Maverick Citizen: Africa Human Rights Roundup
The year in rights: Embracing gains and continuing to fight for freedoms in 2021
It was a rather difficult year for human rights, with the catastrophic spillover of Covid-19 continuing to claim lives and destroy livelihoods. But 2021 was also a year in which we saw positive changes and human rights gains in East and southern Africa, inspiring humanity.
On 30 June, Burundian human rights defender Germain Rukuki was released from prison after spending almost four years in detention simply for doing his human rights work. His 2018 conviction, following his arrest in 2017, on trumped-up charges of “participation in an insurrectional movement”, “threatening internal state security” and “attack on the authority of the state”, was overturned and his 32-year sentence reduced to one year, although a charge of “rebellion” was upheld.
Germain should never have been imprisoned in the first place, and while his release was a positive step, the Burundian authorities continue to restrict civil society, including the unjust imprisonment of lawyer Tony Germain Nkina. Burundian authorities must stop targeting human rights defenders and open up the space for people to exercise their rights.
On 29 November, the Appeals Court of Botswana upheld the historic 2019 court ruling in favour of the right of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons to practise consensual same-sex activities, and effectively struck off two sections of the penal code, drawn up under British rule, which criminalised same-sex relationships. Amnesty International is one of the organisations that proudly welcomed this ruling.
The unanimous judgment, following a government appeal against the 2019 ruling, said: “Sections [of the old British colonial rule] penal code have outlived their usefulness, and serve only to incentivise law enforcement agents to become keyhole peepers and intruders into the private space of citizens.”
This was a powerful statement of change in affirming the dignity, liberty, privacy and equality of the LGBTI community in Botswana and beyond. The government of Botswana must respect this judgment and begin to make the necessary legal and policy changes to ensure that LGBTI people can truly live freely in a country that allows them to be who they are without being subjected to unfair treatment because of who they love.
Following four months of relentless pro-democracy protests by the people of Eswatini, King Mswati conceded to calls for dialogue to negotiate the future of the country with pro-democracy protesters, following the intervention of the regional body, the Southern African Development Community (SADC). However, at the time of the SADC’s late intervention, we had seen brazen violation of rights, including freedom of expression, association, information and peaceful assembly, with more than 80 people killed, while more than 200 were admitted to hospital following abuses at the hands of security forces. More than 1,000 people were reported to have been arbitrarily arrested and detained. More than 15 were children. There have been allegations of torture and other ill-treatment of those detained.
Worryingly, the dialogue won’t start until the king is done with his annual traditional ritual, Incwala – to celebrate royalty – which began in November and traditionally lasts about a month.
In Zimbabwe, the supreme court affirmed that the right to a fair trial is still a fundamental ingredient of justice and constitutional rights when it freed two political prisoners who had been sentenced in 2013 to 20 years in prison for allegedly murdering a Zimbabwe Republic Police officer. Lawyers representing Last Maengahama and Tungamirai Madzokere, who had been detained since 2011, argued that the judge who presided over the conviction erred and misdirected himself when he failed to properly apply the law and discharge the accused.
In Zambia, the Independent Broadcasting Authority reinstated the broadcasting licence of Prime TV in a win for media freedom after its unjust removal from the airwaves in April 2020. The station’s reinstalment came shortly before the inauguration of President Hakainde Hichilema in August, who defeated incumbent Edgar Lungu – who governed by “fear” and presided over an oppressive government which clamped down on media freedom, jailed opponents, passed harsh laws and punished dissent. Hichilema has since pledged total media freedom and rights-respecting government.
In Madagascar, after months of refusing to acknowledge Covid-19, the Malagasy government finally dropped its unhelpful policy of refusing to order Covid-19 vaccines following pressure from Amnesty and others – giving more people a chance to access life-saving vaccines.
In South Africa in March, police revived an investigation into the 2017 murders of best friends Popi Qwabe and Bongeka Phungula, after receiving a petition signed by more than 341,000 Amnesty supporters worldwide, demanding that their killers be brought to justice. The police have now completed their investigation and handed over the case to the country’s National Prosecuting Authority. After years of distress and anger over irregularities and delays in the original police investigation, Popi and Bongeka’s friends and families finally have reason to believe that justice for their loved ones is on the horizon.
