Op-ed by Deprose Muchena, senior director for regional human rights impact at Amnesty International.
It’s been 74 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the UN General Assembly.
This international document is meant to guarantee the human rights and freedoms of all people, regardless of their race, creed, gender or nationality. It makes clear that “human rights should be protected by the rule of law”.
While the UDHR was a progressive document at the time, it was not born in a vacuum. The UDHR was brought to life as an attempt by world leaders of the time to prevent a repeat of some of the darkest days in history, which took place during the horrors of World War II.
Historians have estimated that anywhere between 40-million and 60-million people were killed during that war and yet, despite the subsequent adoption and introduction of the UDHR, and the adoption of several other human rights instruments, new wars as well as long-standing and unresolved conflicts continue to cause pain and suffering to civilians around the world.
Compounding this problem is the ever-growing deficit in global leadership to envision and reimagine a new value-driven, rights-respecting world order. The international system is clearly in crisis, hardly holding together to decisively resolve many of the mutually reinforcing complex global political and socio-economic challenges the world faces today.
Russian war of aggression in Ukraine
On 24 February, people across Ukraine woke up to the news that their country was being invaded by Russia’s military. In the middle of the night, Russian tanks rolled into the country and the military attacked from multiple directions, killing civilians and destroying public infrastructure and people’s homes.
As the war rages on, the sheer scale of human rights violations and crimes under international law that are exposed grows with every passing day. Entire neighbourhoods have been destroyed through disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks, with the UN recording nearly eight million Ukrainian refugees across Europe and many more people missing or forcibly transferred to Russian territory.
In towns such as Bucha, Andriivka, Zdvyzhivka and Vorzel, Amnesty International collected evidence and testimony of unlawful killings, including apparent extrajudicial executions. Some victims had their hands tied behind their backs while others showed signs of torture. In further instances of likely crimes against humanity, convoys of civilians fleeing with their children were fired upon.
The impact of Russia’s war against Ukraine is not contained within Europe. The economic and social rights of millions of people across Africa, and globally, have suffered as a consequence of Russian aggression.
In Africa, the war has plunged the continent into a deeper economic crisis, which was already struggling, following the disastrous impact of Covid-19 on people’s livelihoods. The significant rise in the cost of oil, of which Russia is the biggest supplier globally, has driven food prices higher, including the cost of staple food such as bread.
Together, Russia and Ukraine account for almost a third of the world’s wheat exports with African nations among their largest purchasers. According to the World Food Programme, Russia and Ukraine supply 100% of Eritrea’s supplies and 66% of Ethiopia’s wheat. With both countries already facing humanitarian crises, due to armed conflict and drought, things have been worse as a result of a war fought far from their shores.
Continuing wars and human rights violations in Africa
In different parts of Africa, people who are trapped in conflicts in countries such as Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan have continued to pay the price of these protracted wars in 2022 and are experiencing full-scale violations of their human rights.
Again, failed leadership by the UN and the AU has meant war and conflict have become a standard bearer of the rule of law deficit so evident in most of the war-torn parts of the continent.
For example, in Ethiopia, the conflict in the northern region of Tigray entered its second year in November 2022. Grave human rights violations, including sexual violence, have been a defining feature of the conflict. Multiple forms of sexual violence — including rape, sexual slavery, sexual mutilation and torture — have been perpetrated against Tigrayan women and girls by government forces, their allied militias and by the Eritrean forces that have been fighting alongside the Ethiopian military.
Similarly, the Tigrayan forces committed grave human rights violations, including sexual violence, against women and girls in the Amhara and Afar regions. As human rights lawyer Brian Kagoro has opined – it has become “a festival of illegalities”!
In South Sudan, sexual violence has been and continues to be a persistent feature of the conflict that broke out in the country on 15 December 2013. Perpetrators include government security actors, non-state armed groups, militias and armed and unarmed men. Guns are used to facilitate conflict-related sexual violence with impunity by security forces, who threaten women and girls to comply with their sexual demands.
In the DRC, successive multi-layered armed conflicts have devastated the country since the early 1990s. Congolese and foreign armies as well as non-state armed groups have continued to commit countless crimes under international law throughout 2022, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other grave human rights abuses. The long-proclaimed potential of the DRC to be the final key that unlocks Africa’s development in power, energy, and mineral development has sadly so far remained a stillbirth.
In Somalia, the ongoing conflict between Somali authorities and the armed group al- Shabaab, which also involves allied regional and international forces including the United States Africa Command (Africom) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) now replaced by the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (Atmis), continues to have a devastating toll on civilians.
In Mali, thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes and many civilians have been killed amid increased fighting between Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Malian armed forces and allied armed groups, as the conflict in northern Mali escalated in June.
