Human Rights Watch welcomes the opportunity to address the African Commission under this Agenda Item.
We commend the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare for adopting the first Joint General Comment on Ending Child Marriage in February 2018. It is an authoritative interpretation of comprehensive steps that States parties need to take to promote the rights of women and girls and end child marriage in Africa.
Madame Chairperson, the general human rights situation in much of Africa remains worrying. While we commend the government of Mauritania for hosting the 62nd ordinary session of the African Commission we wish to bring to your attention ongoing human rights violations in the country. Mauritanian authorities restrict freedom of speech and assembly, especially to muzzle criticism of Mauritania’s record on slavery, discrimination based on caste or ethnicity, impunity for past state-sponsored atrocities, and the president’s intolerance of dissent. Human rights defenders, activists and independent journalists are prosecuted under loosely interpreted laws criminalizing “incitement of racial hatred” or under corruption charges. Authorities refuse to legally recognize human rights associations, hobbling their ability to operate.
For the 62nd ordinary session of the African Commission, Human Rights Watch will focus on urgent human rights concerns in Nigeria and Eritrea.
FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA
Human Rights Watch remains deeply concerned by human rights abuses that continue to occur in Nigeria. The ongoing Boko Haram conflict in the northeast, cycles of communal violence between pastoralists and farmers, and separatist protests in the south still define Nigeria’s human rights landscape.
Nigeria’s eight-year conflict with Boko Haram has resulted in the deaths of over 20,000 civilians and a large-scale humanitarian crisis. Approximately 2.1 million people have been displaced by the conflict while 7 million need humanitarian assistance. While the Nigerian army made considerable gains against Boko Haram, the toll of the conflict on civilians continued as the extremist group increasingly resorted to the use of women and children as suicide bombers. At least 300 civilians died in the group’s attacks in 2017.
Conduct of Security Forces
On January 17, the Nigerian air force carried out an airstrike on a settlement for displaced people in Rann, Borno State, killing approximately 234 people according to a local official, including nine aid workers, and injuring 100 more. The military initially claimed the attack was meant to hit Boko Haram fighters they believed were in the area. After six months of investigations, authorities said they had mistaken the settlement of displaced people for insurgent forces. At the time, the settlement was run by the military.
In June, a military board of inquiry made up of seven army officers and two lawyers from the National Human Rights Commission concluded that there was no basis to investigate allegations of war crimes committed by senior army officials in the northeast conflict and elsewhere. The allegations they investigated included extrajudicial killings, torture, and arbitrary arrests of thousands.
Authorities have failed to implement a December 2016 court order for the release of Ibrahim El Zakzaky, leader of the Shia Islamic Movement of Nigeria, IMN. Zakzaky and his wife Zeenat, as well as hundreds of IMN members, have been in detention without trial since December 2015, when soldiers killed 347 IMN members in Zaria, Kaduna state.
In August 2017, Vice President Osinbajo, established a presidential judicial panel to investigate the military’s compliance with human rights obligations and rules of engagement. The seven-person panel, which began hearing complaints in September, was set up in response to allegations of war crimes committed by the military across the country, including the December 2015 Shia IMN incident in Zaria, the killing of pro-Biafra protesters in the southeast, and the killing, torture, and enforced disappearance of Boko Haram suspects in the northeast.
Violence between nomadic and farming communities spread beyond the north-central region to southern parts of the country in 2017. Hundreds of people were killed, and thousands displaced. In July 2017, two days of clashes between herdsmen and farmers killed over 30 people in Kajuru village, 31 miles outside the city of Kaduna. A similar attack in Jos, Plateau State left 19 dead and five injured in September 2017. The governor of Kaduna state called for the intervention of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to end the perennial violence between the two groups.
Freedom of Expression, Media, and Association
Journalists face harassment, and the implementation of a 2015 Cyber Crime Act threatens to curtail freedom of expression. The director of defense information announced in August 2017 that the military would monitor social media for “hate speech, anti-government and anti-security information.” The government also directed the National Broadcasting Commission to sanction any radio or television station that broadcasts hate speech. It threatened to charge people found to spread yet-to-be defined hate speech under the Terrorism Prevention Act.
Finally, Madame Chairperson, in October 2016 Human Rights Watch documented sexual abuse, including rape and exploitation of 43 women and girls living in seven internally displaced persons camps in Maiduguri, perpetrated by government officials and other authorities. The report sets out in detail how the government is not doing enough to protect displaced women and girls and ensure that they have access to basic rights and services or to sanction the abusers, who include camp leaders, vigilante groups, policemen, and soldiers.
Madame Chairperson, Human Rights Watch has examined rights violations in Eritrea since independence in 1991, but especially the steady deterioration of human rights since 2001. In that year, the government closed all independent newspapers, arrested journalists, government officials and others critical of the President. Since then, the rule of law has been notably absent. Instead, the President exercises totalitarian, often brutal, control.
