Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
OSISA called on the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) to take urgent action to protect and promote human rights in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Malawi and Swaziland during its submission to the organisation's 51st session in Banjul. OSISA also urged the Commission to work with States to scrap outdated, colonial era offences that serve to criminalise poverty and homelessness, and allow for arbitrary arrest and detention by the police.
With the Angolan State’s periodic report due to be discussed during the current session, OSISA drew the Commission’s attention to the fact that despite recently celebrating 10 years of peace, the majority of Angolans still live in abject poverty – in a country which is awash with oil wealth and endowed with other abundant natural resources.
"The government claims to be committed to fighting poverty but its actions reflect a different agenda," said Leopoldo de Amaral, OSISA's Human Rights Programme Manager. "While the authorities publicly pledge to improve people’s lives, they are busy illegally evicting and demolishing homes and communities with complete disregard for due process or compensation – or their own anti-poverty rhetoric. In fact, in the decade since the civil war ceased, the inequality gap has widened, even though the economy has racked up year after year of impressive growth."
OSISA stressed that Angolans have little to cheer in relation to most basic rights.
"Despite the constitutionally entrenched right to freedom of assembly and expression, the Angolan government does not allow opposing voices any space in the media nor does it tolerate any form of protest," said Amaral. "Public demonstrations by youths, opposition politicians and civil society groups have been met with violence. These brutal attacks on innocent, peaceful demonstrators must cease, especially with elections due later in the year."
Given all this and the fact that elections are due later this year, OSISA called on the commission to urge the Angolan authorities to refrain from using violence to prevent peaceful protests, to prosecute those responsible for brutal attacks on innocent demonstrators, to halt the illegal destruction of people’s homes and to ensure that Angolans can exercise the civil and political rights enshrined in the Constitution.
Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
OSISA also highlighted the fact that the disputed elections of November 2011 have stirred up even more political and social instability in the DRC, while violence has flared up again in parts of the east. Gender and sexual based violence remains a serious concern but the overall human rights situation remains bleak.
This was highlighted in a report issued by the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office, which accused members of the Congolese defense and security forces of committing serious human rights violations in Kinshasa both before and after the elections. The shocking report claimed that the country’s security forces targeted people who were perceived to support the main opposition party and that they were responsible for killing at least 33 people, wounding another 83 and disappearing many more. Over 250 people were arrested and arbitrarily detained. Many of them were tortured.
"So far no perpetrator has been brought to book for any of these crimes – reinforcing the impunity with which security forces operate across the country, severely undermining the rule of law and violating the Congolese people’s most basic human rights," said Amaral.
Echoing the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, OSISA called on the Commission to compel the Congolese authorities to conduct an independent, credible and impartial investigation into all the cases documented by the report and to take the necessary measures to bring the alleged perpetrators of these crimes to justice.
Having congratulated Malawi for its smooth political transition following the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika, OSISA made it clear that the country still faces political, social and economic crises at the heart of which was the previous government’s contempt for basic rights, constitutional provisions and the rule of law. While there are many issues to address, OSISA highlighted a few of the most pressing.
"It is time to end the culture of impunity for police brutality that has developed in Malawi; to rebuild key constitutional bodies, such as the Malawi Human Rights Commission; and, to allow the media and civil society to function freely – so that Malawi returns to the path of democracy where institutions are more powerful than individuals," said Amaral.
OSISA appealed to the Commission to urge the new government to bring those responsible for the killing of 19 innocent protestors in July 2011 and the murder of student activist, Robert Chasowa, to justice – both those who committed the crimes and those who ordered them to do so. OSISA also called on the Commission to urge the new authorities to respect the independence of key constitutional bodies, such as the Human Rights Commission, the Electoral Commission and the Ombudsman, and provide them with the necessary resources to carry out their work.
"And finally, we appeal to the Commission to urge the new President to allow the media and civil society to function free from public threats and violent intimidation," said Amaral.
At the last session of the ACHPR, OSISA appealed to the Commission to undertake a mission to Swaziland to investigate the factors and issues that had given rise to the country's judicial crisis. No visit was possible and sadly the status quo has not changed, even though a compromise reached between the Law Society of Swaziland and the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs did at least end the total boycott of the courts by lawyers due to maladministration and court interference by the Chief Justice. However, the heart of the matter remains unresolved since litigants with cases against the King’s office still cannot access justice.
But OSISA also pinpointed other ways that the people of Swaziland continue to have their basic rights curtailed and violated. Earlier this month, the Attorney General unilaterally de-registered the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) as part of the government’s concerted attack on any groups or individuals demanding genuine democracy and respect for human rights in Swaziland.
"With Swaziland’s unique brand of undemocratic elections due next year, political parties remain banned, the media remains muzzled, civil society remains under threat, the police remain unaccountable and the electoral process itself is contrary to almost SADC and AU principles – except for being held on a regular basis," said Amaral.
OSISA called upon the Commission to visit Swaziland to ascertain the reasons for the on-going judicial crisis and to urge the Swazi government to desist from interfering in the affairs of the judiciary, pursuant article 26 of the Charter. OSISA also urged the Commission to ensure that the Swazi Government unbans political parties, officially registers them and amends the Constitution to allow them to contest for political power so that the people of Swaziland can participate in genuine democratic elections.
In the final part of its submission, OSISA highlighted the fact that many countries on the continent still have outdated, colonial era offences on their statute books that essentially criminalise poverty and homelessness, and allow for arbitrary arrest and detention by the police.
The Ouagadougou Declaration and Plan of Action on Accelerating Prison and Penal Reform in Africa of 2003 recommended the “Decriminalisation of offences such as being a rogue and vagabond, loitering, prostitution, failure to pay debts and disobedience to parents” as a strategy to reduce the prison population. But nearly a decade later, few countries have made any progress in implementing this strategy despite its endorsement by the Commission. For example, a recent audit of pre-trial detainees conducted by OSISA and the Zambian Human Rights Commission showed that accused people charged with minor offenses such as ‘idleness and loitering’ and ‘failure to obey a police officer’ account for 21 percent of the people in police detention in Zambia.
OSISA urged the Commission to call upon State parties to urgently decriminalise petty offences and by-law infringements, which have the potential to significantly decrease the number of people detained in police custody and in prisons, and to ensure that people’s human rights are not infringed.