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Defending Human Rights

The human rights movement continued to register significant strides across the continent, although there were variations in the environments in which they operated. Many countries continued to liken human rights advocacy by local NGOs to disloyal political opposition or collaboration with those fighting the government of the day.

In several countries, including DRC, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Liberia, and Ethiopia, individual activists faced intimidation, arrest, assault, and sometimes death for their advocacy of human rights. The risk that rights defenders faced was underscored on August 24 when Fr. John Kaiser, a well-known human rights activist in Kenya, was brutally murdered at night by unidentified persons some fifty miles outside Nairobi. A Catholic parish priest in the Rift Valley area and a U.S. citizen, Father Kaiser had worked in Kenya for thirty-six years and had been an outspoken human rights activist. In 1999, the Law Society of Kenya had honored Father Kaiser with its annual human rights award.

The DRC continued to be one of the most dangerous places for human rights activists. The government in late May detained for weeks Félicien Malanda Nsumbu and Georges Kazimbika, respectively the secretary and financial officer of the national umbrella group for developmental organizations, and accused them of contacting the rebels. In early June, the government prevented representatives of civil society and the political opposition from leaving the capital to attend preparatory talks for the inter-Congolese dialogue in Cotonou, Benin. On January 16, security forces of the RCD arrested at her home Immaculée Birhaheka, president of the women's group Promotion and Support of Women's Initiatives (PAIF), and her colleague Jeannine Mukanirwa, PAIF's vice president. The two, and other women held like them at the infamous "Bureau 2" detention center in Goma, were whipped with a piece of tire. On October 9, RCD soldiers broke up a meeting held by the umbrella group for human rights organizations in Bukavu. Congolese and Rwandan soldiers beat them with sticks and fists in front of a big crowd. The rights groups were planning to discuss follow-up activities to the previous week's visit to eastern DRC of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson.

President Charles Taylor of Liberia and other high-ranking government officials also continued to attack human rights groups for publicizing abuses and blamed the human rights community for the withholding of international aid. In December, 1999, James D. Torh, the executive director of a child-rights organization, Fore-Runners of Children's Universal Development, was detained and charged with sedition for a speech he made. Torh was denied bail for five days and upon release, he fled the country. In Namibia, a Zambian-born human rights activist and a founder member and executive of the Namibian Society for Human Rights who had lived in Namibia for sixteen years was on February 21 expelled by immigration officials because of his alleged support for Caprivi secessionists.

But in Nigeria, numerous and sophisticated human rights groups were able to operate freely throughout the year. The human rights movement, long recognized as the one of the most vibrant networks on the continent, strengthened its advocacy-to the extent that its legislative and reform program was vastly more ambitious than that of the government. In South Africa too, activists continued to operate in anenvironment of freedom. Occasional government hostility to NGO criticism was neutralized by strong collaboration in government-NGO partnerships elsewhere.

There was also some encouraging news from countries whose dedicated human rights networks operated in less than favorable circumstances. In Rwanda, the League for Promoting and Defending Human Rights (La Ligue Rwandaise pour la Promotion et la Défense des Droits de l'Homme, LIPRODHOR) monitored judicial proceedings related to the genocide and made plans to observe a new alternative justice process set to begin operating early in 2001. The Association for the Defense of Human Rights and Public Liberties (Association pour la Défense des Droits Humains et des Libértés Publiques, ADL) executed a useful study of villagization, a government policy of forced resettlement of the rural population. The League for the Defense of Human Rights of the Great Lakes (La Ligue des Associations de Défense des Droits de l'homme des Grands Lacs, LDGL) initiated a campaign among its member organizations to end impunity in the region and to extend the mandate of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, as did the Burundian Ligue Iteka. The Burundian Association for the Defense of Prisoners did the first nation-wide census of persons jailed in national prisons and secured the release of prisoners who had already served their terms and yet remained in jail.

