Mass protests, movements, and mobilization – often articulated and organized through social media – swept the continent in 2016. Protesters and human rights defenders repeatedly found inspiring ways to stand up against repression and campaigns such as the #oromoprotests and #amaharaprotests in Ethiopia, #EnforcedDisappearancesKE in Kenya, #ThisFlag in Zimbabwe, and #FeesMustFall in South Africa formed iconic images from the year.
Given the scale and long history of repression, some of the protests – as in Ethiopia and Gambia – would have been unthinkable only a year previously. Demands for change, inclusion and freedom were often spontaneous, viral and driven by ordinary citizens, in particular young people who bear the triple burden of unemployment, poverty and inequality. Although originally largely peaceful, some of the campaigns eventually had violent elements, frequently in reaction to heavy-handed suppression by the authorities and lack of space for people to express their views and organize.
This trend of gathering resilience and the withering of the politics of fear offered cause for hope. People went out to the streets in large numbers, ignoring threats and bans on protest, refusing to back down in the face of brutal clampdowns, and instead expressing opinions and reclaiming their rights through acts of solidarity, boycotts and extensive, creative use of social media.
Despite stories of courage and resilience, repression of peaceful protests reached new highs and there appeared to be little or no progress in addressing the underlying factors behind the mass public discontent.
Dissent was brutally repressed, as evidenced in widespread patterns of attacks on peaceful protests and the right to freedom of expression. Human rights defenders, journalists and political opponents continued to face persecution and assault. Civilians continued to bear the brunt of armed conflicts, which were marked by persistent and large-scale violations of international law. Impunity for crimes under international law and serious human rights violations remained largely unaddressed. And there was much to be done to address the discrimination and marginalization of the most vulnerable – including women, children and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.
CRACKDOWN ON PEACEFUL PROTESTS
The year saw widespread patterns of violent and arbitrary crackdowns on gatherings and protests – hallmarked by protest bans, arbitrary arrests, detentions and beatings as well as killings – in a long list of countries including Angola, Benin, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Togo and Zimbabwe.
Ethiopian security forces, for example, systematically used excessive force to disperse largely peaceful protests that began in Oromia in November 2015, which escalated and spread into other parts of the country including Amhara region. The protests were brutally suppressed by security forces, including using live ammunition, which resulted in several hundred being killed and the arbitrary arrest of thousands of people. Following the declaration of a state of emergency, the government banned all forms of protest, and blockage of access to internet and social media, which started during the protests, continued.
In Nigeria, military and other security forces embarked on a campaign of violence against peaceful pro-Biafra protesters – resulting in the deaths of at least 100 protesters during the year. There was evidence that the military fired live ammunition with little or no warning to disperse crowds, and of mass extrajudicial executions – including at least 60 people shot dead in the space of two days in connection with protest events to mark Biafra Remembrance Day on 30 May. This was similar in pattern to the attacks and excessive use of force in December 2015 on gatherings in which the military slaughtered hundreds of men, women and children in Zaria in Kaduna state during a confrontation with members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria.
In South Africa, student protests resumed in August at universities across the country under the banner of #FeesMustFall. The protests regularly ended in violence. While there may have been some violence on the students' side, Amnesty International documented many reports of police using excessive force, including firing rubber bullets at short range at students and supporters generally. One student leader was shot in the back 13 times with rubber bullets on 20 October in Johannesburg.
In Zimbabwe, police continued to clamp down on protest and strike action in Harare using excessive force. Hundreds of people were arrested for participating in peaceful protests in different parts of the country, including Pastor Evan Mawarire, leader of the #ThisFlag campaign, who was briefly arrested in an attempt to suppress growing dissent, and who eventually fled the country when he feared for his life.
In many of these protests and more, including in Chad, Republic of the Congo (Congo), DRC, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Lesotho and Uganda, there was an increasing crackdown on social media and patterns of arbitrary restriction or shutting down of access to the internet.
ATTACKS ON HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS AND JOURNALISTS
Human rights defenders and journalists were frequently in the front line of human rights violations, with the right to freedom of expression suffering both steady erosions and new waves of threats. Attempts to crush dissent and tighten the noose around freedom of expression manifested themselves across the continent, including in Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, Gambia, Kenya, Mauritania, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo and Zambia.
