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People protest on the streets of Conakry, Guinea, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019.  © 2019 AP Photo/Youssouf Bah

"When they killed my son, they killed me too. I would have preferred it if they had let him live and killed me instead... God asks us to forgive, but I can't forgive those people." Slim and dressed all in black, Adama Awa Diallo speaks slowly, a baby on her lap. Her eyes are dry. She recounts her son's final moments. According to an eyewitness, Alpha Souleymane Diallo was shot dead on November 14, 2019 by a member of the Guinean security forces.

Crackdown on Demonstrations

Diallo was the latest of around 20 Guineans killed recently during demonstrations against a constitutional referendum. This reform was strongly contested by the opposition which feared it would be a way for President Alpha Condé to run for a third term. Diallo and his friends were chanting slogans against a new Constitution when they saw a black police pick-up truck, ran away and dived into a courtyard. A policeman in uniform reportedly followed and shot at them, leaving Alpha with fatal injuries. The next day, the government stated that Diallo had been "hit in the chest by a projectile in the Concasseur neighborhood."

Since October 14, demonstrations against a new Constitution have been organized across the country. The security forces have suppressed them violently and imprisoned activists. Demonstrators, for their part, lashed out at the security forces with stones and other projectiles, killing a gendarme and injuring dozens of others. "This is a referendum of death," an activist told me, "the number of dead will keep going up and if the government doesn't take action, our country risks losing everything."

Rejection of the Constitutional Revision

Nevertheless, President Condé seems determined to ratify a new Constitution at any cost. After refusing to take a position on the matter for several months, on December 19 he declared his support for the draft and even published the bill for the new fundamental law.

Regional partners, including the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR), rang the alarm bell in response to the crisis, calling for the fundamental human rights of demonstrators to be respected and for the security forces to improve their management of demonstrations.

Since then, the security forces have shown greater restraint during the demonstrations. Local authorities have authorized several large demonstrations in Conakry of the National Front for the Defense of the Constitution (Front national pour la défense de la Constitution, FNDC), the coalition at the origin of the protest movement against a new Constitution. The court of appeal of Conakry also temporarily released six FNDC leaders on November 28.  

Between Condé's position, which is now clearly established, and an opposition movement that is inflexible in its will to contest it, the Guinean crisis is taking a dangerous turn. But one thing is abundantly clear: Human rights must be at the heart of any political solution to the crisis, whatever that might be.  

Putting Human Rights Center Stage

The government should unequivocally recognize and ensure respect for the fundamental right to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression of all Guineans. It should punish members of the security forces and other perpetrators of abuses. To do so, the Guinean authorities should set up a special legal unit tasked specifically with overseeing, reporting, and investigating human rights violations committed in the context of referendum and electoral processes.

The United Nations Human Rights Office, present in Guinea, the Special Representative of the Secretary General for West Africa and the Sahel, ECOWAS and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, for their part, should place human rights protection at the heart of a common regional agenda to resolve the crisis. As for the government, it should call upon its regional and international partners to assist in investigations requiring specialized criminal analyses.

In the absence of the implementation of a credible judicial process by the Guinean government   and considering the ethnic and political tensions underlying the current crisis, ECOWAS should collaborate with the ACHPR to set up a fact-finding mission on violations committed during the demonstrations. This mission would be followed by a commission of inquiry capable of guaranteeing the independence and transparency of investigations.

For more than a decade, Guinea's electoral history has been marked with violent episodes which have cost the lives of hundreds of people like Alpha. With its solid reputation acquired through its management of similar situations in the region, ECOWAS is a key actor that can take action and prevent a further escalation of violence and a worsening of a crisis that has already gone on for too long.

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