Human Rights Developments
Although respect for human rights varied from country to country, the issue of impunity cut across much of Africa in 1995, as many countries grappled with the legacy of past abuses, while others suffered from direct interference with the independence of the judiciary. The support given to governments and armed opposition groups known for their abuse of human rights, by governments and state-sanctioned arms traders, also contributed to regional insecurity and widespread human rights abuses.
Throughout the continent, internal armed conflicts and autocratic governments combined to erode respect for human rights. In situations of internal conflicts_whether collapsed states like Somalia and Liberia, or the civil wars of Sudan and Angola_human rights protections were virtually nonexistent, and abuses were carried out with impunity. In situations where entrenched governments were undermining transitions to democracy_like Nigeria, Kenya, and Zaire_the weakness of state institutions and civil society were used by leaders to consolidate their personal rule and to attack their real or perceived opponents.
Proceedings to establish accountability for past abuses were underway in 1995 in Ethiopia, Rwanda, South Africa, and Malawi. In other countries, like Angola and Mozam-bique, governments and armed opposition alike avoided any effort to confront the issue. In Rwanda and Ethiopia, prosecutions for gross abuses of human rights under previous governments were stymied by lengthy delays.
In Rwanda, some 57,000 people remained in overcrowded and life-threatening prisons awaiting trial for genocide, yet the judiciary remained paralyzed. Although shortages of human and material resources slowed the functioning of the judicial system, this did not explain the failure to try any of those accused of genocide. Hundreds of prisoners died in Rwandan jails this year as the government failed to show the political will to move forward with trials. Nor was there much progress at the international level; a year after its creation in November 1994, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda had yet to hand down an indictment.
Ethiopia presented a different situation, with a Special Prosecutors' Office created to try the 1,500 officials of the Derg government who were detained since 1991. It was only in December 1994 that the top forty-four Derg leaders were charged. South Africa took yet another course, and agreed to establish a National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation to hear applications for indemnity from prosecution for persons who committed gross human rights violations on political grounds, and to prepare a record of human rights abuses committed from March 1960 to December 1993.
Not all governments were interested in confronting these issues. One of the first things agreed upon in peace talks by Angola's warring factions was a general amnesty for illegal acts associated with the war, including human rights abuses. Similarly, the political leaders of RENAMO and the ruling party FRELIMO in Mozambique refused to acknowledge any involvement in human rights abuses, or to make either "truth-telling" or accountability a part of the peace process.
In countries that professed to be democratizing, respect for human rights was undercut by governments seeking to retain power. In Kenya, the government of President Daniel arap Moi attacked independent organizations, journalists, and opposition politicians, and effectively banned a new political party, Safina. In Nigeria, President Sani Abacha announced on October 1 that he was extending his rule and the "transition to democracy" for another two years, while keeping numerous human rights activists, pro-democracy figures, and journalists in prison. In Zaire, the promised transition to democracy was also extended for another two years in July, with no restrictions placed on the military and security forces, which continued to prey on the civilian population.
Nigeria was a clear illustration of the severely circumscribed powers of the judiciary being used to shield the government. The closed trial of alleged coup plotters, who were sentenced to terms of imprisonment and death (the death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment), was characterized by a lack of due process, without the right to choose counsel freely or the right to appeal to an independent court. The same mockery of justice prevailed in the trial by a special tribunal of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni activists, which resulted in the death sentence for nine of the defendants. The nine men were hanged just forty-eight hours after the verdict was confirmed by the Provisional Ruling Council: no appeal was allowed as the Abacha government was determined to flaunt its power of life and death in defiance of international appeals for clemency. Chief Moshood Abiola, the presumed winner of the 1993 presidential election, remained in detention, with his trial postponed indefinitely. Human rights and pro-democracy activists were subjected to near-constant harassment or arrest, and several remained in incommunicado detention without charge or trial. The government of Sudan carried out similar practices, with security forces arresting hundreds of demonstrators, often detaining supposed agitators for months without charge or trial. Former Prime Minister Sadiq Al Mahdi, leader of the banned Umma Party whose democratically elected government was deposed by the military coup of 1989, was held in incommunicado detention for three-and-a-half months.