Some had to pay the ultimate price. A prominent human rights lawyer, his client and their taxi driver were subjected to forced disappearance and extrajudicial killing by police in Kenya. They were among more than 177 cases of individuals extrajudicially executed at the hands of security agencies during the year. In Sudan, the murder of 18-year-old Sudanese university student Abubakar Hassan Mohamed Taha and 20-year-old Mohamad Al Sadiq Yoyo by intelligence agents came against a backdrop of intensified repression of student dissent. Two journalists were killed in Somalia by unidentified assailants, in a climate in which journalists and media workers were harassed, intimidated and attacked.
Many others faced arbitrary arrests and continued to face prosecution and detention for their work. Despite some positive steps in Angola – including the acquittal of human rights defenders and release of prisoners of conscience – politically motivated trials, criminal defamation charges and national security laws continued to be used to suppress human rights defenders, dissent and other critical voices. In DRC, youth movements were classified as insurrectional groups. Elsewhere, the whereabouts of politicians and journalists arbitrarily arrested and forcibly disappeared in Eritrea since 2001 remained unknown, despite the government's announcement that they were still alive.
In Mauritania, although the Supreme Court ordered the release of 12 anti-slavery activists, three remained in detention and anti-slavery organizations and activists continued to face persecution by the authorities.
Beyond imprisonment, human rights defenders and journalists also faced physical assaults, intimidation and harassment in many countries including in Chad, Gambia, Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan.
On 18 April, Zimbabwe's Independence Day, state security agents brutally assaulted the brother of disappeared journalist and pro-democracy activist Itai Dzamara, after he held up a placard at an event attended by President Robert Mugabe in Harare. In Uganda, there was a series of attacks on the offices of NGOs and human rights defenders. Continuing lack of accountability for these crimes sent the message that the authorities condoned and tolerated these actions. In one attack, intruders beat a security guard to death.
Media houses, journalists and social media users faced increasing challenges in many countries. Zambia's authorities shut down the independent newspaper The Post in a ploy to silence critical media ahead of the election, also arresting senior staff and their family members.
Burundi's already-decimated civil society and independent media came under increasing attack: journalists, members of social media groups and even schoolchildren were arrested simply for speaking out. In Cameroon, Fomusoh Ivo Feh was sentenced to 10 years in prison for forwarding a sarcastic text message about Boko Haram.
In some countries, emerging laws were cause for concern. A draft law under parliamentary consideration in Mauritania restricted the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. In Congo, a law increasing government control over civil society organizations was passed. In Angola, the National Assembly approved five draft bills that will impermissibly restrict the right to freedom of expression. Elsewhere, existing laws such as terrorism and state of emergency laws were used to criminalize peaceful dissent. The Ethiopian government – increasingly intolerant of opposing voices – escalated its crackdown on journalists, human rights defenders and other dissenters by using the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation.
On the positive side, there were some hopeful signs of judicial activism and courage – even in extremely repressive countries – which challenged governments' use of the law and judiciary to stifle dissent. In DRC, four pro-democracy activists were released, a rare positive step in a very difficult year for freedom of expression in the country. A landmark court ruling against repressive laws in Swaziland in September was also another victory for human rights. Zimbabwe's High Court overturned a ban on protests. Although another High Court ruling subsequently made this void, the courageous decision – made after President Mugabe threatened the judiciary – represented a victory in defence of human rights and sent a clear message that the right to protest cannot be stripped away on a whim. In Gambia, more than 40 prisoners of conscience, some of whom had been detained for as long as eight months, were released on bail pending appeal immediately following the elections.
2016 witnessed several contested elections across Africa, characterized by increased repression. In several countries, including in Burundi, Chad, Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, DRC, Gabon, Gambia, Somalia and Uganda, opposition leaders and voices came under severe attack.
In one of the most unexpected developments, tens of thousands of Gambians took part in peaceful gatherings ahead of the Presidential elections, although at the end of the year the election results remained contested.
The months leading up to the elections were marred by serious violations of citizens' rights to express themselves freely. Dozens of opposition members were arrested, and two died in custody after being arrested for participating in peaceful protests. Thirty protesters were sentenced to three years in prison for their involvement in peaceful protests, with 14 others awaiting trial. All were released on bail immediately following the elections on 1 December.
Despite initially conceding defeat to the opposition leader Adama Barrow, President Yahya Jammeh subsequently challenged the results and remained defiant to domestic and international pressure to hand over power.
The Ugandan government undermined the opposition party's ability to legally challenge the results of February's elections. Security forces repeatedly arrested the aggrieved presidential candidate Dr Kizza Besigye and some of his party colleagues and supporters, also besieging his home and raiding the party's office in Kampala.
