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Letter to African Union Commission Chairperson Jean Ping on the 16th AU Summit

H.E. Dr. Jean Ping
Chairperson, African Union Commission
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Your Excellency,

As the African Union (AU) meets for its 16th ordinary summit in Addis Ababa, Human Rights Watch joins other international friends of Africa in supporting the focus on "shared values" in Africa.

We welcome the AU's adoption of democratic governance and human rights, among others, as shared values. The real test will be the extent to which it can translate that vision into concrete actions and far-reaching change to promote and protect human rights in Africa. In this regard, we welcome the AU's decision to make human rights issues central to resolving the recent crises in Guinea, Tunisia, and Côte d'Ivoire. We also welcome the AU's plan to table an "Africa human rights strategy" during the summit.

Together, these undertakings show that many in Africa strongly support the universality of fundamental rights - in line with the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They rightly reject the arguments of those who seek to portray fundamental rights as some kind of "Western import."

Human Rights Watch hopes to see the debate on democratic governance focus on elections that have been overshadowed by violence and repression. As Africa enters another intensive year of elections, it is vital to send an unambiguous signal about the need to respect the rights of citizens during elections, most notably freedom of expression and assembly.

We also hope to see renewed effort to tackle the worst violators of international humanitarian law, such as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), whose campaign of atrocities threatens civilians in several African countries. Lastly, the AU summit offers a unique opportunity to reaffirm Africa's commitment to "rejection of impunity," as another core "shared value."

Flawed and violent elections

As the African Union increasingly promotes "democratic governance" as a shared value, Human Rights Watch hopes that it will continue to focus on preventing - and resolving - serious human rights crises linked to flawed elections. The ongoing crisis in Côte d'Ivoire highlights some of the challenges the AU may face in other elections. As Human Rights Watch has documented, the Ivoirian crisis has seen a series of abductions, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in recent weeks, especially aimed at perceived Gbagbo opponents. Unfortunately, the instigators of the violence in Côte d'Ivoire may have drawn encouragement from flawed elections elsewhere in Africa, such as the presidential elections in Kenya in December 2007 and Zimbabwe in March 2008. It is vitally important that the AU strongly opposes those who use such methods to cling to power.

While recent successful elections in Ghana, South Africa and Mauritius are cause for celebration, a number of others were marred by ruling parties that significantly narrowed political space and enacted pernicious laws to legitimize repression of dissent. The result has been the de facto imposition of one-party systems. The general elections in 2010 in Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Burundi are cases in point, and, in this light, the run-up to elections next month in Uganda gives increasing cause for concern.

Human Rights Watch appreciates the AU's willingness to deploy election observer teams to African countries holding elections.  Election observer teams can play a positive role in helping to avert situations of fraud and violence; but the AU's role in elections could be more strategic, for example, by developing detailed contingency plans in case of significant violence or repression.

Such plans could also include a multi-layered country assessment component whereby the AU consults with the governments of "countries of concern" ahead of the planned elections, conducts an independent election and human rights needs assessment, and provides regular performance evaluations highlighting progress on such issues as legal and institutional reforms in the period leading up to the polls. This kind of approach could assist the AU to develop civilian protection plans and mobilize partners to help preempt and prevent repression and violence. 

The LRA threat

As the AU reviews the state of peace and security on the continent, Human Rights Watch urges heads of state to revisit the LRA issue. There is an urgent need to refine the role of the AU in ending LRA atrocities, while ensuring the protection of communities that continue to suffer from LRA attacks, as well as those abducted by the group.

The LRA has been killing civilians and abducting children at an alarming rate in recent years. The abducted children are exposed to brutal violence and sexual enslavement. Pushed out of northern Uganda in 2005, the LRA now operates in the remote border area between Southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the Central African Republic (CAR). 

Human Rights Watch is gravely concerned about ongoing attacks on civilians and the wide-scale abduction of children and adults in the DRC, Southern Sudan and the CAR. We estimate that around 2,000 civilians have been killed by the LRA in northeastern DRC since 2008 and that a further 2,300 have been abducted, including many children. Hundreds of others have been killed and abducted in CAR and Southern Sudan in the same time period. Nearly 350,000 people have been displaced in the three countries, many without access to humanitarian assistance. These latest victims need to be added to the tens of thousands of victims of LRA violence in northern Uganda since the late 1980s.

