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A compound of abandoned buildings sheltering internally displaced people near the town of Dubti, in Ethiopia’s northern Afar region, June 7, 2022. © 2022 EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP

(Nairobi) – African leaders failed to tackle widespread abuses against civilians by state security forces and non-state armed groups and insufficiently prioritized justice efforts for victims of atrocities across the continent, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2023. These violations occurred against a backdrop of backsliding on democratic safeguards and rule of law.

The African Union (AU) and subregional mechanisms should urgently adopt measures and establish systems to ensure rigorous human rights monitoring and reporting in areas of conflict, and to avert further atrocities and humanitarian catastrophes.

“The regional efforts to address certain crises in Africa in 2022 have lacked sufficient political will and leadership, leaving countless civilians caught up in conflict with nowhere to turn,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The best way to ensure effective African solutions to African problems would be for leaders to efficiently deploy the strong instruments at their disposal to protect victims of human rights abuses.”

In the 712-page World Report 2023, its 33rd edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in close to 100 countries. In her introductory essay, acting Executive Director Tirana Hassan says that in a world in which power has shifted, it is no longer possible to rely on a small group of mostly Global North governments to defend human rights. The world’s mobilization around Russia’s war in Ukraine reminds us of the extraordinary potential when governments realize their human rights obligations on a global scale. The responsibility is on individual countries, big and small, to apply a human rights framework to their policies, and then work together to protect and promote human rights.

In at least 15 armed conflicts, including in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Mali, Burkina Faso, and South Sudan, government forces or non-state armed groups have been implicated in abuses against civilians.

There has been some progress in ensuring justice for serious crimes, Human Rights Watch said. Trials began in the Central African Republic and Guinea, while the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened trials for serious crimes implicating militia leaders in the Central African Republic and Sudan.

In northern Ethiopia, the conflict in the Tigray, Amhara, and Afar regions has had a devastating impact on the civilian populations. Significant parts of the Tigrayan population remain displaced and without access to desperately needed humanitarian assistance. In Oromia, fighting between Ethiopian federal forces and the rebel Oromia Liberation Army intensified. Efforts were stifled to hold to account those responsible for serious crimes.

The resurgent, Rwandan-backed M23 rebel group in eastern Congo committed renewed atrocities in the region. Other armed groups, and at times Congolese soldiers, have also committed widespread abuses as impunity fuels cycles of violence. In August, the Burundian government deployed soldiers to eastern Congo, followed by Kenyan troops in November, in response to the East African Community’s (EAC) decision to establish a joint force to restore security in the region.

In November, an AU-led negotiation culminated in a cessation of hostilities agreement in Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict between the federal government and Tigrayan authorities.

In Mozambique, the regional Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and Rwanda supported the Mozambican military in the armed conflict with the Islamist insurgency known as Ansar al-Sunna Wa Jamma (ASWJ), which is associated with the Islamic State. The hostilities in Cabo Delgado province have resulted in unlawful attacks against civilians and the internal displacement of more than 940,000 people over the last four years.

In West Africa, notably Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali, there has been no improvement in the conditions that precipitated recent coups.The African Union and Economic Community of West African States responded by suspending membership and imposing or threatening sanctions.

Increasing criticism of foreign counterterrorism operations by Mali’s military junta and the unrelenting armed Islamist violence in the country led to the withdrawal of French and other European Union troops from Mali.

A surge in fighting in Mali and the Central African Republic coincided with reports of horrific rights abuses by foreign mercenaries, including the Russia-linked Wagner Group.

However, the regional response was muted when elected civilian leaders clung to power by manipulating political and constitutional processes, and killing or harassing journalists, activists, and perceived opponents.

At its Extraordinary Summit on Terrorism and Unconstitutional Changes of Government in May, the AU condemned terrorism, violent extremism, and all forms of unconstitutional changes of government in Africa. Leaders called for the withdrawal of all foreign terrorist fighters and mercenaries and affirmed commitments to combat transnational organized crime.

The authorities in some transitional governments cracked down on peaceful political dissent and criticism. In March, Chadian security forces violently dispersed thousands of peaceful protesters. In Sudan, during protests that have rocked the country since the October 2021 coup, security forces have killed more than 100 people, arbitrarily detained hundreds, and forcibly disappeared others. The AU has remained silent.

The spate of crackdowns against government opponents and critics was however not limited to countries under transitional rule. In Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, activists, opponents, and journalists have been detained and tortured. In Congo, attacks against media freedom, the growing involvement of intelligence services in intimidating dissenters, and the general narrowing of democratic space raise concerns ahead of the 2023 elections.

Across parts of Africa, internally displaced people, refugees, and migrants have been driven from home by armed conflicts, repression, communal violence, poverty, and environmental factors. In Eritrea and Cameroon, forcibly returned asylum seekers have faced arbitrary detention and abuse. In Nigeria, government-enforced displacement camp closures pushed thousands into deeper destitution.

The lack of safe and legal migration pathways and barriers to asylum within and outside Africa, combined with pressure from the EU and its member states, have resulted in migrant deaths, abuse, exploitation, and discrimination.

For victims of atrocities on the continent, progress on access to justice was mixed, Human Rights Watch said.

In July, the AU announced the operationalization of the long-mandated trust fund for reparations to the victims of the late Chadian president Hissène Habré’s brutal rule.

In Guinea, the trial of alleged perpetrators of the 2009 stadium massacre opened, 13 years later, highlighting the importance of credible domestic justice for grave crimes.

In October, the Special Criminal Court in the Central African Republic convicted Issa Sallet Adoum, Ousman Yaouba, and Tahir Mahamat of the 3R rebel group for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the country in 2019.

But an AU-led South Sudan hybrid court envisaged in the 2015 peace agreement has not yet begun operations.

Burundi and Ethiopia continue to deny access to the United Nations special rapporteur on Burundi, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Commission of Inquiry into the situation in Tigray, and the UN International Commission of Experts on Ethiopia.

African civil society organizations have made crucial contributions for these mechanisms to be established and for the independence and effective operations of African human rights institutions.

“African governments and regional institutions should publicly denounce the abuses and crackdowns on dissent that plague the continent,” Segun said. “Genuine efforts to combat impunity require impartial investigations and fair trials of those found responsible for human rights abuses and crimes across Africa.”

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