In DRC, there was a systematic crackdown on opponents of President Joseph Kabila's attempt to stay in power beyond the constitutionally mandated second term – which ended in December – and those criticizing election delays. Security agents arrested and harassed those taking an explicit stand on the constitutional debate or denouncing human rights violations, accusing them of betraying their country.
In Somalia, an acute humanitarian crisis was compounded by a political crisis over electoral colleges for parliamentary and presidential elections, with the armed group al-Shabaab rejecting all forms of elections and calling on its followers to attack polling venues to kill clan elders, government officials and MPs taking part in elections.
Authorities in Congo continued to detain Paulin Makaya, President of "Unis pour le Congo" (UPC), simply for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression. After the opposition rejected the results of the March presidential election, the authorities arrested leading opposition figures and suppressed peaceful protest.
The authorities in Côte d'Ivoire targeted opposition members and unfairly restricted their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, before a referendum on constitutional changes in October. This included the arbitrary arrest and detention of dozens of opposition members at a peaceful protest. Some of them were dropped in several places in the economic capital, Abidjan, others around 100km away from their homes and forced to walk back in a practice known as "mobile detention". In October, during a peaceful protest against the referendum, police fired tear gas, clubbed the leaders and arrested at least 50 people.
Civilians in Africa's armed conflicts – including in Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, DRC, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan – faced serious abuses and violations. Gender-based and sexual violence was widespread, and children were recruited as child soldiers.
In west, central and eastern Africa, armed groups such as al-Shabaab and Boko Haram continued to perpetrate relentless violence and abuses, with hundreds of civilians killed and abducted and millions forced to live in fear and insecurity, both within and outside their countries. In Cameroon, over 170,000 people – mostly women and children – were internally displaced across the Far North region as a result of Boko Haram's abuses. In Niger, over 300,000 people needed humanitarian aid during the state of emergency in the Diffa region, where most attacks were carried out by Boko Haram.
Many governments responded to these threats with disregard for international humanitarian and human rights law, including through arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
In Nigeria, 29 children under the age of six – including babies – were among more than 240 people who died in horrendous conditions during the year in the notorious Giwa barracks detention centre in Maiduguri. Thousands rounded up during mass arrests in the northeast, often with no evidence against them, continued to be detained in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, without trial or access to the outside world. Similarly in Cameroon, more than 1,000 people – many arrested arbitrarily – were held in horrific conditions and dozens died from torture, or disease and malnutrition. In cases where detainees suspected of supporting Boko Haram were brought to trial, they faced unfair trials in military courts in which the death penalty was by far the most likely outcome.
Elsewhere, the security and humanitarian situation in Sudan's Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan states remained dire. Evidence of the use of chemical weapons by government forces in the Jabel Marra region of Darfur demonstrated that the regime will continue attacking its civilian population without fear of accountability for its violations of international law.
Despite the signing of the peace deal in South Sudan between government and rival forces, fighting continued in different parts of the country throughout the year, and escalated in the southern Equatoria region after heavy fighting broke out in the capital, Juba, in July. During the fighting, armed forces, particularly government soldiers, committed human rights violations including targeted killings and attacks including against humanitarian personnel. The UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) was criticized for its failure to protect civilians during the fighting. A UN Security Council resolution to establish a regional protection force was not implemented. The UN Special Advisor on the prevention of Genocide and the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan raised the alarm that the stage was being set for a genocide.
In CAR, despite peaceful elections in December 2015 and February 2016, the security situation deteriorated later in the year, threatening to plunge the country into more deadly violence. Armed groups launched numerous attacks: on 12 October, ex-Séléka fighters from at least two different factions killed at least 37 civilians, injured 60, and set fire to a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs), in the city of Kaga Bandoro.
Yet despite such bloodshed and suffering, the world's attention arguably shifted even further away from Africa's conflicts. Certainly, the international community's response to conflict in the continent was woefully inadequate, as evidenced by the UN Security Council's failure on sanctions on South Sudan, and the insufficient capacity of peacekeeping operations to protect civilians in CAR, South Sudan and Sudan. There were hardly any measures, including from the UN Security Council and the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council, to put pressure on the government of Sudan to allow humanitarian access and to investigate allegations of grave violations and abuses. The AU's response to crimes under international law and other serious human rights violations and abuses committed in the context of conflict and crisis remained mostly slow, inconsistent and reactive rather than forming part of a comprehensive and consistent strategy.
