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Letter to US Secretary of State Colin Powell Ahead of His Trip to Africa

Dear Mr. Secretary:

Human Rights Watch welcomes your forthcoming trip to Africa, and the focus that such a high-level visit will provide to the many pressing issues on the continent. Since the beginning of this administration, you have underscored the ongoing U.S. commitment to Africa, which has sent an important signal that the U.S. intends to remain engaged there. There are many challenges confronting U.S. policy in Africa, from curbing the flow of illicit weapons and resources to preventing genocide and crimes against humanity. In developing strategies to address these crises, we urge you to ensure that human rights concerns are effectively integrated into U.S. policy. The costs of ignoring human rights and accountability in Africa can be seen in terms of ongoing cycles of violence against civilians, huge refugee flows, destabilization of neighboring countries and economic devastation.

While in Africa and upon your return, we also urge you to speak out publicly about the crucial human rights issues. Targeted use of public diplomacy is an essential component of condemning human rights abuses by governments and rebel groups that has often been under-utilized by U.S. officials.

In preparation for your trip, we would like to raise a number of key issues that should be raised at each of your stops.

Mali - Sierra Leone Crisis

The stopover in Mali provides a platform to publicly raise issues relating to the crisis in Sierra Leone. As you are well aware, the conflict in Sierra Leone has been characterized by systematic atrocities against civilians. Accordingly, we are particularly concerned about the need to proceed swiftly to establish the Special Court for Sierra Leone as a means toward ending impunity and ensuring respect for the rule of law. The U.S. was instrumental in galvanizing the U.N. Security Council to support the court, but the process has slowed considerably in recent months and your direct engagement is required. Given that May 23 is the deadline set by the Secretary General for interested states to contribute to the U.N. trust fund, it is a critical moment for the U.S. to make a strong and public commitment to the court, reaffirming that there can be no impunity for perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity by any side to this conflict. While we understand your concerns relating to the budget assessment issued by the U.N. secretariat, we believe that the solution is for the U.S. to work actively with other donors to resolve the outstanding financial questions and move ahead with the establishment of an effective and efficient court. U.S. leadership on this issue is essential and would serve to encourage other member states to assist in financing the court.

Another area that requires attention involves U.S. training and equipping of seven West African (five Nigerian) battalions for peacekeeping duty in Sierra Leone. It is vital that the participating troops are thoroughly vetted, in accordance with the Leahy amendment which prohibits U.S. military assistance to units believed to be responsible for serious human rights abuses; and that the program includes effective training in international humanitarian and human rights law for all troops, an essential precondition to their deployment in such a difficult environment. Given that the Nigerian military has been responsible for serious abuses in Sierra Leone in January 1999, as well as atrocities in Nigeria itself, it is especially important that any U.S. training be accompanied by monitoring of their behavior in the field and efforts to ensure that any troops responsible for abuses will be held accountable. We therefore urge you to 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, which means that any increased U.S. military engagement must be carefully evaluated, based on an investigation into allegations of abuses by the Guinean armed forces, with mechanisms for monitoring and accountability ensured.

The regionalization of the conflict in Sierra Leone is a cause of great concern, highlighted by the ongoing arms flows into the country, incursions into neighboring territory by rebel and government forces, and the attacks against refugees in Guinea. In the past year, hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees in Guinea have fallen victim to violence by various state security forces and rebel groups at the border area. Many have been trapped in fighting at the border area for months without humanitarian assistance. Other refugees have been subjected to anti-refugee violence and harassment at the hands of Guineans who blame the refugees for the destabilization. Protection issues appear to have fallen far behind humanitarian assistance as a priority for UNHCR and most of its implementing partners. It is imperative that the U.S. provide greater financial assistance to UNHCR and the Guinean government to deal with the current refugee crisis, and that the U.S. play a strong role to ensure the protection of refugees in Guinea.

Mali is the current chair of the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS), which has been deeply involved in the conflicts in the subregion. While we recognize their efforts to facilitate peace in the region, we are nonetheless concerned that human rights issues are not high enough on their agenda. For example, in April l999 ECOWAS committed itself to conduct an investigation into serious abuses perpetrated by West African peacekeeping (ECOMOG) troops in Freetown during the January l999 rebel offensive. This investigation has yet to take place. In addition, two ECOWAS brokered ceasefire agreements between the government of Sierra Leone and Revolutionary United Front rebels, signed in Abuja in November 2000 and May 2001, lacked adequate focus on protection of civilians. We urge you to encourage ECOWAS to follow up on their commitments and make human rights concerns more central to their agenda.

South Africa

South Africa is a key country for the stability of the southern African region, and in particular has an important role to play in the international community's response to the current crisis in Zimbabwe. While President Mbeki has reportedly made behind-the-scenes representations to President Mugabe, he has not openly condemned the Zimbabwean government's mobilization of the so-called war veterans to visit arbitrary violence on those in the commercial farming sector (farmworkers and farm owners) and those criticizing government policy, including opposition activists. The US 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 SADC countries to do the same.

Kenya

Democratization is an ongoing area of concern in Kenya, and the government of President Daniel arap Moi continues to undermine prospects for the rule of law. Power remains concentrated in the presidency, there are insufficient checks on the executive branch, and there is a lack of accountability for government officials responsible for human rights abuses and corruption. The government continues to ban rallies by a pro-democracy coalition of opposition and civil society organizations called Muungano wa Mageuzi (Peoples Movement for Change).