In an environment which was not known for tolerance of independent monitoring, the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) continued to report on the human rights situation in the country. Several civic organizations, including EHRCO, the Ethiopian Economic Association, the Inter-Africa Group, and the Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce convened panel discussions that allowed ruling party and opposition candidates to air their programs before urban voters, mainly in the capital. The Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association conducted training for women candidates. Progress was registered toward the establishment in Ethiopia of national institutions and an international presence for the protection and promotion of human rights. The outgoing parliament in July unanimously approved bills establishing the Ethiopian human rights commission and the office of the ombudsman.  However, the government continued to deny recognition to the Human Rights League, which was founded in 1997 by members of the Oromo community. The government arrested eight board members of the league shortly after they applied for registration of the association, and confiscated its office records and equipment in 1998. Garuma Bekele, executive secretary of the league, and also editor of Urji, and Addisu Beyene, secretary of the Oromo Relief Association and prominent rights advocate, together with some fifty other prominent Oromo civic leaders, remained in jail since their arrest in October 1997. Their trial for conspiracy continued in camera. Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said during a visit in October that her agency planned to open a regional office in Addis Ababa to work with the countries of the Horn of Africa and the OAU.

Organization of African Unity

As countries in Africa continued to erupt in violence, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) once again failed to rise to the challenge of effectively dealing with issues of stability and democracy throughout the continent. Through measures taken at several summits, the OAU attempted to become a more proactive, unified body; however, its efforts were undermined by decisions which called into question its commitment to democracy and stability. Working mostly in tardy reaction to crisis situations, the OAU found its actions largely futile in solving the civil strife in many countries. The one exception, the OAU's success story for the year, was the cessation of hostilities agreement which helped halt the two-year war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, with a June 18 agreement to end hostilities and work out a final settlement. The cease-fire, which was a product of OAU intervention, consisted of detailed plans to disengage the two armies and to allow a U.N. peacekeeping force to patrol parts of the established buffer zone. As part of its efforts to oversee the agreement's implementation, the OAU sent military observers in September to monitor the cessation of hostilities.

In countries like the DRC, Comoros, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast, the OAU's presence was either not very visible or for the most part ignored. In April, leaders of European and African states met under the auspices of the European Union (E.U.) and the OAU in Cairo. In the first summit of its kind, participants discussed human rights, good governance, trade, illegal arms, debt relief, and other issues. A Civil Society Forum scheduled to take place prior to the summit was blocked at the last minute. Convened by the North-South Center, the gathering was moved to Libson, which diminished its potential impact on the summit. The OAU's apparent silencing of civil society groups weakened its credibility as an organization committed to the promotion of democracy. African nations had hoped to make economic issues a priority at the conference, particularly the issue of debt relief. The E.U. decided to remove trade barriers to Africa, but refused to establish new measures to address Africa's burgeoning debt. The summit resulted in the 110-point Cairo Declaration, which included an affirmation of the promotion of human rights, but no new initiatives for their protection.

The thirty-sixth annual OAU summit held in Lomé, Togo, in July symbolized the organization's desire to move toward greater unity despite deep divisions. During a summit in Syrte, Libya, the previous year, the OAU issued a declaration committing itself to the establishment of an African union. The aims of the union included the promotion of stability, political and economic integration, and solidarity between countries. Twenty-seven of the thirty-three member states that attended the Lomé summit signed a draft of the African Union Treaty, and it was expected that two-thirds of OAU member states would have ratified the treaty by the next year's summit. This step toward greater unity was however overshadowed by several countries' boycott of the summit. Angola's president, José Eduardo dos Santos, asked that the summit's venue be moved to Addis Ababa after Togolese President Gnassingbe Eyadema was implicated in diamond and arms trafficking with UNITA by a U.N. report. As host of the summit, Eyadema stood to inherit the chair of the OAU for the upcoming year. Ignoring both Angola's request and a recommendation by Robert Fowler, head of the Security Council sanctions committee, to avoid holding conferences in sanctions-busting states, the OAU decided to keep the summit in Togo. Namibia and the DRC expressed solidarity with Angola and also boycotted the summit. During the summit, OAU members extended support for the efforts of the Angolan government to restore peace, while condemning UNITA for its violent actions in Angola.