PEOPLE ON THE MOVE
Africa's conflicts – including in Cameroon, CAR, Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan – remained major drivers of the global refugee crisis, and the internal displacement of people within borders. Millions of women, children and men were still unable to return home, or were forced by new threats to flee into unknown dangers and uncertain futures.
People from sub-Saharan Africa formed the majority of the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants travelling to Libya fleeing war, persecution or extreme poverty, often in the hope of transiting through the country to settle in Europe. Amnesty International's research revealed horrifying abuses including sexual violence, killings, torture, and religious persecution along the smuggling routes to and through Libya.
In northern Nigeria, at least two million people remained internally displaced – living in host communities and some in overcrowded camps with inadequate food, water and sanitation. Tens of thousands of IDPs were held in camps under armed guard by the military and Civilian Joint Task Force, which were accused of sexually exploiting women.
Thousands of people have died in these camps due to severe malnutrition.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees from CAR, Libya, Nigeria and Sudan continued to live in poor conditions in refugee camps in Chad. According to the UN, more than 300,000 people fled Burundi, most of them to refugee camps in neighbouring Rwanda and Tanzania. More than 1.1 million Somalis remained internally displaced, with another 1.1 million Somali refugees remaining in neighbouring countries and elsewhere.
In the three years since the start of the conflict in South Sudan, the number of refugees in neighbouring countries reached 1 million, while a total of 1.7 million people continued to be displaced within the country, and 4.8 million people were food insecure.
Kenya's government announced its intention to close Dadaab refugee camp, home to 280,000 refugees. Some 260,000 of these people were from Somalia or of Somali descent, who – as a result of other changes to Kenya's refugee policy – were at risk of being forcibly returned, in violation of international law.
IMPUNITY AND FAILURES TO ENSURE JUSTICE
Impunity remained a common denominator in all of Africa's major conflicts, with those suspected of crimes under international law and gross human rights violations rarely held to account.
Despite having a clear mandate, the AU had yet to take concrete steps towards setting up a hybrid court for South Sudan, as required by the country's peace accord. Such a court would represent the most viable option for ensuring accountability for crimes such as war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the conflict, and for deterring further abuses.
Some progress was made towards setting up the Special Criminal Court in CAR, but the vast majority of suspected perpetrators of serious crimes and gross violations of human rights remained at large, free of any arrest or investigations. In addition to the serious weakness of the UN's CAR peacekeeping mission, impunity remained one of the key drivers of the conflict and civilians faced deadly violence and instability.
In Nigeria there was compelling evidence of widespread and systematic violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by the military, leading to more than 7,000 mainly young Nigerian men and boys dying in military detention and more than 1,200 people killed in extrajudicial executions. However, the government did not take any steps towards investigating such allegations. No one was brought to justice and the violations continued.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) declared the charges against Kenya's Deputy President William Ruto and radio presenter Joshua Arap Sang dismissed, and thus all cases before the ICC in relation to Kenya's post-election violence in 2007-2008 collapsed. This decision was seen as a major setback by thousands of victims who had yet to see justice.
In a betrayal of millions of victims of international crimes across the world, three states in Africa – Burundi, Gambia and South Africa – signalled their intention to withdraw from the Rome Statute.
The AU also continued to call on states to disregard their international obligations to arrest Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir despite his being wanted by the ICC on charges of genocide. In May, Uganda failed to arrest visiting President Al-Bashir and hand him over to the ICC, failing hundreds of thousands of people killed or displaced in the Darfur conflict.
There were, however, some heartening and historic moments for international justice and accountability.
Many African member states of the ICC affirmed their support for and intention to remain within the Rome Statute's system during the 15th Session of the Assembly of State parties in November. This commitment was previously reflected at July's AU Summit in Kigali where many countries – including Botswana, Côte d'Ivoire, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia – opposed a call for a mass withdrawal from the Rome Statute. In December, Gambia's President-elect announced his intention to rescind the government's decision to withdraw from the Rome Statute.
Positive developments included the conviction of Chad's former President Hissène Habré in May for crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture committed between 1982 and 1990. The Extraordinary African Chambers in Dakar sentenced him to life imprisonment, and set a new benchmark for efforts to end impunity in Africa. The case was the continent's first universal jurisdiction case and Habré the first former African leader to be prosecuted before a court in another country for crimes under international law.
In March, the ICC convicted Jean-Pierre Bemba, former Vice-President of DRC, for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in CAR. The ICC's sentence of 19 years followed its first conviction for rape as a war crime and its first conviction based on command responsibility. The guilty verdict was a key moment in the battle for justice for victims of sexual violence in CAR and around the world.