Africa's internal armed conflicts were characterized by widespread violations of human rights and humanitarian law. For much of the year, ongoing civil strife ravaged Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, Burundi, Angola, and Sierra Leone. However, by year's end, hopes were raised by peace agreements and cease-fires that appeared to be holding in Angola and Liberia. All these conflicts involved forces that primarily targeted civilians for killing, often on ethnic lines, causing millions to become refugees or internally displaced. Indeed, Africa is the largest producer of refugees and displaced persons in the world. Several of these conflicts have also been characterized by the extensive use of child soldiers, especially Angola, Mozambique, and Liberia.
Arms flows to abusive governments and rebel groups increased the possibility of renewed war in many areas, especially in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. The flow of arms to the Rwandan refugee camps in eastern Zaire and military training by Hutu forces of the former Rwandan government, sometimes together with the Burundian Hutu militias, presented serious risks for the entire region. The increased number of weapons in the area fueled conflicts in eastern Zaire that predated the Rwandan crisis. Evidence of new arms deliveries and foreign military support of rival factions continued in Liberia, despite a U.N. arms embargo, and in Angola, in violation of the Lusaka Protocol. With fragile peace processes underway in both these countries, any influx of arms could undermine the prospects for peace.
More than anywhere else, the situation in Central Africa demonstrated the regional nature of conflict. Zaire and Tanzania suffered from the crises in Rwanda and Burundi, each of which exacerbated the other. Huge refugee flows had ramifications for the environmental, economic, and security conditions in neighboring countries. The regionalization of conflict was not limited to central Africa; the conflicts in Liberia and Sudan also caused massive refugee flows into neighboring countries, leading to tensions with the host population and security problems throughout the region.
The Right to Monitor
The crackdown on the human rights movement in Nigeria illustrated both the challenges and the aspirations of many African activists. Several of Nigeria's leading human rights activists have been detained for prolonged periods, often without charge or trial, including Abdul Oroh, the executive director of the Civil Liberties Organisation, Chima Ubani, former general secretary of the Campaign for Democracy (CD) and the campaign officer of the Civil Liberties Organisation, and Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, chairman of the CD. However, human rights organizations continued to document and publicize the abuses of the Abacha government, using strategies such as filing cases in national courts against their government, publishing reports, and conducting campaigns to educate people about their rights. The reporting from Nigeria's human rights community helped keep the world informed about the deteriorating conditions in Nigeria, which increased the domestic and international pressure on the government.
The Role of the International Community
At the same time, however, a realization began to take hold that Africa's "failed states" and human rights disasters were all predictable before they exploded, and that preventive action is far less costly than massive humanitarian aid afterwards. In some isolated cases, such as Burundi, the international community seemed engaged in trying to prevent an explosion that it realized might rival the genocide in Rwanda. A series of high-level visits to Burundi from the U.N., the E.U., the OAU, France, Germany, and the U.S. indicated a more active role. The establishment of a U.N. commission of inquiry in August was evidence of an interest in combating impunity, although it remains unclear how the commission will implement its findings.
But the impact of international pressure is obviously limited. Violence in Burundi continued to spiral out of control, despite international attention. The military government of Nigeria resisted international pressures to commence a meaningful transition and to release political prisoners, despite high-level interventions. The execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight other Ogoni activists, after world appeals for clemency, demonstrated the Nigerian government's clear contempt for international pressure on human rights grounds.
The United Nations
The Somalia intervention showed the cost of failing promptly to address emergencies that threaten international peace and security. The peacekeeping operation excluded human rights considerations from its program, concentrating instead on bringing warleaders to the bargaining table and failing to hold them accountable for their actions. The U.N. itself violated international standards and lost sight of its humanitarian mission, resulting in an enormous toll in Somali civilian casualties. The Somalia experience makes it clear that the U.N. must make monitoring, reporting on and protecting human rights integral to its response to such emergencies.
The establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in late 1994 was welcomed as an important response by the U.N. to seeking accountability in Africa. Yet as the Tribunal ended its first year in November 1994, no indictments had been handed down, and it was still hampered by a lack of resources, staff, and funding.
While the U.S. is credited with pressuring both sides in Angola to accept the peace process, developments in the Great Lakes and Nigeria presented more intractable situations. To its credit, the U.S. sent a series of high-level delegations to Rwanda and Burundi to demonstrate attention to the region, but the administration did not maximize its leverage with the new Rwandan government to press for human rights improvements. In Nigeria, the administration officials held a series of secret meetings with the Abacha government in an unsuccessful effort to persuade it to proceed with the transition to democracy and to refrain from executing its alleged opponents.
In the Horn of Africa, the administration's main focus was the Greater Horn of Africa Initiative. Launched in 1994, the initiative included ten countries and sought to involve African leaders in tackling the continent's problems, notably the issues of food security, development, and political conflict. Human rights per se was not a part of the initiative, although human rights violations are among the causes of famine. In its policies on individual countries in the region, the Clinton administration denounced widespread human rights abuses by the government of Sudan, but refrained from publicly criticizing the human rights abuses of the Ethiopian government.
The use of visa denials to those obstructing the democratization process proved to be an effective way to distance the U.S. from human rights abusers. This policy was put to good effect in Liberia, Nigeria, and Zaire; during the 50th anniversary of the U.N. in October, for example, President Mobutu and General Abacha were denied U.S. visas and only permitted restricted travel to the United Nations. Although President Mobutu ultimately accepted this limited visa, General Abacha refused to come to the U.S. on such terms.
The administration's support for the International Tribunal on Rwanda and the Commission of Inquiry for Burundi were significant contributions to the establishment of accountability for human rights abuses during 1995. U.S. support for the war crimes trials in Ethiopia was also important. By taking a public stand in favor of these efforts, the administration allied itself with the struggle to end impunity in Africa.
Unfortunately, the Clinton administration made few public statements about human rights in Africa during 1995, and thus lost an important means of raising awareness in the U.S. and internationally about human rights concerns. When combined with the diminishing U.S. aid, the U.S. conveyed an image of increasing disengagement in Africa.
The Work of Human Rights Watch/Africa
In early 1995, Human Rights Watch/Africa opened an office in Rwanda to enable extended investigations of the genocide and to monitor current abuses, while assisting the local human rights groups. Its long record of reliable research in Rwanda has made Human Rights Watch/Africa a leading authority about human rights developments in Rwanda. Staff members were consulted regularly by governments and nongovernmental organizations and were interviewed extensively by U.S. and international media. Human Rights Watch/Africa worked in particular to influence the policies of the U.N., African, and European governments, as well as Canada and the U.S., to address the Rwandan government directly, and to assist in genocide-related prosecutions in Europe, Canada, and the U.S.
Human Rights Watch/Africa was active on Nigeria in 1995, reporting on the political trials, the ongoing crackdown on human rights and pro-democracy activists, and the military repression in the southeast. After a mission to Nigeria in February, Human Rights Watch/Africa published the first-ever testimony by Nigerian soldiers on the military's punitive campaign in the oil-rich Ogoni area.
The work in 1995 with the Human Rights Watch/Arms Project focused new attention on the issue of arms flows into the volatile region of the Great Lakes, and sparked international attention to the role of other governments in facilitating the arms trade. Again with the Arms Project, Human Rights Watch/Africa continued its work on landmines in Africa, and participated in the campaign to ban the sale and production of landmines. Human Rights Watch/Africa worked with the Children's Rights Project to document the use of child soldiers, notably in Sudan and Liberia, and with the Women's Rights Project on violations of women's human rights in South Africa.