to allow the Nigerian soccer team to play in the 1998 World Cup, and to allow ministerial visits on “humanitarian” grounds. With the change in government, it was likely that all E.U. measures against Nigeria except an arms embargo would be lifted when they came to be considered in November.

In France, the National Assembly undertook an unprecedented four-month inquiry into alleged French links with the genocide in Rwanda. The inquiry set a new principle of official accountability for a country where foreign and military policy had been carriedout under the exclusive aegis of the president. It permitted most important military and civilian officials to testify behind closed doors, however, thus contributing little to public knowledge of the affair. Away from home, France, the biggest donor to Africa, pressed ahead with its plans to revise its policy. The revision had two dimensions: the abandonment of the traditional automatic political, diplomatic, and military protection to former colonies and diversification of contacts with Anglophone and Lusophone Africa. The shift was highlighted by a six-day visit by President Chirac to Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique, and Angola.

In the wake of the glaring orchestration of the June 21 Togolese election “victory” by President Gnassingbe Eyadema, France was tested in its new commitment not to support its “family” members at all costs. In sharp contrast to the French response to the 1997 Cameroonian election, when it made sure that the E.U. criticism remained soft, Paris reportedly overruled attempts by local French officials to mute an E.U. statement critical of the Togolese government. But one swallow does not make a summer. Although in early April the French cooperation minister criticized the Cameroon government’s imprisonment of journalist Pius Njawe, a month later, during a visit by President Biya to France, French President Chirac commended what he called an increase in stability and democratization. Chirac went on to tell the press that the case of Njawe was not a concern of France, but rather an “internal” Cameroonian matter.

Although the European Union (E.U.) endorsed an arms embargo on the Sudan government years ago, the African, Caribbean and Pacific states-European Union (ACP-E.U.) parliamentary assembly was only beginning to formulate a Code of Conduct for sanctions enforcement. In an April resolution, the ACP-EU Parliamentary Assembly called on the E.U. to maintain sanctions and not to resume development cooperation as long as the government of Sudan is in gross violation of human rights. The E.U. continued high levels of support for the relief effort.

The extent to which European foreign policy was often driven by commercial interests was emphasized by the E.U. scramble for oil related contracts in Sudan, including companies from the U.K., Austria, and Germany. Similarly in Nigeria, France flouted E.U. visa restrictions to allow General Abacha’s oil minister into the country for discussions with Elf and Total. Chirac’s visit to southern Africa had two main items on the agenda: establishment of a South African platform for French interests—specifically high technology and military sales—and cementing new commercial ties with Angola, especially Elf’s new role in the oil sector, at the same time as Elf’s near monopoly control of the oil sector in Gabon was being loosened.

United States Policy
In March, U.S. President Bill Clinton undertook an eleven-day visit to several African countries—Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Botswana, and Senegal—the most extensive visit to Africa ever undertaken by a U.S. president. In an effort to focus new attention on Africa, the Clinton administration aimed to incorporate African economies into the global market economy and to develop new partnerships based on mutual interests and mutual respect. The administration had identified certain African leaders, including those in the countries that Clinton visited and some of those invited to a heads of state summit in Entebbe, Uganda, as the key to that transformation and to the promotion of stability and good governance on the continent. In the case of Uganda, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, these were the same leaders that the U.S. considered to be its main partners in policies aimed at the containment of the Islamist government of Sudan. Despite less than satisfactory performances in achieving transparent, representative and competitive governance, Ethiopia and Eritrea, together with the government of Uganda, had been vaunted in official U.S. statements as harbingers of a new style of African leadership, offering new hopes from the continent, and bringing homegrown solutions to its problems. The dark sides of these leaders—intolerance, and repression of civil society and political opposition—were glossed over as growing pains that would be put right in due course. Clinton substituted sound bites for substance and strategy on human rights and failed to capitalize on the power of an American president to meet with prominent opposition leaders and speak directly to African audiences against human rights violations and about the advantages and opportunities of democracy. He did, however, meet with human rights activists and other civil society representatives in Dakar, hearing their views about U.S. policy on the continent.