The ICC also began the trial of Côte d'Ivoire's former President Laurent Gbagbo and his Youth Minister, Charles Blé Goudé, on charges of crimes against humanity. The ICC also convicted Ahmad Al-Faqi Al-Mahdi – an alleged senior member of the Ansar Eddine armed group – for attacks on mosques and mausoleums in Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012, a crime under international law.
Elsewhere, South Africa's Supreme Court rebuked the government for its failure to abide by its domestic and international obligations when it failed to arrest Al-Bashir during a visit to the country in 2015. This affirmed the international norm of rejection of immunity of perpetrators for international crimes, irrespective of official capacity.
DISCRIMINATION AND MARGINALIZATION
Women and girls were frequently subjected to discrimination, marginalization and abuse often because of cultural traditions and norms, and discrimination institutionalized by unjust laws. Women and girls were also subjected to sexual violence and rape in conflicts and countries hosting large numbers of displaced people and refugees.
High levels of gender-based violence against women and girls were reported in many countries such as Madagascar, Namibia and Sierra Leone.
In Sierra Leone, the government continued to ban pregnant girls from going to mainstream schools and taking exams. The President also refused to sign a bill legalizing abortion in certain situations despite it having been adopted by Parliament twice and despite Sierra Leone's high maternal mortality rate. The country rejected UN recommendations to prohibit female genital mutilation by law.
Early and forced marriage in Burkina Faso had robbed thousands of girls as young as 13 of their childhood, while the cost of contraception, along with other barriers prevented them from choosing if and when to have children. But following an intense civil society campaign, the government announced that it would revise the law to increase the legal marriage age to 18.
LGBTI people, or those perceived to be so, continued to face abuse or discrimination in countries including Botswana, Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Togo and Uganda. In Kenya, two men petitioned the High Court in Mombasa to declare the anal examination, HIV and hepatitis B tests they were forced to undergo in 2015 were unconstitutional. However, the court upheld the legality of anal examinations on men suspected of engaging in sexual activity with other men. Forced anal examinations violate the right to privacy and the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment under international law.
In Malawi, an unprecedented wave of violent attacks against people with albinism exposed a systemic failure of policing. Individuals and criminal gangs perpetrated abductions, killings and grave robberies as they sought body parts that they believed contain magical powers. Women and children were particularly vulnerable to killings, sometimes targeted by their own relatives.
In Sudan, freedom of religion was undermined by a legal system under which conversion from Islam to another religion was punishable by death.
Lack of accountability for corporations was also another factor for gross violation of the rights of children. Artisanal miners – including thousands of children – mine cobalt in hazardous conditions in the DRC. This cobalt is used to power devices including mobile phones and laptop computers, and major electronics brands – including Apple, Samsung and Sony – are failing to carry out basic checks to ensure that cobalt mined by child labourers is not used in their products.
The AU called 2016 its Year of Human Rights, but many member states failed to convert rhetoric on human rights into action. If there was anything to be celebrated about the year, it was the story of people's resilience and courage as they articulated a clear message that repression and the politics of fear can no longer silence them.
Almost certainly, escalating crises in countries such as Burundi, Ethiopia, Gambia and Zimbabwe could have been averted or minimized had there been the political will and courage to open up space for people to freely express their views.
Despite progress in some areas, the AU's responses to violations of human rights – as the structural causes of conflicts, or emerging out of conflicts – remained largely slow, inconsistent and reactive. Indeed, even when it showed concern, the AU generally lacked the determination and political will to confront such violations head-on. There also appeared to be co-ordination gaps between the peace and security organs and mechanisms – such as the AU's Peace and Security Council and its Continental Early Warning System – and the regional human rights institutions, which limited a comprehensive response to human rights violations leading to or emerging out of conflicts.
The AU has less than four years to realize its aspiration to "silence all guns" on the continent by 2020. It is time to translate this commitment into action, by ensuring an effective response to the underlying structural causes of conflicts, including persistent human rights violations.
More effective measures are also needed to tackle the cycle of impunity – including moving away from politically motivated attacks on the ICC and working towards ensuring justice and accountability for serious crimes and gross human rights violations being committed in countries like South Sudan and elsewhere.
The AU has embarked on designing a 10 Year Action and Implementation Plan on Human Rights in Africa, providing yet another opportunity to address its key challenges. The starting point should be recognition that Africans are rising and claiming their rights, despite repression and exclusion.
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