With the African Union (AU) declaring 2016 as the Year of Human Rights in Africa, many across the continent and beyond hoped that Africa's leaders, regional institutions and the international community would show the determination and political will to make significant headway in addressing entrenched human rights challenges.
Such hopes were not without foundation. As conflict, political instability, authoritarian regimes, poverty and humanitarian disasters continued to deny many their rights, security and dignity, Africa was also presented with real opportunities. Social and economic developments were evident in many countries and relatively peaceful political transitions were achieved in others. The adoption of historic commitments regionally and globally – including the AU's Agenda 2063 and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – offered the potential to realize the rights enshrined in the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (African Charter) and international human rights instruments.
Nevertheless, throughout 2015, serious violations and abuses of international humanitarian and human rights law in the context of conflicts remained a major challenge. Protracted conflicts in the Central African Republic (CAR), Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia caused thousands of civilian deaths and left millions living in fear and insecurity. Burundi faced a political crisis and escalating violence.
In west, central and east Africa – including in Cameroon, Chad, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Niger and Somalia – armed groups such as al-Shabaab and Boko Haram perpetrated constant violence, with tens of thousands of civilians killed, thousands abducted and millions forced to live in fear and insecurity, both within and outside conflicts.
Many governments responded to these security threats with disregard for international humanitarian law and human rights. Military and security operations in Nigeria and Cameroon were marked by mass arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, extrajudicial executions, and torture and other ill-treatment. Similar patterns of human rights violations were observed in Niger and Chad.
Impunity remained a key cause and driver of conflicts and instability. Despite some progress, there was little or no accountability for crimes under international law committed by security forces and armed groups in countries as disparate as Cameroon, CAR, DRC, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan. Internationally, some states and the AU also continued their political efforts to undermine the independence of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and to ensure immunity from prosecution for serving heads of state, even when accused of crimes against humanity and other crimes under international law. South Africa failed to arrest and surrender Sudan's President al-Bashir to the ICC in June, in a betrayal of the hundreds of thousands of victims killed during the Darfur conflict.
Many civil society organizations, human rights defenders, journalists and political opponents operated in an increasingly hostile environment, with laws aimed at restricting civic space in the name of national security, counter-terrorism, public order and regulation of NGOs and media. Civic space remained closed in countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia and The Gambia and deteriorated in others, with freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly increasingly restricted. Peaceful assemblies were disrupted with brutal and excessive force, including in Angola, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chad, the Republic of Congo, DRC, Ethiopia, Guinea, South Africa, Togo and Zimbabwe. In South Africa, excessive force was used as a "clean-up" operation to remove undocumented immigrants.
Elections and political transitions triggered widespread violations and repression. Many countries saw bans on protests, attacks on demonstrators by security forces, and arbitrary arrests and harassment of political opponents, human rights defenders and journalists.
The humanitarian crisis endured by the region continued as the Ebola epidemic that spread across West Africa in 2014 continued to claim lives in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Yet there were signs of hope and progress. Social and economic developments continued to unfold in many countries and offered real optimism in addressing some of the structural causes of poverty, including inequality, climate change, conflict and accountability deficits. Several states achieved some of the UN Millennium Development Goals and Africa played a critical role in the adoption of the SDGs.
Some measures taken by the AU Peace and Security Council, as well as sub-regional bodies, to address violent conflicts in the region demonstrated a growing move from indifference to engagement. Despite capacity limitations, a lack of coherent approaches and concerns about the adequacy of measures to address human rights violations and impunity, the AU and regional bodies took notable steps – from mediation to peacekeeping – in response to crises and conflicts.
Several regional human rights norms and standards were also developed. In November, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (African Commission) adopted a General Comment on Article 4 (right to life) of the African Charter. The AU Special Technical Committee on Legal Affairs (STC) also considered and approved the Draft Protocol on the Rights of Older Persons in Africa, initially developed by the African Commission. Regrettably, the STC declined to approve the Draft Protocol on the Abolition of the Death Penalty in Africa.