By June 1998, the fundamental tenets of the U.S. strategy started to unravel and by year’s end, it had virtually collapsed under the pressure of events. Ethiopia and Eritrea, two of Washington’s closest allies and the brightest stars of the “new leaders” came to the brink of all-out war. By early 1998 Washington had become disgusted with the antics of President Kabila of the DRC, and increasingly distanced itself from his government. While the U.S. finally contributed to the World Bank Trust Fund for Congo, the events of 1998 meant that no one could any longer harbor illusions about the shortcomings of Kabila’s regime. With the renewed war in the DRC, the strategy of “African solutions for African problems” had lost significant force. Washington strategists desperately sought to contain the spreading fighting, some of it among parties that the U.S. had previously considered as key members of an alliance that would serve as a bulwark against African instability.

In Uganda and Rwanda, the U.S. remained close to President Museveni and Vice-President Kagame and muted public criticism of their actions. Although the U.S. continued to claim that they did not have much leverage, especially with Rwanda, it seemed clear to outside observers that the U.S. was the most important foreign power in that country. The U.S. could have used its influence to press for human rights improvements and specifically for restraint on the part of what seemed to be an increasingly erratic and adventurous government. Not surprisingly, its close identification with Rwandan and Ugandan governments led to substantial criticism of Washington among African leaders, especially those who were allied with Kabila, overtly and covertly.

U.S. policy toward Nigeria suffered from continuing confusion before the death of General Abacha, as Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Susan Rice and President Clinton uttered contradictory statements about the U.S. attitude to Abacha’s blatant attempts to succeed himself as a civilian president. U.S. oil companies lobbied hard for a soft line, and above all for no oil-related sanctions to be imposed. The death of Abacha rescued the U.S.—like the rest of the international community—from the policy impasse towards Nigeria and provided an important opportunity for the U.S. to exert its influence to ensure that the new transition programwas credible.

Just as the administration suffered general policy failures, so too specific initiatives seemed destined to misfire. The Africa Growth and Opportunity Bill, that sought to broaden trade and investment with the forty-eight countries of sub-Saharan Africa, was cleared by the House of Representatives at the beginning of March, just before Clinton’s Africa trip. Countries would be eligible for preferential treatment if they had moved toward democracy and free market economies. It was touted as a measure that underscored a fundamental shift in American trade relations with Africa by, among other things, favoring trade over aid. But the bill seemed to have come under intensive fire from a variety of powerful lobbies in a bid to kill it in the Senate. At the time of writing, the bill looked dead.

The other component of the Clinton policy on Africa, the African Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI), aimed at training a regional peacekeeping force, also looked to be in danger of falling by the wayside. It had been closely associated with the “African solutions for African problems” mantra in general and specifically with the “new leaders” bloc. In some people’s view, the lynchpins were supposed to be Uganda and Ethiopia. As the “new leaders” policy disintegrated, the effects were inevitably felt in the ACRI context. Training for Ethiopia was suspended, due to the conflict with Eritrea, and the second phase training for Uganda was postponed until August 1999, due to the Congo crisis.

U.S. policy toward Sudan continued to be to isolate the government on the stated grounds of its “support of terrorism” and its human rights abuses. The U.S. imposed almost total economic sanctions on Sudan by executive order in November 1997 and did not lift them, despite efforts by some U.S. companies to permit an import of gum arabic. The U.S. was not able to convince any allies to go along with these stringent sanctions, however, and many companies from western countries sought oil contracts to exploit resources near rebel territory in southern Sudan. The August 20 U.S. bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum illustrated the gulf between the two countries.

By year’s end, it seemed inevitable that the administration would be compelled to reconsider many of the positions it had staked out during the Clinton trip. It was no longer possible to cling to the illusion that states that disregarded human rights and democracy could build successful and prosperous societies or lead the region to peace.




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