As an International Justice Program intern with The Advocates for Human Rights, I have encountered many examples of human rights abuses throughout the world. Yet, while the recent drama of domestic politics continues to dominate the attention of American citizens, these international human rights violations go largely unreported and unaccounted for in U.S. media. The ongoing human rights crisis gripping the state of Burundi presents one such example as members of civil society continue to face politically-based violence at the hands of the ruling party.
April 2015 marked the start of a political and human rights crisis in Burundi that has claimed hundreds of lives. Violence flared following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a controversial third term and subsequent, political protests. Police and security forces responded by exercising excessive force and shooting demonstrators indiscriminately.
After a failed coup d’état by military officers in May 2015, the Government intensified its repression of political dissent by suspending most of the country’s independent radio stations. In addition, journalists and human rights defenders face violence and increasing restrictions on their rights to freedom of expression and association. Recently adopted legislation further limits the ability of non-governmental organizations to operate and for civil society to participate in public life. By mid-2015, most of Burundi’s opposition party leaders, independent journalists and civil society activists had fled the country after receiving repeated threats.
The human rights crisis that gripped Burundi in 2015 deepened in 2016 as government forces targeted perceived political opponents with increased brutality. The Burundian National Defense Forces (BNDF) and the Burundian National Intelligence Service (SNR)—often in collaboration with members of the ruling party’s youth league, known as Imbonerakure—committed numerous killings, disappearances, abductions, torture, rape, and arbitrary arrests against the perceived opponents of the ruling party.
For perpetrators of these crimes associated with the ruling party, there is almost total impunity. The ruling party continues to interfere with Burundi’s weak justice system and therefore these human rights abuses are rarely punished. The government’s suspected political opponents have been arrested and held for prolonged periods unlawfully. Ultimately, an average of more than one thousand people fleeing the violence escaped to nearby Tanzania per day in 2016 to join the 250,000 already spread across Eastern Africa.
The Advocates’ Refugee and Immigrant Program provides legal representation to individuals seeking asylum. The Advocates has received direct information about suppression of political opinion in Burundi from survivors fleeing human rights abuses in the country to seek asylum in the United States. Our clients share stories of being accused, often arbitrarily, of supporting anti-government protests. They report police and Imbonerakure members searching their homes, looting their businesses, and arresting, beating and interrogating them and their family members. While each client’s case is different, their experiences confirm that the legal system and policies in Burundi are failing to provide individuals with adequate protection from politically-based violence.
In July, The Advocates for Human Rights submitted a stakeholder’s reportto the Universal Periodic Review, identifying specific measures that the Burundian Government should enact to address political suppression in the country.
First, Burundi should combat impunity by systematically and promptly carrying out investigations of criminal activity committed by government affiliates and ensure appropriate compensation for such crimes. In the previous UPR, the Government of Burundi accepted recommendations to continue efforts toward combatting impunity including the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. While the Commission was established in 2016, serious concerns exist regarding the Commission’s ability to fulfill its mandate with the expanded use of temporary immunities which have de facto become permanent amnesty schemes. Burundi should then establish an independent mechanism for investigating complaints of torture or ill-treatment at the hands of members of police or security forces to ensure accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations.
Second, the Government should take the necessary steps to ensure that legal systems and policies are in full compliance with Burundi’s international obligations with respect to freedom of expression. During its last UPR, Burundi rejected 15 recommendations related to freedom of expression and association, as well as protections for human rights defenders. Burundi must afford journalists and human rights defenders the freedom to carry out their work independently and without fear of persecution or intimidation.
Overall, Burundi is failing to meet its international obligations to investigate and prosecute political-based violence perpetrated on behalf of the ruling party. Security forces, intelligence services, and Imbonerakure members are repeatedly identified as responsible for extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, abductions, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture and ill-treatment, and sexual violence. The Burundian Government must act to combat impunity and protect civil society members from such human rights violations.
With the ongoing human rights crisis gripping the state of Burundi, members of civil society continue to face politically-based violence at the hands of the ruling party. Unfortunately, these human rights violations continue to go largely unreported and unaccounted for in U.S. media. Although American domestic politics seem to dominate the current political discourse, we all need to remain vigilant and afford these international, human rights violations the attention they deserve.
By April Will, a second-year J.D. student (class of 2019) at the University of Minnesota Law School. She is a 2017 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.
