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Letter to African Union Chairperson Jean Ping on the 17th AU Summit

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

Your Excellency,

In advance of the 17th African Union Summit, scheduled for June 23- July 1, 2011 in Malabo, we are writing to provide input into the discussions that are due to take place around the main theme of the summit "Accelerating Youth Empowerment for Sustainable Development"; and other important points on the summit's agenda.

This summit comes after the recent adoption, by the African Union Commission, of the Africa Human Rights Strategy and comes just months after AU member states renewed their commitment to Africa's "shared values" including human rights. We hope to see the Malabo discussions build on this solid background and urge the delegates at the summit to consider the following points as they conduct their deliberations:

Empowerment of youth in Africa
The summit's focus on the situation of African youth as well as on strategies for their empowerment is welcome. But before we can hope to achieve empowerment, we must first address the serious human rights abuses that children suffer on the continent, and that prevent them from developing their potential to the fullest. These include:

  • Child labor: We have documented the exploitation of children in Africa, including the exploitation of child domestic workers (for e.g. in Morocco and Guinea), of child beggars known as talibés (in Senegal), of child laborers in artisanal mines (for e.g. in Mali and Zimbabwe), and of child soldiers (for e.g. in DR Congo and Chad). Many children are trafficked for the purpose of exploitation which also frequently impedes access to education and vocational training. This results in a lack of professional skills and poor access to the labor market.
  • Access to education:  We have documented a range of barriers to education in Africa, including discrimination, child abuse and neglect, and HIV-related issues (Kenya, South Africa, Uganda), child labor, and armed conflict (DR Congo, Somalia, Côte d'Ivoire). In a number of countries, girls suffer discrimination in accessing education and are obliged to work as domestic workers or are married under the age of eighteen, resulting in situations of vulnerability and abuse. Hundreds of thousands of girls also suffer from sexual abuse and are unable to seek redress. 

In order to address "child labor" concerns, AU member states have an opportunity at Malabo to adopt appropriate measures, including specific withdrawal programs, for purposes of ending all child labor.  The new ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers is an obvious example, as are "free lunch" and "social protection" programs on the issue of "access to education".  Access to education for girls could (and should) be made a priority; and this should extend to secondary education as well as vocational training. Lastly, the summit has an opportunity to urge governments to review their response mechanisms to situations of violence, trafficking and abuse and to improve the capacity of their judicial systems to respond to such situations.

Another area of great concern is reproductive health. Teenage pregnancies are very high, and many girls suffer from obstetric fistula. In addition, thousands die each year during pregnancy and childbirth because they get married early and lack access to life-saving healthcare. There is an overwhelming need in Africa to improve young people's access to basic reproductive health education and care, such as family planning information and services. For its part, the AU Commission could help focus attention on this issue by monitoring member states' implementation of the Maputo Plan of Action on Sexual and Reproductive Rights in Africa.

Peace and security challenges in Africa

Human Rights Watch commends the AU for its ongoing efforts to address the massive peace and security challenges facing the continent.  In order to ensure the sustainability of these peace-building efforts, however, greater attention is needed on the human rights dimensions of ongoing  crises and post-conflict situations.

Sudan
The situation in Sudan has sharply deteriorated over the past month, with the Khartoum government conducting aggressive military operations in Southern Kordofan and Abyei. The government's actions clearly violate of the terms of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement and have also resulted in serious human rights violations including the mass displacement of tens of thousands of civilians, indiscriminate killings, arbitrary arrests, and government bombing of civilian areas leading to civilian deaths and destruction of property.

Meanwhile in Darfur, government forces continue to clash with rebels and carry out attacks on civilian areas, including aerial bombardments, causing continued civilian death, injury and displacement.  Despite promises to provide accountability for human rights violations, Sudan has yet to convict any perpetrators of crimes committed during the conflict or make promised legal reforms that would enable effective prosecutions, and it continues to refuse to cooperate with the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Human Rights Watch has urged the African Union to press the Sudanese government to immediately stop its indiscriminate aerial bombing, rein in its forces and allied militia in Southern Kordofan, Abyei, and Darfur, and promote justice for human rights abuses committed. At Malabo, the AU has an opportunity to press the Sudanese government to allow UN peacekeepers and humanitarian organizations access to all affected areas and provide much-needed assistance, and allow UN human rights monitors to document the impact of the violence on civilians.  