The summit sought to address current crises as well as those from the past. Initiatives were proposed to investigate the illegal trade of conflict diamonds and the resumption of fighting in Sierra Leone. A mini-summit was held among West African leaders, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and the executive secretary of ECOWAS to discuss the continuing hostilities in Sierra Leone. The absence of Angola, the DRC, and Namibia prevented a mini-summit from being held to discuss the conflict in the DRC. The OAU members also voted to enact a maritime blockade on Anjouan to discourage its secession efforts from the Comoros. Perhaps grabbing the most international attention was a report released by the OAU's International Panel of Eminent Personalities demanding the payment of "significant reparations" by countries that failed to prevent the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Belgium, France, and the United States were specifically mentioned as guilty of inaction,along with the U.N. Security Council. The report also called for attention to alleged war crimes by the Rwandan Patriotic Front during the genocide.

In many countries in Africa, the OAU's efforts to restore peace and stability had little or no result. In 1999, OAU Secretary General Salim Ahmed Salim had "morally guaranteed" the Lomé peace agreement for Sierra Leone, which included a blanket amnesty for all abuses committed prior to its conclusion. Since then, the agreement had been torn to shreds as fighting had resumed and human rights abuses were rampant. In June, the OAU named a special envoy to Sierra Leone in hopes of enhancing its efforts to end the conflict. A delegation in Freetown pressed for a cease-fire but President Kabbah stated he would not comply until the rebels had returned the areas seized since the signing of the Lomé Accord. Since many of these areas include diamond mines, the fighting continued with no signs of stopping. In August, OAU chair Gnassingbe Eyadema called for a change in the U.N. monitoring force's mandate from one of peace enforcement to peacekeeping. The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights sent a delegation led by the commission's chair, EVO Dankwa of Ghana, to Freetown in February 2000, after strong lobbying from NGOs attending the commission's October 1999 session in Kigali. The delegation, continuing a tradition of ineffective missions by the OAU organ, met with no victims and almost no local human rights groups, did not go outside of Freetown, and produced no written report of its findings or recommendations.

After leaving the construction and implementation of the Lusaka Accord for the DRC in the hands of Zambian President Chiluba, who was representing the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the OAU appointed Sir Ketumile Masire to be the facilitator of an internal dialogue on the future of the DRC. Throughout the year, the accord was repeatedly violated and an internal dialogue never materialized. President Laurent Kabila rejected Masire on the grounds he was biased toward rebel groups. Despite the OAU's repeated calls for a cease-fire, all parties continued to engage in fighting. After a regional leaders' summit sponsored by SADC was held in August, Kabila suspended the implementation of the peace accord and called for direct negotiations with Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi, to be overseen by the U.N. and OAU. At this writing, no movement had been made in that direction.

The situation in the Comoros provided an excellent example of the OAU's efforts being largely ignored. The OAU had sought to defuse the Anjouan island secession crisis in the Indian Ocean republic for three years. In April 1999, Colonel Azali Assoumani staged a bloodless coup and established a military government. Assoumani refused to hold elections until the secession attempt was ended. The OAU repeatedly criticized the coup and Assoumani's unwillingness to hold democratic elections. Early in the year, the OAU increased pressure on Anjouan separatists by enacting a travel embargo and freezing the financial assets of the leaders. Assoumani asserted that the OAU had failed to resolve the crisis and Comorans could find a solution themselves. In August, the military government and Anjouan separatists held talks, which resulted in an agreement ending the secession attempt. The OAU criticized the agreement because its formation did not include the input of a majority of the Comoran people, and failed to adhere to the framework established by the 1999 OAU brokered reunification accord. Despite OAU condemnation of the agreement for threatening the unity of the Comoros, the military regime and Anjouan separatists called for the OAU to lift its trade and travel embargo.

The OAU condemned General Robert Guei's coup in Côte d'Ivoire and called for elected president Henri Konan Bedie to be reinstated. Guei refused to step down, but declared that elections would be held in October. Staying true to its decision that military juntas would not be allowed to participate in the OAU, Guei was banned from this year's summit. At its summit in July, the OAU created the "Group of Ten" to ensure that the upcoming governmental transition in the Côte d'Ivoire was peaceful. The group consisted of Togo, South Africa, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Gabon, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal. At the end of September, the Group of Ten called upon Guei and the leaders of political parties to form a National Transitional Council to guide the country toward peaceful elections. The OAU also requested that presidential elections be postponed until legislative elections had taken place. There were mixed reactions to the group's proposal among the political leaders in Côte d'Ivoire. As of this writing, the OAU's requests remained ignored.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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