The Advocates’ stakeholder submission to the UN Human Rights Council for Burundi’s Universal Periodic Review includes direct information about human rights violations from survivors who have fled Burundi to seek asylum in the United States. Read the full report here.
You may never have heard of the Oromo people, the largest single ethnic group in Ethiopia. You might be surprised to learn that if you are a U.S. taxpayer, you are subsidizing their oppression.
On Tuesday, April 19, a Congressional commission named the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission conducted a hearing on human rights conditions in Ethiopia. The Commission provides information concerning human rights to Congress, so it is particularly fitting that it should inquire into conditions in Ethiopia. That country has been a major ally of the United States and recipient of U.S. humanitarian and military aid for all of the years Ethiopia’s current regime has been in power. Since 2013, the United States has given in the range of half a billion dollars per year in foreign aid to Ethiopia, plus a much smaller amount of military aid, which means the United States is Ethiopia’s largest and most important source of foreign assistance.
In July 2015, President Obama visited Ethiopia, drawing widespread criticism from human rights groups for his warm words toward the country and his relatively milquetoast references to its abysmal human rights record. Obama said that the Prime Minister of what he referred to as the “democratically elected” Ethiopian government “would be the first to acknowledge that there is more work to be done” in the field of human rights.
Well, yes. The ruling party in Ethiopia won all 547 seats in Parliament following the elections that occurred just two months before Obama’s visit, and the “democratically elected” Prime Minister was allocated 100 percent of the vote. U.S. officials were prohibited from acting as election observers. The election featured denials of registrations for opposition candidates, while journalists were arrested and threatened. After the election, at least three opposition politicians were murdered, with no investigations conducted.
The government’s security forces employ murder and torture. In 2014, they fired into crowds of peaceful students who were protesting the government’s “land grab” for the benefit of international development interests, which would potentially displace an estimated two million Oromo. Dozens were killed. Many more were arrested and remain in prison. The killings continue. According to Human Rights Watch, relying on reports of activists, at least 75 protesters were killed by government security forces in November and December 2015, while the government only acknowledged five deaths. The actual figures are likely much greater than is known, since the government tightly restricts access to such information. There is no freedom of the press, no independent judiciary, no adherence to international human rights standards beyond lip service.
The Ethiopian government is adept at achieving the maximum oppression while drawing minimal attention to its human rights abuses. It signs onto numerous international human rights conventions, although it routinely violates them. It purports to allow local human rights organizations to exist, although its Charities and Societies Proclamation makes it largely impossible for them to operate by denying the organizations international funding.
Perhaps most impressive, the government masterfully plays the terrorism card. In 2009, it adopted the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, allowing draconian treatment of persons accused of being “terrorists,” largely an arbitrary term for those opposing actions of the Ethiopian government and wishing to bring about change. The government frequently brands protesting Oromo and others as “terrorists” to justify imprisoning or killing them.
The Tom Lantos Commission should disseminate to Congress all possible documentation of the crimes of the Ethiopian government. In turn, Congress should find ways to be sure the United States ratchets up the pressure on its strategic ally far beyond clubby acknowledgements of “more work to be done.” The spigot of international development money should not remain open without real and fundamental changes in the human rights environment in Ethiopia, beginning with an end to extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary killings; a release of political prisoners; restoration of a free press and independent judiciary; and the repeal or modification of the Charities and Societies Proclamation and the Anti-Terrorism Law.
By: James O’Neal, retired attorney and member of The Advocates for Human Rights’ board of directors, and Robin Phillips, the organization’s executive director. Deeply concerned about continuing human rights violations in Ethiopia, The Advocates has consistently raised concerns about the treatment of Oromos in Ethiopia at UN human rights bodies and with the African Commission on Human & Peoples’ Rights.
Pictured above: Amaanee Badhasso, International Oromo Youth Association’s president in 2014, accompanied The Advocates’ Amy Bergquist to Geneva that year to meet with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
Read other blog posts about Ethiopia’s persecution of the Oromo by entering “Ethiopia” or “Oromo” in the blog’s search bar.
Sixteen-year-old Hanna Lalango was kidnapped as she was returning home from school on October 1, 2014. Her kidnappers gang raped her for several days before throwing her out on a street where, later, she was found unconscious. Hanna’s parents sought the best medical care they could afford to save her life. Unfortunately, she passed away on November 1, 2014. The Federal High Court of Ethiopia sentenced each of the suspects 17 years to life imprisonment.
