African Union: focus on rights and justice at the top

(Addis Ababa) – President Macky Sall of Senegal should ensure that the protection of civilians, human rights, justice and accountability are at the center of the African Union agenda as he heads the 55-country body, Human Rights Watch said today. The African Union (AU) summit is scheduled for February 5-6, 2022.

“The President of Senegal, Macky Sall, takes over the chairmanship of the African Union as the continent faces enormous security and health challenges, political upheaval and social unrest,” said Carine Kaneza Nantulya , Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Despite the challenges, Sall has an opportunity to demonstrate the AU’s leadership and commitment to its founding principles by taking bold and uncompromising stances against state-sponsored abuses, responding to calls from victims to protection and justice, and pushing for equal and just multilateral relations with the Global North.

African leaders meeting in Addis Ababa should prioritize addressing the endemic abuses occurring in Ethiopia’s conflict between fighters affiliated with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian federal government and its allies, including Eritrea. The conflict, which has now lasted for more than a year, is having a devastating impact on civilians.

Many violations committed by the belligerent Ethiopians are war crimes and some may constitute crimes against humanity. Despite recently allowing limited humanitarian supplies into Tigray by air, the federal government maintained an effective siege on the region for seven months, denying millions of people access to food, medicine , money and fuel, as well as basic services. In the adjacent Amhara region, communities displaced by fighting and abuse described looting and destruction of health centers, and limited access to medical care and food.

In the first two weeks of January, at least 108 civilians were killed in government airstrikes in Tigray, including 59 in a January 7 airstrike on an internal displacement site. And while the government has released some detainees in recent weeks, thousands of Tigrayans arbitrarily detained under the country’s widespread state of emergency remain in informal and formal detention sites.

“AU member states must not ignore the grave crimes committed by all warring parties, including federal government forces, in the conflict in Ethiopia,” said Kaneza Nantulya. “Given the gravity of the crimes, the AU should respond and act within its mandate to prevent and protect by calling on all warring parties to end the abuses and urging the government to lift its effective siege of Tigray. “.

Beyond the Ethiopian crisis, civilians have been the target of attacks elsewhere on the continent. Armed Islamist groups, government forces and allied militia fighters killed at least 800 civilians in attacks in the Sahel region in 2021. Around 700,000 children are out of school in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon due to attacks by armed separatist groups. In the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the government’s imposition of military rule to address insecurity in the region has not improved the protection of civilians. More than 1,900 civilians have been killed since martial law began in May 2021.

In Mozambique, the Islamic State (IS)-linked insurgent group, locally known as Al-Shabab or Al-Sunna wa Jama’a, has committed numerous serious abuses, including indiscriminate attacks against civilians, kidnappings and sexual violence. Government forces have also been implicated in serious abuses, including threats and unlawful use of force against civilians.

Previous research by Human Rights Watch has underscored the link between security and accountability. In many contexts, the lack of justice for serious crimes – past and present – ​​committed by government forces has fueled recruitment by armed groups. The African Union should rethink its counterterrorism and counterinsurgency approach and put the rule of law, justice, and accountability at the forefront, Human Rights Watch said.

The AU should also support efforts across the continent to effectively establish and implement specialized mechanisms to investigate and prosecute serious international crimes. In South Sudan, the legitimacy of the AU is at stake after more than four years of discussions with the government on the creation of a hybrid court that could help break the cycles of violence and impunity in the country. In Chad, victims of Hissène Habré are still awaiting reparations from the fund created by the court in 2016.

An upsurge in coups and military coups over the past year, including in Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali and Sudan, has often deprived citizens of the right to choose their government , reversed hard-won gains in the rule of law and led to serious human rights violations. Instability, civic unrest and political upheaval are often rooted in people’s grievances about corruption and the perceived unwillingness of political elites to live up to their constitutional obligations and promises of reform, including the promotion of political pluralism and resignation at the end of their term.

Although term limits are not required by international law, the lack of term limits – combined in many cases with political repression and election rigging – undermines the spirit of democracy and has facilitated a pattern in many countries where incumbents maintain power through periodic elections that are neither free nor fair. This has led to elected governments that are democratic in name only – but authoritarian in all other respects.

Of the 10 African countries with the highest numbers of displaced people, 9 have authoritarian-leaning governments, making shrinking civic and political space a key driver of population movements in Africa. To achieve real progress towards respect for human rights and people-centred democratic governance, the African Union should adopt and apply additional policy tools to support the smooth, peaceful and democratic transfer of power. This should include an AU ban on unlimited and irresponsible executive power and stronger policies and tools to deter election rigging and political repression.

“The AU should act not only to strengthen democracy, but also to better manage growing cross-border refugee and security issues,” said Kaneza Nantulya. “African leaders should view the peaceful transfer of power through credible elections as a key element in promoting security for all on the continent.

The AU needs a concerted response to the Covid-19 pandemic as less than 10% of the continent’s population is fully immunized, mainly because countries have unequal access to vaccines. To address this challenge, Sall is expected to use his AU presidency to urge member states to increase investment in health infrastructure, while urging Western governments to ensure that companies that have developed safe and effective vaccines effective against Covid-19 are widely transferring the technology to capable manufacturers in Africa and to the World Health Organization’s technology hubs.

Sall is also expected to press Western governments and multilateral institutions to adopt a waiver of intellectual property protections on vaccines, treatments and tests that has been blocked for more than a year at the World Health Organization. trade.

“The African Union should encourage its members to put in place and expand social protection systems to guarantee the rights to social security and an adequate standard of living in a context of growing poverty and economic disparities caused by the responses of Covid-19,” said Kaneza Nantulya.

Elna M. Lemons