Constitutional reform is a critical starting point towards genuine democratization in Kenya. Despite repeated promises by President Moi for years, the constitutional reform process remains unresolved. In May 2001, President Moi finally agreed to include broad-based civil society groups in the process. The recently passed law will create a twenty-seven-member Constitution Review Commission, with both parliamentary and civil society representatives, that will embark on the process of consulting Kenyans about the government they want. While this recent development is a good starting point, we urge the U.S. to pay continued attention to ensure that the new constitutional commission is able to complete its work without executive interference. We hope that you will speak out publicly to let Kenyans know that you consider that the outcome of this issue, which promises to grow in urgency with the national election's approach by 2002, to be a critical juncture in Kenya's history.

Sudan

While in Kenya, you will undoubtedly be focusing attention on 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 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, from bullets to tanks. Under the leadership of President (Lt. Gen.) Omar El Bashir, the government has intensified its bombing of civilian targets in the war, denied relief food to needy civilians, killed captured combatants, and abused children's rights, particularly through its military and logistical support for the Ugandan rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which holds an estimated 6,000 Ugandan children captive on government-controlled Sudanese territory. The government also arms and supports southern militias, which are responsible for serious abuses. As for the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), the principal armed movement, its forces continued to loot food (including relief provisions) from the population, sometimes with civilian casualties, and kill captured combatants. On both sides, impunity is the rule.

Before the U.S. considers any heightened engagement with the Sudan government, you should call on the government to take clear and concrete steps toward improving its human rights record, including: allowing complete access for the U.N. and humanitarian NGOs to rebel areas throughout the south, east, and the Nuba mountains; ceasing its flight bans throughout the war-affected areas; cooperating with the U.N. Human Rights Commission's mechanisms, including the special rapporteur for human rights in Sudan, and provide him full access to the country; and prosecuting those involved in the abduction, forced labor and slavery of women and children, a practice conducted almost entirely by government-backed and armed militia of the Baggara tribe in western Sudan and by Sudan army troops, and directed mostly at the population of Bahr El Ghazal.

With regard to southern Sudan, the factional fighting could widen into a devastating famine unless the U.S. intervenes diplomatically with rebel forces and others. We urge you to use U.S. leverage with both the Dinka and Nuer communities to head off what could become a bloody border war. Despite the complexity of the situation in southern Sudan, early and skillful U.S. diplomatic intervention could make a significant difference in sparing the lives of tens of thousands of civilians. The Nuer-Nuer fighting, a war within a war, for now overshadows the civil war in ferocity of fighting and cost in civilian lives. But it is also very integral to the civil war, in which the government has successfully used divide and conquer strategies to open up oil fields for foreign investors and aggravate ethnic tensions in the south.

Uganda

In the wake of Uganda's flawed presidential election in March, we have been concerned about arrests, harassment and violence against opposition supporters, and about numerous irregularities in the electoral process. In April, President Museveni refused to sign the Political Organizations Bill which was adopted by Parliament in February 2001, insisting that an even limited opening of the political system is out of the question. New legislation is being discussed that would restrict the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The proposed legislation enables the government to refuse to register an NGO if its objectives are "in contravention of any government policy or plan, or public interest". Not only does the proposed legislation give the government almost unlimited powers to interfere with NGOs, it also criminalizes NGO work by making NGOs and individuals liable to fines or imprisonment if they operate without authorization.

We urge you to use your visit to Uganda to press for freedom of expression and assembly and for the proposed laws restricting the freedom of NGOs to be changed accordingly. The US government should follow the campaign for the upcoming parliamentary elections closely and make clear that arrests, harassment or other attacks on parliamentary candidates and supporters will be condemned.

Ugandan-Occupied Areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Of particular concern is Uganda's role in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Ugandan military forces have played a decisive role in local affairs in the areas under their occupation. Within the context of the broader war and the continuing political conflicts, a small-scale dispute over land between Hema and Lendu peoples in northeastern DRC has grown in scale and intensity. The Hema were thought to enjoy general support from the Ugandans, attributed to a supposed ethnic bond between the Hema of the DRC and those of Uganda. From the first violence in June 1999 through early 2000, an estimated 7,000 persons were killed and another 150,000 were displaced. In the most recent incident of violence in January 2001, another 400 people were killed during one day of violence in Bunia and at least 30,000 people were forced to flee the region. 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, recruited and trained children to serve as soldiers. A recent U.N. report documented Uganda's role in the illicit exploitation of Congo's natural resources.

Uganda has long benefited from substantial U.S. support, not just because of its success in promoting economic development, but also because it offered assistance in curbing the power of Sudan. Throughout the crisis in the Congo, the U.S. has relied on "quiet diplomacy" to raise concerns about human rights with the Ugandan government. Although U.S. officials maintain that they have criticized Ugandan conduct in the DRC, including in meetings with President Museveni, they have shunned any negative comment that might embarrass the Ugandan government. In so doing, they have missed numerous opportunities to underline concerns about human rights abuses and to insist on accountability for them. We urge you to use your visit to Uganda to raise these concerns about human rights, the reported involved of Ugandan soldiers in war crimes in Congo, and Uganda's role in the resource exploitation. Your public posture on these issues could contribute to changing the perception of U.S. bias in the region.

We thank you for your attention to these important issues.

Sincerely,

Janet Fleischman 
Washington Director for Africa

cc: Ambassador Nancy Powell, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs 
Jendayi Frasier, Senior Director for Africa, National Security Council 
Bernd McConnell, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs

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