In another case, Bemnet Geremew, a 28-year old lawyer from Addis Ababa, was strangled and beaten to death by her husband on the night of June 27, 2015. The two had been married for only two months. A few days after committing the crime, the husband handed in himself to the police. The case is still in the courts.
These two are among many high profile cases of violence against women that have prompted a social media outcry and significant activism. Unfortunately, the majority of violence against women crimes are either unreported to the police or receive insufficient attention from police or courts.
Violence against women is widespread in Ethiopia. A World Health Organization study found that almost 71 percent of Ethiopian women reported being subjected to physical/sexual violence by their intimate partners.
A decade ago, Ethiopia underwent extensive legal reform in an attempt to harmonize its laws with its constitution. Accordingly, the 2005 Criminal Code of Ethiopia defines and carries stringent punishment for acts of violence against women. Book Five, Title I, Chapter 2 of this code includes list of punishable acts of violence against women and girls, including female genital mutilation and trafficking women. The revised federal and regional family laws have also brought provisions that better protect the rights of women in marriage.
Ethiopia has also ratified numerous international and regional conventions that proscribe acts and practices of violence against women, such as the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and is a signatory to the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol). The country has subscribed to a multitude of relevant international and regional consensus documents.
Despite these efforts in legal reform, acts of violence against women seem to be on the rise in Ethiopia. Proliferation of electronic or social media has helped expose some of these crimes that would otherwise be unreported. Every year thousands of young women are trafficked and subjected to labor and sexual exploitation. There is almost a total lack of state accountability when these crimes are committed. For instance, in September 2015 a 20-year-old university student was shot in cold blood and killed by an armed member of the federal police for simply failing to greet him as she walked by. No official apology was offered to her families and the public. The progress of the case is not yet announced.
The momentum of advocacy for legal reform and implementation that was being initiated and carried out by civil society organizations and the non-profit sector a decade ago has stagnated in recent years. Since the year 2010, there has been a dramatic fall in the number of non-governmental organizations working directly on women’s human rights. This phenomenon is primarily due to the civil society law that was issued in 2009 requiring all non-profit organizations to re-register as new organizations. Accordingly, charities and organizations are classified as under Ethiopian, Ethiopian-resident, and foreign. Ethiopian charities are those which source only up to 10 percent of their funds from foreign sources. In accordance to the proclamation, only these Ethiopian charities can engage in activities relating to “the advancement of human and democratic rights” and “the promotion of equality of …gender and religion.” Many organizations primarily funded by foreign sources failed to re-register foreseeing that they would not be able to bear financial burdens by using local sources. Those which have continued their human rights work are severely incapacitated as a result of financial constraints. It is extremely difficult to generate funds locally to fulfill the goals of these organizations. This law has also prevented the creation of potential human rights organizations that would work to protect women’s human rights. “One step ahead two steps back” can describe the momentum of women’s human rights in Ethiopia.
Regarding rights relating to violence against women, a state has duty to respect, protect, and fulfill. In this context, the Ethiopian state not only needs to respect and protect women’s rights, but it should also fulfill these rights. It also has an additional layer of obligation to create conducive atmosphere for local and international co-operation in the implementation of rights.
The causes of violence against women in Ethiopia emanate from deep-rooted discriminatory culture against women. It requires multi-sectoral efforts such as education, advocacy, and appropriate law enforcement. The state cannot do all these by itself. Therefore, it must amend restrictive laws, such as civil society law, to engage other actors to promote and protect women’s human rights. In lieu of that, the state tampers with the rights of women to be protected from acts and practices of violence.
By: Attorney Mekdes Fisseha Libasie is an intern with The Advocates for Human Rights’ Women’s Human Rights Program. She has taught and practiced law in Ethiopia. Mekdes obtained her law degree from Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. She also has LL.M degree in Public International Law from University of Oslo, Norway. Currently, she is finalizing a research degree at the University of Surrey, UK.
While my son is getting ready to head out tonight to harvest Halloween candy, excited by the chance to lug a pillowcase full of chocolate bars around the neighborhood,I’ve been thinking about the children who harvest the cocoa that goes into the chocolate in his bag.
Because while he finds an evening of hauling candy a treat, I know that for the millions of kids his age working in the cocoa industry it’s anything but fun.
The cocoa industry in these countries relies heavily on work performed by children, some as young as 5 years old, including WFCL (shorthand for the “worst forms of child labor” as defined by international law).