More countries also opened up their human rights records for review. Periodic reports on implementation of the African Charter were submitted by Algeria, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
There were reforms and positive measures in several countries. In Mauritania, a new law defined torture and slavery as a crime against humanity and banned secret detention. Sierra Leone ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. There were signs of improvement in Swaziland – including the release of prisoners of conscience and political prisoners – although repressive legislation continued to be used to suppress dissent.
A watershed moment for international justice took place in Senegal when the trial against former Chadian President Hissène Habré opened in July – the first time a court in one African state had tried the former leader of another.
CONFLICT – COSTS AND VULNERABILITY
Violent conflicts and insecurity affected many countries, resulting in large-scale violations and characterized by lack of accountability for atrocities. Ongoing conflicts in CAR, DRC, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan were marked by crimes under international law and persistent violations and abuses of humanitarian and human rights law, committed by both government forces and armed groups. Gender-based and sexual violence was widely reported and children were abducted or recruited as child soldiers.
Despite coordinated military advances against Boko Haram, the armed group continued attacking civilians in Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon. Its catalogue of abuses included suicide bomb attacks in civilian areas, summary executions, abductions, torture and recruitment of child soldiers.
The impact of Boko Haram's abuses was exacerbated by states' unlawful and heavy-handed response. Amnesty International released a report during the year outlining war crimes and possible crimes against humanity committed by the Nigerian military during its fight against Boko Haram – including more than 8,200 people murdered, starved, suffocated or tortured to death – and calling for senior members of the military to be investigated for war crimes.
In the Far North region of Cameroon, government security forces carried out mass arbitrary arrests, detentions and extrajudicial executions, as well as the enforced disappearances of at least 130 men and boys from two villages on the border with Nigeria. In Niger – where the government decreed and extended a state of emergency in the entire Diffa region, which was still in place at the end of the year – the authorities' response included extreme restrictions on movement, as well as the forced return of thousands of Nigerian refugees. In Chad, a restrictive anti-terrorism law was passed, and the security forces carried out arbitrary arrests and detentions.
A major humanitarian crisis involving mass displacement and civilian casualties continued to unfold in Sudan's armed conflicts in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile, as all parties committed violations of international humanitarian law and other violations and abuses of international human rights law. Government forces continued indiscriminate bombings, destruction of civilian settlements and obstruction of humanitarian access to civilians.
Despite the signing of a peace agreement in August, the conflict in South Sudan – characterized by deliberate attacks against civilians – continued. Both parties carried out mass killings of civilians, destruction of civilian property, obstruction of humanitarian aid, widespread gender-based and sexual violence, and recruitment of child soldiers. The AU Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan found evidence of systematic war crimes and crimes against humanity, as well as human rights violations and abuses committed by both warring parties.
Despite a de-escalation of violence since the deployment of the multidimensional UN peacekeeping operation, renewed violence and instability in CAR in September and October resulted in civilian deaths, destruction of property and displacement of more than 42,000 people. At least 500 inmates, most of them detained in relation to ongoing investigations into crimes committed in the context of the conflict, escaped from the prison in the capital, Bangui, in a mass break in September.
In central and southern Somalia, civilians continued to face indiscriminate and targeted attacks amidst continuing armed conflict between forces from the Somali Federal Government and the AU Mission in Somalia on one side and al-Shabaab on the other. All parties to the conflict committed violations of international humanitarian law and serious violations and abuses of international human rights law.
A CRISIS FOR REFUGEES AND MIGRANTS
The bloodshed and atrocities of Africa's conflict zones played a major role in fuelling and sustaining a global refugee crisis, causing millions of women, men and children to flee from their homes in gruelling, risky and often fatal bids to reach safety in their own country or elsewhere.
The conflicts in Sudan and South Sudan alone were responsible for millions of displacements. During the year, around one-third of South Kordofan's population of approximately 1.4 million people were internally displaced, and an estimated 223,000 people were displaced in Darfur, bringing the total number of those internally displaced in the region to 2.5 million. An estimated 60,000 people were additionally displaced due to intermittent fighting between the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA)-North and government forces in Blue Nile state.
A further 2.2 million people were displaced by the conflict in South Sudan during the year, with 3.9 million people facing severe food insecurity.