Eritrea subjects its citizens to exploitation and degradation through “national service” that traps conscripts for well over a decade and in some cases, forever. Conscripts as well as civilians are frequently subject to inhuman and degrading punishment, including torture, without recourse.
By decree issued in 1992 (no. 82/1995), Eritreans may be conscripted into national service at 18 to serve 18 months, six of which are for military training. Conscription for a limited time is not a human rights violation, but the 18-month timeframe has been entirely ignored by the government. In some instances, conscripts serve indefinitely, and conscription often lasts over a decade unless the conscript flees.
The Eritrean government attempts to justify endless conscription in violation of its own decree by asserting it is necessary to protect the country while Eritrea faces a “no-war, no-peace” stalemate with Ethiopia following the end of a bloody border conflict two decades ago. Many national service conscripts, however, are not working to defend against possible Ethiopian attacks; rather, they are used in civilian capacities: farm labor, teachers, construction workers, civil servants, even lower level judges. Some conscripts assigned to government-owned construction firms which, in turn, assign them to work on building infrastructure at foreign-owned mineral mines.
Punishments in national service can be imposed by military commanders at whim, without the possibility of review. Physical abuse, including punishments that qualify as torture, remains extensive. Among those reported to us by interviewees are beatings, being trussed in stressful configurations, imprisonment in very hot or freezing zinc sheds (zingoes) for days, and imprisonment in underground cells for weeks or months. Incarceration in common military jails with more or less harsh conditions is also common. While conscripts are allowed about a month’s leave each year, they have no say about when it occurs. Conscripts have therefore told Human Rights they were denied leave to attend to sick or dying family members.
Absence of the Rule of Law Generally
Madame Chairperson, Eritrea’s citizens are subject to arbitrary mistreatment without legal protections. No means exist for citizens to express their views or to question government policies affecting them. They have no legislative representation, no independent press and no non-governmental organizations to which they can turn. Citizens who have spoken out or who have questioned policies during government-called community assemblies have been punished without trial or means of appeal. Imprisonment for an indefinite period is the most likely punishment, sometimes accompanied by corporal abuse, including acts that qualify as torture. In addition, their families are denied government ration cards to buy scarce but essential provisions.
Aside from indefinite length, imprisonment is frequently incommunicado. Relatives are not told of the whereabouts of a prisoner, much less allowed to visit in several cases, family members have told Human Rights Watch a relative disappeared for years and the family learned of his or her fate only when the body was returned without explanation. Survivors were warned not to ask questions and directed not to have an autopsy conducted.
Suspicion that a citizen’s loyalty to the government is not absolute has resulted in arrest, according to witnesses who have suffered that fate. Those arrested are seldom told the reason for the arrest. If they learn why, it is because of questions raised during interrogations. Those interrogations can include beatings and other painful punishments. A former Eritrean interrogator who fled in 2012 told Human Rights Watch: “Basically, my role as interrogator was to order the beatings until they confessed to what they were being accused of…. We never charged anyone, never a trial, just confessions from the beatings.”
On or about November 1, 2017, the government arrested 93-year old Hajji Musa Mohammed Nur, the chairman of Al-Dia, a private Muslim school in Asmara, after he spoke out at a school assembly against a government-announced plan to take over administration of the school. Two weeks later, students at the school rallied peacefully and began to march toward government offices in protest. Despite the peaceful nature of their march, they were met by security forces firing into the air. Dozens were arrested. Hajii Musa remained jailed without trial for over four months. At the beginning of March 2018, the government returned his body to the family. We understand from multiple sources that members of the school’s executive committee remain jailed without trial.
The most prominent prisoners who have disappeared are the journalists and government officials arrested in September 2001 after newspapers reported the contents of a letter the officials signed protesting President Isaias’ policies and rule. None of those arrested have ever been given an opportunity to defend themselves. They have not been seen since their arrest by anyone other than prison guards. A guard, who fled in 2004, reported that at least half of them had died by then. If any still survive, they remain jailed incommunicado.
In violation of Articles 6 and 7 of the Banjul Charter, arrests are arbitrary and not subject to judicial review or appeal. Until recently, close family members were fined or imprisoned when another member fled the country. The then-15-year-old daughter of a former minister who fled the country has been jailed incommunicado for over five years, since 2012, as was the minister’s then-84-year-old father; neither has been given a hearing before an impartial tribunal. Journalists and government officials arrested in 2001 have never been brought to trial and remain in incommunicado detention despite two African Commission resolutions urging their release or at least a fair trial. Unconfirmed reports from a former prison guard state that over half of the 21 officials and journalists included in the Commission resolutions have died during their nearly 17-year captivity.
Finally, Honorable Commissioners, citizens of Eritrea have no say in the running of the government, in clear violation of Article 13 of the Banjul Charter. A constitution approved in 1997 by referendum has never been implemented. There have been no national elections since independence in 1991, and an appointed legislature has been moribund since 2002.
Madame Chairperson, Honorable Commissioners, we trust you will take these serious human rights violations into account in reviewing both States parties reports.