The work is dangerous, and it’s especially hard on children’s bodies.
A Tulane University report, commissioned as part of the accountability framework for the 2001 Harkin-Engel Protocol that was meant to end abuses in the industry, lays out the issue:
“Fifteen years ago, the West African cocoa sector came under increased scrutiny after media reports revealed incidences of child trafficking and other labor abuses in cocoa farming. On September 19, 2001, representatives of the international cocoa/chocolate industry signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol. Signing this agreement as witnesses were U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and U.S. Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY), the Government of Côte d’Ivoire, the ILO, and representatives of civil society. Based on ILO Convention 182, the Protocol’s principal goal was “to eliminate the worst forms of child labor (WCFL) in the cocoa sectors of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.”
Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s leading cocoa producer, experienced large growth in cocoa production from 2008-09 to 2013-14.
Total output rose by over half a million tons, or over 40%.
The population of children 5-17 years living in agricultural households in Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa-growing regions grew by about 180,000, or 5%.
The numbers of children working in cocoa production, doing child labor in cocoa production, and doing hazardous work in cocoa production grew by 59%, 48%, and 46% respectively.
What’s driving the growth?
In short, it’s us and our demand for cheap chocolate. The problem, of course, is that it’s not easy to harvest cocoa. It’s heavy, dangerous, delicate work. Fields must be cleared, planted, and tended. When the cocoa pods are ready, they must be harvested by hand, split open, and the seeds removed for drying. It’s time-consuming, labor-intensive work.
That kind of labor should come at a significant cost. But as with so many commodities, the prices are kept low by squeezing labor out of workers who are largely invisible to consumers through a complicated supply chain structure. Consumer-facing companies are driven by the competing demands of delivering rock bottom prices and sky-high profits. Those with massive buying power – like Mars, Hershey’s, and Nestlė – are able to bid down the prices of commodities like cocoa with their suppliers, who make up for low prices by paying less – or sometimes nothing at all – for the work.
We see the effect of this kind of price pressure on wages here in the United States. Retail cleaners in Minnesota, for example, have been squeezed by the low contracts bid by stores which result in wages as low as $4 per hour. Workers organized by CTUL have set a November 10 strike deadline for contracted cleaners. Farmworkers in Florida’s tomato fields, facing the same structural barrier to fair earnings, used pressure on major retailers to increase the per/pound rate for tomatoes by $.01, resulting in a substantial step toward a fair wage.
But the kids harvesting cocoa don’t have that option. Sometimes sold for the equivalent of $30, sometimes kidnapped, they don’t have the power to stage a boycott.
Forced labor yields approximately $50 billion in profits annually according to estimates by the International Labour Organization. Included are profits derived from what are considered the worst forms of child labor, or WFCL, such as that used in the cocoa industry.
There are bright spots: While the number of children in West Africa’s cocoa production increased in the past five years, Ghana actually managed to reduce, albeit slightly, its numbers during that period.
So what will I do this Halloween? I’m not entirely sure. But I know I’ll start with a conversation. To end this problem of child labor in the cocoa industry, more consumers need to know about the true cost of the chocolate they are buying.
The capsize of a ship overloaded with migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean has galvanized attention on what The New York Times characterizes as a surge in refugees from throughout the Middle East and North Africa. With, as The Times reports, “about 17 times as many refugee deaths in the Mediterranean Sea from January to April compared to the same period last year,” the human tragedy unfolding is shocking, particularly to those of us who have never faced such a perilous choice.
Even European leaders who according to NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli have long been “pressed by anti-immigrant parties… are now facing a backlash for having neglected the humanitarian disaster taking place in the waters of the Mediterranean.” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi struck a new note when he said: “We are asking not to be left alone. Our political priority is not just a security issue. We want to ensure the dignity of human beings and block human traffickers. The new slave traders of the 21st century must not believe that Europe considers this one of the least important issues on its agenda.”
The recognition that migration is more than a border security issue is one the United States needs to take seriously.
Several weeks ago NPR’s Steve Inskeep had a rather horrifying exchange with Simon Henshaw, the U.S. State Department deputy secretary charged with explaining how the United States’ is fulfilling its international refugee protection obligations despite its multifaceted deterrence strategy through a recently-opened process for Honduran children whose parents are permanent residents to enter the U.S. more quickly than the normal visa backlog allows:
INSKEEP: Does it bother you, though, that there may be a young person who asks
for help and then has to go away from a U.S. consulate and go back into the neighbor-
hood where their lives have been threatened?