In September 2005, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for LRA leader Joseph Kony and four other senior LRA figures, including Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen. They are charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder, rape, sexual slavery, and the enlisting of children as combatants. (Two of the LRA's leaders subject to ICC arrest warrants - Vincent Otti and Raska Lukwiya - are now dead.) 

In December 2008, the governments of the region, led by the Ugandan armed forces and with intelligence and logistical support from the United States, began a military campaign against the LRA in northeastern Congo, Operation Lightning Thunder, with the avowed aim of ending the insurgency in one thrust. But the military campaign has failed to end LRA abuses or to apprehend the LRA's leaders. In November 2010, the US government released a new strategy on tackling the problem of the LRA, articulated around four strategic objectives, namely to (1) increase protection of civilians; (2) apprehend or remove from the battlefield Joseph Kony and senior commanders; (3) promote the defection, disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of remaining LRA fighters; and (4) increase humanitarian access and provide continued relief to affected communities. But it remains to be seen how effective this strategy will be and whether it marks a real "step-change" on previous approaches.

Last October, the AU agreed on an action plan with the four affected countries, which included the creation of an AU-backed joint brigade.  According to the agreement, this brigade would carry out joint border patrols and cross-border operations.  Human Rights Watch hopes the AU will continue to invest sustained energy in this issue, while ensuring that risks to civilians from any military operations are minimized.

Impunity for serious international crimes

The AU's rejection of impunity for grave international crimes is clearly articulated in its founding Constitutive Act. Justice for victims of grave human rights violations and the rejection of impunity, as articulated by Article 4 of the Act, thus represents a core "shared value" across Africa. African states were also a driving force behind the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the first ever permanent international tribunal mandated to ensure that justice will be done when national courts are unwilling or unable to do so. Today, the 31 African countries that are party to the ICC's Rome Statute are the largest regional grouping of ICC states parties.

However, we are concerned at the AU's calls, at its July 2009 and 2010 summits, for all its members, including ICC states parties, not to cooperate with the ICC in arresting Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, for whom the court has issued two arrest warrants. While there are justifiable concerns within the AU about supporting Sudan through its current transition, the AU's calls were a setback to ensuring justice for victims of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in Darfur.

Recent media reports now suggest that some Kenyan officials may be seeking AU backing against the ICC's investigation into crimes committed in Kenya following the 2007 elections. Presumably, these reports are linked to the ICC prosecutor's request to ICC judges, in December 2010, to issue formal summonses against six high-level Kenyan officials for their alleged role in crimes against humanity following those elections. For the AU to remain true to its principles of fighting impunity, it should strongly reject any initiative that seeks a precedent that actually entrenches impunity.

Another issue of great concern is the case against the former dictator of Chad, Hissène Habré, for crimes in violation of international law. In July 2006, the AU mandated Senegal to try Habré "on behalf of Africa," but Senegal delayed for four years as it requested funding. In November 2010, a successful donors' meeting  resulted in pledges to cover the entire budget but Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade then announced that he was "returning" the case to the AU because an ECOWAS court ruled that Senegal needed to try Habré before a special court.  On January 12, 2011, the AU Commissioner for Peace and Security, Ambassador Ramtane Lamamra, presented Senegal with a plan to create a special court within the Senegalese justice system with two judges appointed by the AU. The Summit should endorse this plan and give a deadline to Senegal to move forward in a case that has lingered for 20 years as survivors of Habré's regime die off.

Human Rights Watch hopes that the AU summit - and the union's individual members - will send a strong message that grave abuses, whether of the past, present, or future, will be investigated and their perpetrators prosecuted. Consistent with the African "shared values" of promoting human rights and fighting impunity, the AU needs to stand by the victims of grave human rights violations and call for justice to be done.

For our part, Human Rights Watch stands ready to support AU efforts to promote Africa's shared values and to develop and implement the new "Africa human rights strategy." We will continue to engage in regular dialogue with your officials, and to assist in any way we can to successfully implement the AU's human rights vision as articulated in the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

We wish you a productive summit.

Sincerely,
Aloys Habimana,
Deputy Director
Africa Division, Human Rights Watch

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