Amnesty International has released its annual report: "The State of the World's Human Rights." Africa has scored particularly poorly, and AI says that reality and rhetoric there differ vastly.
Amnesty's 2009 report makes grim reading
Erwin van der Borght, the Africa Program Director for Amnesty International in London, spoke to Deutsche Welle about the conclusions reached in this year's report.
Van der Borght: What we wanted to highlight is the situation of people living in poverty in Africa, and we are also particularly concerned that they will increasingly be affected by the current economic crisis. We know that there is a clear link between people living in poverty and human rights violations, those people are much more vulnerable. And we already saw that, for example in 2008 when there was the food crisis, and the increase in price of basic commodities, which led to hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating in various towns and countries in Africa. They were demonstrating because their lives, their access to food was at risk. We also saw a very repressive reaction from many governments, for example in Cameroon more than 100 people were killed during those demonstrations in 2008. It's true that some of those demonstrations turned violent, but we really feel that the use of force by the authorities and police in Cameroon and other countries was excessive. We also have other examples, like in Burkina Faso where hundreds of people were arrested and sentenced to prison terms after unfair trials. We saw also in Guinea demonstrations against shortages of water and electricity, over living conditions. There, too, we saw examples of the excessive use of force and protesters being killed. So we are very concerned that the current economic crisis will reinforce that trend, and that those who are most vulnerable, those who are living on the margin, will be very severely affected.
DW: Two countries that you didn't mention are Zimbabwe and Sudan.
Hundreds of thousands have been driven from their homes in African conflicts
Van der Borght: Certainly we saw also the political crisis in Zimbabwe erupting around the elections last year, and again there was repression. Hundreds of activists, political opponents and even journalists were arrested arbitrarily, just for expressing their opinion. People were killed, either by government officials, or people working on behalf of the government. Even now that there is an inclusive government, there is no accountability, the people responsible for those violations have not been held to account. Of course, we also remain concerned about the situation of armed conflict in Sudan, and particularly Darfur, but also Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo - where the conflict has flared up again. And all the parties involved in those conflict situations are responsible for gross human rights violations, including killings of civilians, sexual violence against women, and the recruitment of child soldiers. One of the problems which also contributes to those human rights violations is the spread of small arms to those countries, even though there are UN arms embargoes against those countries, it's clear that not enough is being done to stop those transfers of weapons. We see, for example in Somalia, that enormous resources are being deployed to tackle the piracy issue, which is acceptable, but we don't see the same efforts and resources being mobilized to address the conflict, to address the violations of humanitarian law, and also to stop the transfers of arms to those conflict zones.
DW: In light of the global economic crisis, and the fact that it affects people in the poorest countries most, what can be done? Can the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund offer any aid?
Africa is the continent most in need of stimulus packages
Van der Borght: Well, it certainly is important that international financial institutions - but also governments worldwide - take the human rights dimensions into account when addressing this crisis. It's important that development assistance continues, it's also important that governments in those developing countries, including African ones, make the right choices. That they continue to invest in providing social services to their people to ensure the right to health, water, sanitation, food and adequate housing; they also have to address the issue of corruption, which is a major obstacle to providing those services; they have to continue to seek international assistance; and they also have to be accountable to their people.
DW: What specifically would Amnesty International say should be done immediately?
Van der Borght: First of all, governments in Africa should be accountable to their people. They should listen and they should continue to invest in social services. It's also important that those responsible for human rights violations come under investigation and are prosecuted, because otherwise this cycle of human rights abuses will continue. We see that law enforcement agencies, or police, who are responsible for human rights abuses are hardly ever being investigated and prosecuted. We see that, for example, the international justice system - specifically the International Criminal Court - are playing a certain role, but they only have a limited capacity and are only able to prosecute a few people. But even there, we see that governments in Africa are pledging misplaced solidarity to their fellow leaders. Instead of being accountable to their people, they shield their colleagues from international prosecution, even those who are responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Interview: Rick Demarest
Editor: Chuck Penfold