HENSHAW: Yes, it does. But what really bothers me is the thought that that child
might take a risky journey through Mexico and come to the United States. So what
I want to do is make sure that our program addresses their situation as fast as possible.”
Yes, Mr. Henshaw, La Bestia is dangerous. But even more dangerous is abandoning the fundamental right to non-refoulement – to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution.
Last December NPR’s Robert Siegal summed up the Obama Administration’s official word: “if you, a child in Central America, try to come up North, you’ll be put in detention; you’ll be sent back; you’ll be flown back home.”
In a report released this month, Detention Watch Network traced the role of deterrence strategies in U.S. immigration policy, noting that the Obama administration’s “recent reliance on the deterrence justification to rationalize the long-term detention of asylum-seeking families marks a new level of aggressive and inappropriate use.”
The human rights violations endured by asylum-seeking families are numerous. Included in the (very long) list of violations flagged by The Advocates for Human Rights and Detention Watch Network in a joint submission to the UN last year was the growing use of detention to deter asylum seekers from seeking protection in direct contravention of international obligations. We pointed to Central American mothers and children seeking asylum being subject to arbitrary detention in a stated effort by the United States to deter asylum seekers from coming to the United States.
Detention and deportation to deter people from seeking asylum from persecution (in direct contravention of this fundamental human right) is not the only tactic being used by the United States. The Los Angeles Times reports that “under U.S. pressure, Mexico for the first time in many years has launched a wide crackdown on the migrants. More than 60,000 have been deported this year, as many as half in recent months, the government says.” Also on the deterrence menu: increased train speeds.
While the United States’ deterrence strategies violate international law by abrogating the right to seek asylum, the European Union’s shift toward targeting the traffickers is little better. As commentator Kenan Malik writes, replacing the border security narrative with a narrative of criminality is not the answer:
The traffickers are certainly odious figures, recklessly placing migrants in peril.
But what pushes migrants into the hands of traffickers are the European Union’s
own policies. The bloc’s approach to immigration has been to treat it as a matter
not of human need, but of criminality. It has developed a three-pronged strategy
of militarizing border controls, criminalizing migration and outsourcing controls.”
What, then, is the answer? Perhaps an immigration policy that includes the words “ensure human dignity” is a start.
As I get ready to head back to Geneva, my thoughts turn to my last visit to the United Nations, back in March. As I wandered through the Palais des Nations complex of buildings after a busy day, I came across an exhibit that left me speechless. This exhibit was in the majestic main hallway of the old League of Nations building—a space with towering ceilings and beautiful views of Lake Geneva. But in that grand setting was a photo exhibit about a pernicious contemporary global human rights violation: child marriage. Child marriage is a worldwide phenomenon, but as it turns out, several of the girls in the exhibit are from Ethiopia.
And the exhibit is particularly timely right now. On Monday, Bangladesh approved a law that will impose a two-year prison sentence on anyone who marries a girl under age 18. And on Wednesday, a judge in India admonished the parents and in-laws of a 14-year-old bride, stating “Child marriage is an evil worst than rape and should be completely eradicated from the society.” The magistrate continued:
There are serious outcomes of child marriage. It is the worst form of domestic violence against the child, not only by the respondents (husband and his family) but also by her own parents. Child brides have a diminished chance of completing their education and are at a higher risk of being physically abused, contracting HIV and other diseases, and dying while pregnant or giving birth.
The traveling exhibit, called “Too Young to Wed” (more information at the bottom of this post), is a striking example of how art can inform our understanding of human rights issues:
Too Young to Wed is part of a transmedia campaign led by VII Photo Agency photographer Stephanie Sinclair, who has documented the global issue of child marriage for nearly a decade. The original photos in the exhibit were taken by Sinclair and Jessica Dimmock. Too Young to Wed is a partnership between the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and VII, a premier photo agency known for focusing on social issues and human rights. Sinclair and Dimmock collaborated on the project. Learn more about the project here.
Today, the Ugandan Constitutional Court struck down that country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, which had been signed into law in February of this year. And earlier this summer, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Africa’s regional human rights body, issued a landmark resolution calling on its member states to respect and protect the human rights of sexual minorities. Meanwhile, however, as friends and family of Cameroonian human rights defender Eric Ohena Lembembe recently gathered to mark the one-year anniversary of his brutal murder, the police investigation remains at a standstill.
Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act Struck down on procedural grounds
Uganda’s new Anti-Homosexuality Act imposed harsh penalties for “homosexuality” and “aggravated homosexuality,” and even criminalized “aiding and abetting homosexuality” and promoting homosexuality. A Ugandan LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) rights group has alleged in ongoing proceedings in U.S. court that American Scott Lively played a central role in lobbying for the legislation.
Ten petitioners, including academics, journalists, human rights groups, activists, and members of parliament from the ruling and opposition parties, challenged the law on several grounds, arguing that it violates the privacy and dignity rights enshrined in the Ugandan Constitution, as well as the right to be free from discrimination and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. They also argued a procedural point, contending the act was adopted unlawfully because parliament lacked a quorum when it voted on the bill.
The Court considered the procedural argument first, and agreed with the petitioners. The five-judge panel ruled that the speaker of parliament acted unlawfully in allowing the bill to come up for a vote, because there were at least three objections that not enough members of parliament were present. “The speaker was obliged to ensure that there was a quorum,” the court ruled. “We come to the conclusion that she acted illegally.” The vote was unlawful, the court concluded, and therefore the act is null and void.
Because the court ruled on procedural grounds, rather than on the merits, the court’s decision does not bar parliament from adopting an identical law in the future. And homosexuality remains a criminal act in Uganda, as it was before the new law was signed. The Ugandan government is considering whether to appeal the decision of the Constitutional Court to the Ugandan Supreme Court.
The Advocates and partners mobilize in wake of Cameroonian activist’s murder Uganda is not the only country in Africa where laws, the justice system, and societal homophobia endanger LGBTI people and human rights defenders who work on their behalf. In advance of the African Commission’s 54th Ordinary session in October 2013, The Advocates for Human Rights and its partner organizations, Le Reseau des Defenseurs des Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale (REDHAC), Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), and L’Association pour la Defense des Droits des Homosexuels (ADEFHO), submitted a report to the African Commission detailing rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in Cameroon.
The report came on the heels of the brutal torture and murder of Cameroonian human rights defender Eric Ohena Lembembe, executive director of CAMFAIDS. Just weeks before his murder, as the report noted, Lembembe had spoken out about the dangers facing human rights defenders in Cameroon working on behalf of LGBTI people:
“There is no doubt: Anti-gay thugs are targeting those who support equal rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Unfortunately, a climate of hatred and bigotry in Cameroon, which extends to high levels in government, reassures homophobes that they can get away with these crimes.”
Before the African Commission session, REDHAC and CAMFAIDS also participated in an NGO forum that culminated in an oral presentation to the African Commission and the NGO forum’s adoption of a resolution on violence and human rights violations based on imputed or actual sexual orientation and gender identity. The African Commission’s history-making resolution mirrors the resolution adopted by the NGO forum.
Coalition condemns Cameroonian authorities’ lackluster response to Lembembe’s murder, calls for thorough and fair investigation
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, along with CAMFAIDS, ADEFHO, REDHAC, Alternatives Cameroon, and MDHC, recently denounced the dysfunctional justice system in the case of Lembembe’s murder. One year after the murder, the investigating judge has summoned only Lembembe’s family members. Authorities never took any photographs or fingerprints at the scene of the crime. The medical certificate indicating the nature of the death does not mention the burns and other obvious injuries visible on Lembembe’s body. In what seems to be an attempt at intimidation, several of Lembembe’s friends and family members were placed in police custody early in the investigation.
Coalition members fear that the attitude of the police and judiciary authorities in the investigation reflects those institutions’ disregard for the respect and protection of LGBTI people’s human rights in Cameroon. “The Cameroonian authorities’ inertia in this case is all the more worrying that it might reinforce the sentiment of impunity of the authors of the crimes and persecutions against LGBTI people, and feed the stigma and discrimination against these people and the defenders of their rights,” added Michel Togue, a Cameroonian lawyer and Legal Advisor for CAMFAIDS.
The coalition renewed its call for Cameroonian authorities to conduct an independent, effective, rigorous, impartial, and transparent investigation in order to identify the perpetrators, bring them before an independent, competent, and impartial court in accordance with international and regional human rights protection instruments, and to apply criminal, civil, and/or administrative sanctions as provided for by the law.
