Monday, March 15, 2010

Africa's Human Rights Slide

The U.S. Department of State’s 2009 human rights report was released the other day, and it showed disappointing trends toward human rights abuses in counties in conflict; restrictions on freedoms of expression, assembly and association and discrimination and harassment of vulnerable groups. Countries such as Iran, Iraq, China, Russia and Cuba were among those singled out for their human rights abuses, but African nations also received criticism for their violations of international standards of human rights.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan led the way in human rights abuses in conflict situation. In Sudan, “government-sponsored forces bombed villages, killed civilians and supported Chadian rebel groups.” Women and children in Sudan continued to experience gender-based violence, according to the State Department report, which calculated that 2.7 million civilians have been internally displaced , about 253,000 have sought refuge in eastern Chad and more than 300,000 Sudanese have died since the conflict in Darfur began in 2003.

Meanwhile, in DRC, “counter-insurgency operations by government security forces resulted in the killing of more than 1,000 civilians; the displacement of hundreds of thousands whose government did not adequately protect or assist them; the rapes of tens of thousands of women, children and men; the burning of hundreds of homes; the unlawful recruitment or use of thousands of children as soldiers by the DRC military and various armed groups, and abductions of numerous persons for forced labor and sexual exploitation, both domestically and internationally,” the report stated.

Nigeria’s national police army and other security forces were said by the State Department to have “committed extrajudicial killings and used lethal and excessive force to apprehend criminals and suspects.” Moreover, “violence in the form of killings, kidnappings and forced disappearances; mass rape, and displacement of civilians attributed to both government and nongovernment actors continued in the Niger Delta.”

The State Department report charged Egypt with failing “to respect the freedom of association and restricted freedom of expression” and said the country’s freedom of religion remained very poor. “Sectarian attacks on Coptic Christians mounted during the year,” the report stated. “The government failed to redress laws and government practices that discriminate against Christians.” Egypt also was cited for the airing of a television show that acknowledged the Holocaust of Jews, “but instead glorified it, praising the slaughter and humiliation of Jews and calling for future Holocausts.”

Eritrea also was cited by the State Department for serious restrictions on the right to practice religion, among other human rights violations. “Only the four religious groups whose registrations had been approved by the government (Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Catholic, and Lutheran) were allowed to meet legally during the year. Security forces continued to abuse, arrest, detain and torture members of nonregistered churches; at times such abuse resulted in death,” the report charged.

Uganda was cited because gay Ugandans faced arbitrary legal restrictions. “It is illegal to engage in homosexual acts, based on a 1950 legal provision from the colonial era criminalizing ‘carnal acts against the order of nature’ and prescribing a penalty of life imprisonment.” While no Ugandan had been charged under the law, the report described a bill introduced in the Ugandan legislature “providing the death penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality’ and for homosexual ‘serial offenders’” that has resulted in increased harassment and intimidation of gays in 2009.

There are many more citations of African human rights violations in the State Department report, but the dismal human rights record of some African countries obscures the generally good human rights record of others, such as Botswana, Cape Verde, Lesotho, Malawi, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Sierra Leone and South Africa. These governments were described as respecting the human rights of their citizens, except for some issues.

All the world’s nations, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, have some human rights issues caused by government action or inaction to right wrongs done to people. However, the excuse that everyone does it won’t free political prisoners, house the displaced, heal the wounded, unrape women or raise the dead. Furthermore, as the colonial period fades ever further into the past, so too does the excuse that the colonial powers set Africa on a path of disrespect for human rights.

Whatever other nations may do, Africa should reach back to its pre-colonial past for principles and practices that once allowed men and women, various ethnic groups and religions to coexist more peacefully. Conditions were not perfect in Africa’s past, but many situations were better then than now. This should be a requirement for Africa to enjoy the physical blessings with which the Creator has endowed the continent.

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