Huge numbers of people were internally displaced or became refugees after fleeing areas affected by violence from Boko Haram. In Nigeria alone, more than two million people have been forced to flee their homes since 2009. Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Nigeria and CAR were living in harsh conditions in crowded camps in Cameroon and Niger, where in May government forces of Niger and Cameroon forced thousands of refugees back to Nigeria, accusing them of bringing Boko Haram attacks to the area. In Chad, hundreds of thousands of refugees from Nigeria, CAR, Sudan and Libya continued to live in difficult conditions in crowded refugee camps.
More than 1.3 million Somalis were internally displaced during the year. Globally, there were more than 1.1 million Somali refugees. Yet states hosting Somali asylum-seekers and refugees – including Saudi Arabia, Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway, the UK and Denmark – continued to pressure Somalis to return to Somalia, claiming that security had improved in the country.
Kenya's government threatened to close Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp, presenting the move as a security measure following an attack by al-Shabaab. Against a backdrop of harassment of Somali and other refugees by Kenyan security services, the authorities threatened to forcibly return around 350,000 refugees to Somalia. This would put thousands of lives at risk and violate Kenya's obligations under international law.
Countless numbers of refugees and migrants – displaced not only by conflict but also by political persecution or the need to secure a better livelihood – faced intolerance, xenophobia, abuses and violations. Many languished in camps that failed to provide proper access to water, food, health care, sanitation or education, and many fell prey to human trafficking networks.
More than 230,000 people fled Burundi's deteriorating political, social and economic situation to neighbouring countries. Thousands continued to flee Eritrea to escape indefinite National Service, which amounts to forced labour. Eritreans caught trying to escape the country were arbitrarily detained without charge or trial, frequently in harsh conditions and without access to lawyers. A "shoot to kill" policy was in place for anyone evading capture and trying to cross into Ethiopia. Those who managed to leave Eritrea faced numerous dangers on routes through Sudan, Libya and the Mediterranean to reach Europe, including hostage-taking for ransom by armed groups and criminal gangs.
In Malawi, unregistered migrants were kept in detention beyond the expiry of their custodial sentences, with limited prospect of being released or deported. At least 100 such detainees, mostly from Ethiopia, were held in overcrowded prisons at the end of the year.
An ongoing failure by the South African government to establish a systematic programme of prevention and protection resulted in widespread and violent xenophobic attacks against migrants and refugees, including on their businesses.
IMPUNITY FOR CRIMES UNDER INTERNATIONAL LAW
Impunity for serious human rights violations and abuses – especially those committed in the context of armed conflicts – continued to deprive people of truth and justice, and contributed to further instability and abuses. Most governments – including in Cameroon, CAR, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan – showed little progress towards tackling the entrenched accountability gap, with those suspected of responsibility for crimes under international law rarely held to account.
Despite promises by Nigeria's new President to investigate crimes under international law and other serious human rights violations and abuses committed by the military and Boko Haram, no meaningful action was taken. The government failed to hold its own forces to account, and prosecuted few people suspected of being Boko Haram members. However, the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC identified eight potential cases involving crimes against humanity and war crimes: six involving Boko Haram and two involving the Nigerian security forces.
Despite the publication on 26 October of the report by the AU Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan, and the signing of a peace agreement in August which laid the foundation for the AU's decision to set up a hybrid court, there was no progress towards its establishment. The Hybrid Court on South Sudan was announced as an African-led and Africa-owned legal mechanism.
In April, CAR's National Transitional Council took a positive step towards establishing an accountability mechanism by adopting a law to establish a Special Criminal Court. There was little progress in establishing the Court, however, which is expected to investigate and prosecute those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the country since 2003.
South Africa's government failed to fulfil its international legal obligations in June when Sudan's President al-Bashir – visiting Johannesburg for an AU Summit – was allowed to leave the country. Two open ICC arrest warrants had been laid against him for his alleged role in genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur, and a court order from South Africa's high court also prohibited him from leaving. South Africa's failure to act saw it join a long list of states that have failed to arrest and surrender President al-Bashir to the ICC to face trial. In a worrying development, the African National Congress was reported to have resolved in October that South Africa should withdraw from the ICC. No steps had been taken by the end of the year.