The Commission expresses alarm at the ongoing violence, abuse, and discrimination against sexual minorities by state and non-state actors as well as the failure of law enforcement to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators. The Commission directs state parties to the African Charter to comply with their obligations to protect all Africans from human rights abuses and violence and urges them to enact and enforce laws to prohibit and punish violence directed at the LGBTI community and its defenders.
Laws and public attitudes in many African countries reflect and foster widespread discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity
The African Commission is responsible for setting the human rights standards to be observed by states that have ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights; essentially every African country except South Sudan and Morocco. A significant number of those states outlaw same-sex activity, and African governments continue to enact new repressive legislation, such as the Anti-Homosexuality Act that the Ugandan Constitutional Court struck down today.
In January, the president of Nigeria signed a law that mandates a 14-year prison sentence for anyone entering a same-sex union and a 10-year term for anyone “who supports the registration, operation and sustenance of gay clubs, societies, organizations, processions or meetings.” “Supporters” would include health centers providing treatment and counseling for AIDS and other health concerns as well as civil society organizations and human rights defenders. The potential impact on HIV transmission and treatment alone is tremendous, yet public opinion appears to favor these laws.
According to research conducted by the Pew Research Center, more than 90 percent of the population in Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and Senegal consider same sex activity “unacceptable,” according to The Global Divide on Homosexuality. Over the past year, reports of mob violence, murder, rape, assault, arbitrary arrests, and detention have increased.
African Commission Resolution is groundbreaking step toward tolerance
In this context, the resolution is especially meaningful and groundbreaking. Taking a firm stand against the widespread intolerance of non-conforming sexual minorities, the Commission has articulated a legal basis for the protection against discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity and advised its member states that their commitments to universal equality under the African Charter require them to respect the human rights of sexual minorities.
The resolution states:
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Commission), meeting at its 55th Ordinary Session held in Luanda, Angola, from 28 April to 12 May 2014:
Recalling that Article 2 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Charter) prohibits discrimination of the individual on the basis of distinctions of any kind such as race, ethnic group, colour, sex, language, religion, political or any other opinion, national and social origin, fortune, birth or any status;
Further recalling that Article 3 of the African Charter entitles every individual to equal protection of the law;
Noting that Articles 4 and 5 of the African Charter entitle every individual to respect of their life and the integrity of their person, and prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment;
Alarmed that acts of violence, discrimination and other human rights violations continue to be committed on individuals in many parts of Africa because of their actual or imputed sexual orientation or gender identity;
Noting that such violence includes ‘corrective’ rape, physical assaults, torture, murder, arbitrary arrests, detentions, extra-judicial killings and executions forced disappearances, extortion and blackmail;
Further alarmed at the incidence of violence and human rights violations and abuses by State and non-State actors targeting human rights defenders and civil society organisations working on issues of sexual orientation or gender identity in Africa;
Specifically condemns the situation of systematic attacks by State and non-state actors against persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation or gender identity;
Deeplydisturbed by the failure of law enforcement agencies to diligently investigate and prosecute perpetrators of violence and other human rights violations targeting persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation or gender identity;
Condemns the increasing incidence of violence and other human rights violations, including murder, rape, assault, arbitrary imprisonment and other forms of persecution of persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation or gender identity;
Specifically condemns the situation of systematic attacks by State and non-state actors against persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation or gender identity;
Calls on State Parties to ensure that human rights defenders work in an enabling environment that is free of stigma, reprisals or criminal prosecution as a result of their human rights protection activities, including the rights of sexual minorities; and
Strongly urges States to end all acts of violence and abuse, whether committed by State or non-state actors, including by enacting and effectively applying appropriate laws prohibiting and punishing all forms of violence including those targeting persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation or gender identities, ensuring proper investigation and diligent prosecution of perpetrators, and establishing judicial procedures responsive to the needs of victims.
Adopted at the 55th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Luanda, Angola, 28 April to 12 May 2014.
By Julie Shelton and Amy Bergquist. Guest-blogger Julie Shelton was the team leader on The Advocates for Human Rights’ trip to Cameroon in February 2013. The team conducted a pro bono needs assessment with over 35 Cameroonian organizations that work to promote human rights and rule of law. Shelton led the project to draft the shadow report to the African Commission on LGBTI rights in Cameroon. She was honoredfor her volunteer work on June 25 at The Advocates’ Human Rights Awards Dinner.
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