The AU could also press Sudan to create "enabling conditions" for the next phase of the Darfur political Process (DPP), as the Peace and Security Council has already outlined.  The AU could monitor Sudan's fulfillment of enabling conditions by mandating the joint AU/UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) to monitor the conditions in Darfur based on clear benchmarks that include an end to indiscriminate bombings, an end to arbitrary arrests and detention of activists, journalists, and political opponents, the lifting of the state of emergency, and key reforms of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS).

Finally, the Malabo summit is the right place for AU member states to press Sudan to implement the recommendations of the AU's very own High level Panel on Darfur. These  envision wide ranging reforms to Sudan's national justice system and accountability for human rights violations.

Somalia
Fighting between the internationally-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces, African Union (AMISOM) troops and al-Shabaab in Mogadishu has continued almost unabated throughout 2011. Fighting has spread to the Gedo and Lower Juba regions amongst others. Violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law continue to be committed by all parties to the conflict, including indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas; and several parties to the conflict have committed extrajudicial killings of civilians notably al-Shabaab and Ahlu Sunna Wal-Jama'a, arbitrary arrests and detention, and forced recruitment. Use of civilians as human-shields by al-Shabaab persists and continues to prompt military responses by AMISOM and TFG that target civilian areas. Al-Shabaab is also responsible for widespread human rights and international humanitarian law violations- including acts of cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment, restrictions on freedom of association and movement, recruitment and use of child soldiers in areas under its control. Massive population displacement persists as a result of the conflict and drought within South and Central Somalia and into neighboring countries and regions. According to media reports approximately 10 000 new refugees have been arriving in Kenya each month since 2011.

The impunity that prevails in Somalia should not be allowed to continue. The Malabo summit has an opportunity to  stand up for the African victims of the conflict and press the UN Security Council to establish a UN Commission of Inquiry to map and document gross violations of human rights which have taken place in the conflict, and to lay the groundwork for the initiation of concrete accountability processes. 

In the meantime, all credible allegations of humanitarian law violations by AMISOM personnel should be investigated in a prompt, impartial and transparent manner and, where appropriate, action taken to hold those responsible to account. AMISOM could take the first step itself, by halting all use of mortars in populated areas of Mogadishu until effective procedures are put in place to ensure that their use complies with the principles of distinction and proportionality under international humanitarian law. In light of the summit's focus of empowering youth, the AU should ensure that draft AMISOM's standard operating procedures to deal with children who have escaped from al-Shabaab or have been captured by AMISOM/TFG, are amended to comply with international standards - notably that detention is used only as a measure of last resort and that the best interest of the child is the primary consideration, e.g.  his/her education, reintegration and rehabilitation.

Côte d'Ivoire
Since the second round of presidential elections on November 28, 2010, Ivoirian residents have been subjected to a relentless wave of violence in which at least 3000 people were killed (according to official Ivorian sources) and scores of women raped. Forces under former president Laurent Gbagbo and current President Alassane Ouattara are implicated in war crimes and potentially crimes against humanity. These abuses follow a decade-old pattern in which impunity took hold in Côte d'Ivoire, and in which no credible prosecutions have yet taken place. Many of the same actors responsible for serious crimes in 2002-03 again committed - or oversaw - crimes against civilians in the recent wave of violence.

The Malabo summit offers AU member states an opportunity to press President Ouattara to fulfill his commitment to ensure justice for the victims of the conflict's heinous crimes, as it is only through holding accountable those most responsible that Cote d'Ivoire can move past the violence and return to the rule of law. If necessary, the AU should stand ready to assist the Ivorian government in these efforts. The AU also needs to help address the broader regional dynamics of the Ivoirian crisis, including the use of Liberian mercenaries, the mass displacement of persons, and the targeting of West African nationals by pro-Gbagbo forces.