However, 2021 was also a rude reminder that global inequality remains one of the biggest threats to human rights and that it needs urgent attention. Many people were hopeful that the discovery of vaccines would translate to a collective global fight against the pandemic after the World Health Organization issued the first validation of the use of vaccines in December 2020.
We were mistaken.
Rich and powerful countries used money and their political influence to procure hundreds of millions of doses, shutting poor countries out of the market. The result was inequitable distribution of these much-needed vaccines, meaning that most people in low-income countries would become the last to be inoculated, as if one’s financial status was the qualifying criteria to get vaccinated. As we have seen with the inequitable distribution of vaccines, there is still a lot of work to be done to close the gap between the rich and the poor.
The share of global wealth held by billionaires also surged as the pandemic continues to cause untold suffering, according to the World Inequality Lab, a group founded by French economist Thomas Piketty. The think tank found that about 2,750 billionaires control 3.5% of the world’s wealth in its latest report.
Time and again, organisations like Amnesty have warned global leaders, including the G20 coalition, that failure to tackle global vaccine inequality could prolong the pandemic, including by not supporting the temporary waiver of intellectual property. But pharmaceutical companies continue to prioritise supplying high-income countries who are also stockpiling more doses than they can use, while blocking attempts to increase supplies to low-income countries by refusing to participate in increased sharing of technology and know-how.
To date, only 7% of people in Africa have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Contrast that with most of Europe and North America, where vaccination rates are on average 60%.
This naked inequality prolongs suffering, creates fertile ground for human rights violations, exacerbates Covid-19-induced economic decline and worsens prospects for long-term economic recovery – while we are already seeing the emergence of new variants like Omicron in South Africa, showing that no one is safe until everyone is vaccinated. As President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “The emergence of the Omicron variant should be a wake-up call to the world that vaccine inequality cannot be allowed to continue. Until everyone is vaccinated, everyone will be at risk.”
Raging conflicts in Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique, Tigray in northern Ethiopia, Sudan and Western Equatoria in South Sudan, have left countless people dead or displaced.
Just between June and October 2021, the state of Western Equatoria was a site of clashes between competing local groups aligned with forces affiliated to the government’s South Sudan People’s Defence Forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition, resulting in hundreds killed, displacement of up to 80,000 people, abductions, looting and destruction of homes and civilian properties and a dire humanitarian situation.
Last month marked one year of the most dire conflict in northern Ethiopia, which expanded to the neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions since July 2021. Two million people are internally displaced, while 70,000 became refugees in Sudan due to the conflict. Amnesty has documented that troops loyal to the warring parties committed grave and widespread human rights violations including rape and sexual violence, massacres of civilians and attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure. Those violations of international human rights and humanitarian laws are war crimes and may also amount to crimes against humanity.
In Sudan, we saw people’s power in full display when civilians took to the streets in October to reject a military takeover of power by soldiers. Following weeks of protests, an agreement signed on 21 November resulted in the reinstatement of civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok who pledged “an independent and transparent investigation into all the violations” that accompanied the protests since 25 October.
The conflict in northern Mozambique continued to be southern Africa’s human rights nightmare, leaving tens of thousands of people dead or injured and driving displacement in the region. In Cabo Delgado, nearly one in three people are now internally displaced, and many have had to flee their homes multiple times, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Repeated displacement and the consequent destruction of people’s livelihoods are exhausting families’ already scarce resources and causing food insecurity and malnutrition to rise. Civilians have been exposed to a variety of protection concerns, including killings, physical assault, kidnappings and gender-based violence. Moreover, the conflict has resulted in families being separated, and in many cases displaced a number of times as they seek safety. The situation, which has become a protection crisis, substantially worsened after attacks by non-state armed groups in the city of Palma on 24 March 2021.
These conflicts, and others elsewhere, undermine efforts to build and consolidate peace in East and southern Africa, reducing the African Union’s aim of silencing the guns by 2030 to a lofty dream.
One thing is clear: In 2022, people must continue to demand and claim their freedoms because we have seen that change is possible when people stand together and speak with one voice to demand their human rights. We also know that human rights do not come on a silver platter. We must fight for them. We must reclaim them. DM/MC
Deprose Muchena is Amnesty International’s director for East and southern Africa.
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