Parties to these conflicts committed war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. The pursuit of justice for victims proved largely to be elusive.
Rising authoritarianism and shrinking space
A centrally discussed concern in Africa, as indeed in other parts of the world, is what author and historian Anne Applebaum coined in her new book as the “seductive lure of authoritarianism” – a drift towards toxic nationalism, populism and despotic abuse of power by leaders of countries operating in concert with others.
It is self-evident that despotic leaders do not rule alone, they rely on a system – a package of enablers, political allies, bureaucrats and state-controlled media figures to pave the way to support their [mis]rule.
You can see the cross-border alliance of this project, the copycat behaviour in the enactment of draconian anti-NGO laws from one country to the other, the curtailment of human rights and excessive weaponisation of the law as an instrument of repression, smear campaigns against activists, the abuse of the criminal justice system by means of political persecution in the name of prosecution and the downright colonial-era intimidation tactics by an assortment of state functionaries and their supporting cast.
These authoritarians use a common playbook – including the promotion and harvesting of fear, undermining of institutions, blaming outsiders for domestic failure, exploiting religion, rewriting history, dividing and conquering, eroding the truth and doing anything to sustain their repression and get away with their crimes.
These tactics shrink the space for human rights and civil society. To highlight this problem, the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network meeting in Lusaka in the last week of November, chose this as the theme of their annual human rights summit!
Across Africa, authorities have escalated their crackdown on peaceful dissent, including the detention of government critics and opposition leaders for speaking out against injustice. Prominent Zimbabwean opposition leader Job Sikhala has been languishing in detention for more than five months without having been found guilty of any crime, after attending the funeral of a political activist. In September, author and activist Tsitsi Dangarembga and fellow protester Julie Barnes were each convicted of “inciting violence” and handed a six-month suspended sentence after they protested economic hardships in 2020.
In Angola, authorities tightened their grip on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association by preventing civil society meetings from taking place ahead of the general election in August.
In the DRC, authorities have continued to use the state of siege, which is similar to a state of emergency, in North Kivu and Ituri provinces, as a tool to crush dissent. Military and police authorities have used sweeping powers to silence individuals deemed critical of the state of siege, including members of parliament, pro-democracy activists and human rights workers. In April, a military court in Beni convicted 12 activists from the citizen movement Lutte pour le Changement in a shameful attempt to silence critical voices.
Some positive signs for human rights
Human rights gains are never given on a silver platter. They are a function of struggle, of organising, not agonising and of resilience and standing up to human rights abusers.
Against this backdrop, we have also seen positive signs in 2022 that are encouraging for those fighting to promote and ensure the protection of human rights. The global fight against the death penalty is being won, slowly but surely. While an overwhelming majority of countries in the region have not yet abolished the death penalty for all crimes, some including Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, are not carrying out any executions.
Meanwhile, Zambia has begun the process of doing away with the death penalty through parliament after President Hakainde Hichilema announced in May that the country would be working to abolish this cruel and inhuman form of punishment.
In Malawi, justice was served in April when a court convicted 12 men over the 2018 killing of MacDonald Masambuka, a person with albinism.
In another victory for human rights, in South Africa a constitutional court ruling in November provided new protection for human rights defenders and activists against Strategic Litigation against Public Participation (Slapp) suits designed to silence criticism. The court ruled that Slapp suits target activists, journalists, whistleblowers and everyday people who exercise their constitutional rights, including challenging injustice, masquerading as ordinary lawsuits.
In the second judgment, the constitutional court held that companies that suffer harm to their reputation as a result of defamation may not claim compensation for non-financial losses if the defamatory speech forms part of “public discourse on issues of legitimate public interest”.
Standing up to ‘protect the protest’
From Tanzania to Uganda, Russia to Sri Lanka, France to Senegal, and Iran to Zimbabwe, state authorities are implementing an expanding array of measures to suppress organised dissent.
Protesters across the globe are facing a potent mix of pushbacks, with a growing number of laws and other measures to restrict the right to protest, including the misuse of force; “authoritarian legalism” characterised by use, abuse and non-use of the law; the expansion of unlawful mass and targeted surveillance; internet shutdowns and online censorship; smear campaigns; and abuse and stigmatisation.
As offline space shrinks, we are seeing greater and more organised mobilisation and reclaiming of civic space online through greater digital activism. This included routine online pushback on falsehoods, misinformation and manipulation by an African population embracing digital tools and spaces for activism and social change.
This year, Amnesty International launched a new global campaign to confront states’ widening and intensifying efforts to erode the right to peaceful assembly.
Our “Protect the Protest” campaign will challenge attacks on peaceful protest, stand with those targeted, and support the causes of social movements pushing for human rights change.
None but ourselves!
This op-ed was originally published by the Mail & Guardian on December 14, 2022