Libya
Since the beginning of anti-government protests in mid-February, the government of Muammar Gaddafi has chosen to meet the legitimate demands of Libyan citizens for civil liberties and political rights with brutal and lethal force.  The government's response led directly to a protracted armed conflict that has caused great civilian harm. Violations of the laws of war and human rights law by government forces are extensive. These include indiscriminate attacks in Misrata and towns of the Nafusa mountains, including the firing of Grad rockets into residential neighborhoods, the placing of five different types of landmines in six locations, and the use of mortar-fired cluster munitions in Misrata.

Human Rights Watch has documented a wave of arrests in Tripoli, Misrata, Zawiya and other towns of the west, with government forces detaining protestors, or people simply believed to have supported the protests.  To date, the government has provided no information about the number of people it has arrested, where they are being held, or the charges they face, leading to serious concern that many individuals have been forcibly disappeared. Evidence from those released from government custody reveals a pattern of torture usually at the point of capture and the time of interrogation. Detainees were beaten with wooden sticks and plastic pipes, and subjected to electric shocks and mock executions.  Some died from the abuse and subsequent lack of medical care. Libyan and foreign journalists have been detained, and in some cases physically abused.

On the opposition side, violations have also occurred.  Human Rights Watch documented the arbitrary arrests of dozens of civilians suspected of supporting Muammar Gaddafi.  Opposition forces in Libya's east and parts of the west have failed to provide the detainees with basic rights, such as a chance to challenge their detention before an independent judicial authority.  In certain cases, the opposition also failed to rein in the many private security groups that sprang up after the dissolution of the Gaddafi government in late February, and which "arrested" suspected Gaddafi supporters, sometimes using excessive force.  In at least one case, members of the opposition tortured a detainee to death.

Sub-Saharan migrant workers in Libya have been among the most vulnerable civilians in the conflict. They claim to have been abused by both parties to the conflict. Tens of thousands have fled Libya, many of them to return to their home countries.

The AU's proposed roadmap to end the ongoing crisis and its other efforts at mediation are commendable but fall short when it comes to civilian protection and supporting effective accountability for all serious human rights violations.

The International Criminal Court
More than 120 African civil society organizations and international organizations with a presence in Africa-with representation from more than 25 countries on the continent-have endorsed a document on the ICC and the AU in advance of the summit, which is available at https://www.hrw.org/node/99945. The document in particular calls for the AU to: direct outstanding concerns regarding its deferral requests of ICC situations to the Security Council (as the body with the authority to grant deferrals); hold further consultations on challenges related to expansion of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights; ensure concerns over the use of force in Libya under Security Council resolution 1973 are not conflated with the ICC's distinct judicial process in Libya as a result of resolution 1970; and support the election of the most qualified candidate as the next ICC prosecutor through a fair and merit-based process.

The Hissène Habré Trial
In July 2010, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and 117 groups from 25 African countries denounced the "interminable political and legal soap opera" to which the victims of the former dictator of Chad Hissène Habré had been subjected over 20 years.  In a landmark, positive move,  the AU in 2006 mandated Senegal to prosecute Habré "on behalf of Africa." However, in the intervening period, Senegal has used one technical ruse after another to block action. The last straw came this May when a Senegalese delegation unexpectedly and without explanation withdrew from discussions with an AU delegation visiting Dakar to finalize the terms under which a court would try Habré.  Faced with these blocking tactics, the summit should formally insist that Senegal either commit to a clear timetable  for bringing Habré to trial promptly; or extradite him to Belgium, which requested his extradition in 2005.

 Human Rights Watch is committed to upholding the rights of African victims of human rights abuses and to working with African governments and bodies to address abusive situations where they occur. We look forward to our continuing dialogue on how best to promote 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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