President Ouattara of Côte d'Ivoire stated in April that there would be no more transfers to the ICC, despite the ICC's outstanding arrest warrant for former First Lady Simone Gbagbo for alleged crimes against humanity.
Some states and the AU continued with political efforts to interfere with or undermine the independence of the ICC, and to ensure immunity from prosecution for serving heads of state even when accused of crimes against humanity and other international crimes. The AU Assembly adopted a resolution in June which reiterated its previous calls for termination or suspension of ICC proceedings against Deputy President Ruto of Kenya and President al-Bashir of Sudan. In November, Kenya's government attempted to influence the 14th session of the Assembly of States Parties (ASP) – the political oversight body of the ICC – as part of its attempt to undermine the trial of Deputy President Ruto, by threatening to withdraw from the ICC. The government of Namibia also threatened to withdraw from the ICC in November.
More positively, the DRC took a significant step in November when the Senate voted in favour of adopting domestic legislation for implementation of the Rome Statute of the ICC. During the 14th session of the ASP in November, many African states parties to the Rome Statute of the ICC voiced strong commitment to the ICC and denied support to proposals that could undermine its independence.
A significant step towards justice for victims of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) was achieved in January following the transfer of Dominic Ongwen, alleged former LRA commander, to the ICC. The beginning in July of the trial of Hissène Habré in Senegal – with the accused charged with crimes against humanity, torture and war crimes committed during his tenure between 1982 and 1990 – was a major positive development in Africa's long fight against impunity.
REPRESSION OF DISSENT IN THE CONTEXT OF ELECTIONS AND TRANSITIONS
Fifteen general or presidential elections took place across the continent during the year, many forming the backdrop for human rights violations and restrictions. In countries including Burundi, the Republic of Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, DRC, Ethiopia, Guinea, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda and Zambia there were bans on protests, attacks on demonstrators, and arbitrary arrests of political opponents, human rights defenders and journalists.
Ethiopia's general election in May was marred by restrictions on civil society observing the elections, use of excessive force against peaceful demonstrators, and harassment of political opposition observers. Security officers beat, injured and killed people at polling stations, and four members and leaders of political opposition parties were extrajudicially executed.
In Guinea, tensions around the electoral process led to violence between supporters of different political parties, and between protesters and security forces, the latter often using excessive and lethal force to police demonstrations.
Presidential and parliamentary elections in Sudan saw President al-Bashir re-elected amid reports of fraud and vote-rigging, with low voter turnout and opposition political parties boycotting the elections. Sudan's authorities intensified their suppression of freedom of expression as the elections approached, repressing the media, civil society and opposition political parties, and arresting dozens of political opponents.
In countries including Burkina Faso, Burundi, DRC and the Republic of Congo, attempts by political incumbents to stay in power for a third term sparked protests and subsequent state violence. In Burundi, protests were violently suppressed by the security forces and there was a marked increase in torture and other ill-treatment, especially against those opposed to President Nkurunziza's re-election bid. From September onwards, the situation deteriorated even further; killings on a near-daily basis, including extrajudicial executions, and arbitrary arrests and disappearances became routine. More than 400 people were killed between April and December.
In Burkina Faso in September, members of the Presidential Guard (RSP) attempted a coup and took political leaders hostage, including the President and Prime Minister, triggering public protests. Before being forced to withdraw by the army, the RSP used excessive and sometimes lethal force in a bid to suppress protests.
In The Gambia, relatives of those suspected of involvement in a failed coup in December 2014 were arbitrarily arrested and detained by law enforcement agencies. Three soldiers suspected of being involved were sentenced to death. Political instability in Lesotho continued following an attempted coup in 2014.
Dissent and basic human rights were suppressed in DRC and Uganda, linked to presidential elections scheduled for 2016. As pressure intensified on the DRC President Kabila to not seek another term after 14 years in power, the authorities increasingly targeted human rights defenders and journalists and violently disrupted demonstrations. In Uganda – where President Museveni will seek a fifth term in office in elections due in February 2016 – police arbitrarily arrested political opposition leaders, including presidential candidates, and used excessive force to disperse peaceful political gatherings.
SHRINKING CIVIC SPACE AND ATTACKS ON HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS
Outside the context of elections, many governments stifled dissent and muzzled rights to freedom of expression. Peaceful assemblies were often disrupted with excessive force. Many civil society organizations and human rights defenders faced an increasingly hostile environment, including through use of laws aimed at restricting civic space.
Such patterns of increasing restrictions took place in a wide spectrum of countries, including Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, the Republic of Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Kenya, Lesotho, Mauritania, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Swaziland, Togo, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
In Angola, there was an increase in crackdown on dissent and outright violations of fundamental freedoms, including through the arbitrary detention of activists peacefully calling for public accountability of leadership.
In Eritrea, thousands of prisoners of conscience continued to suffer arbitrary detentions. There was no space for opposition political parties, activism, independent media or academic freedom.
In South Sudan, the space for journalists, human rights defenders and civil society to operate without intimidation or fear continued to decline significantly.
Restrictions on the rights to freedoms of expression, association and assembly increased in Mauritania, and activists were jailed for holding anti-slavery rallies. Senegal's authorities continued to ban demonstrations by supporters of political parties and human rights defenders, and to prosecute peaceful demonstrators.
In Tanzania, journalists faced harassment, intimidation and arrests. Four bills were introduced to Parliament that collectively codified unwarranted restrictions to freedom of expression.
In Zambia, police continued to implement the Public Order Act, restricting freedom of assembly. Zimbabwe's authorities gagged freedom of expression, including through crackdowns involving arrests, surveillance, harassment and intimidation of those campaigning for the licensing of community radio stations.
DISCRIMINATION AND MARGINALIZATION
Although 2015 was the AU's "Year of Women's Empowerment and Development towards Africa's Agenda 2063", women and girls frequently suffered abuse, discrimination and marginalization in many countries – often because of cultural traditions and norms, and the institutionalization of gender-based discrimination through unjust laws. In conflicts and countries hosting large numbers of displaced people and refugees, women and girls were subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence. Positively, countries including Burkina Faso, Madagascar and Zimbabwe launched national campaigns to end child marriages.
Abuses – including persecution and criminalization – of people who are or are perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) were ongoing in many countries, including Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa.
Malawi accepted a UN Universal Periodic Review recommendation to take measures to protect LGBTI people against violence and to prosecute the perpetrators, and agreed to guarantee effective access to health services. However, it rejected recommendations to repeal provisions in the Penal Code criminalizing consensual same-sex conduct between adults.
The African Commission granted observer status to the South Africa-based LGBTI rights organization, the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL), during its 56th Ordinary Session held in The Gambia. However, at a subsequent AU Summit in South Africa, the Executive Council of the AU declined to approve the Commission's activity report until it withdrew the observer status granted to CAL – raising fears that the Commission may be forced to withdraw the decision.
Despite condemnation by the President, there was a sharp increase in killings and other attacks on people with albinism in Malawi by individuals and gangs seeking body parts to sell for use in witchcraft. In Tanzania, the government failed to ensure adequate safety measures for people living with albinism; a young girl was reportedly killed for body parts, and reported cases involved abduction, mutilation and dismemberment.
Events throughout the year demonstrated the extent and depth of Africa's human rights challenges, as well as the urgent need for international and regional institutions to protect millions of lives and to address the global refugee crisis by taking a stronger, clearer and more consistent approach to tackling conflict.
The year also underlined the desperate need for African states to tackle impunity at home and abroad – including by withdrawing from politicized attacks on the ICC. Effective accountability for human rights violations and crimes under international law could be transformative for countries across Africa.
Alongside the Year of Human Rights in Africa, 2016 will mark the 35th anniversary of the adoption of the African Charter, the 30th anniversary of the Charter's entry into force and the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the African Court. With such auspicious anniversaries looming, the challenge for most African leaders is to listen to and work with the continent's growing human rights movement.
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