NAIROBI, Jan 21 – African leaders have sent their people an alarming message by siding with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir over his victims, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its annual report on Wednesday.
The 600-page review of human rights in the world criticised African governments for blocking justice mechanisms and warned that rights activists were increasingly threatened.
The New York-based watchdog hailed the March 2009 International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant against Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sudan\’s strife-wracked Darfur region as "a major development".
But in an introduction entitled "The Abusers’ Reaction: Intensifying Attacks on Human Rights Defenders, Organisations, and Institutions", it also deplored the African Union\’s decision to stand by Bashir.
"One would have wanted African leaders to applaud the move. After all, the world had dithered for more than five years as the people of Darfur faced mass murder and forced displacement," the report said.
"Unfortunately, some African leaders seemed less troubled by the slaughter of ordinary African people than by the audacious prospect that a sitting African leader might actually be brought to justice for these horrendous crimes," it said.
"The nadir came during the African Union summit held in July 2009 in Sirte, Libya," HRW said. "The AU, led by some of the continent’s worst autocrats, began accusing the court of unfairly targeting Africans. In reality, these leaders were cynically trying to protect one of their own."
Human Rights Watch, which reviewed the status of human rights in around 20 sub-Saharan countries, also highlighted government obstruction or misuse of justice mechanisms at national level.
The report, dedicated to Alison Des Forges — a former HRW Africa senior adviser and leading expert on Rwanda\’s 1994 genocide who died in a US plane crash last year — took a swipe at Rwanda over its local gacaca courts.
Rwanda has "employed its informal gacaca courts — a form of popular justice devoid of many fair trial guarantees — to falsely accuse government critics of complicity in the 1994 genocide," HRW said.
"Ironically, these steps, taken in the name of national reconciliation, have undermined the formation of independent civil society groups that could bridge ethnic divides and ease ethnic tensions," it added.
Human Rights Watch also slammed Kenya, a key Western ally in Africa which has failed to introduce reforms demanded by the international community following deadly post-election violence in 2008.
The report said "incidents of extrajudicial killings and excessive use of force by police and military continued unchecked in 2009."
"There were also renewed reports of systematic torture and mistreatment of civilians during disarmament operations," it added.
The report also singled out Ethiopia, which it said was "on a deteriorating human rights trajectory as parliamentary elections approach in 2010."
Abuses by the military, lengthly pre-charge detention and legal provisions restricting political freedom go unpunished and unnoticed by foreign donors keen not to jeopardise security cooperation, it said.
The watchdog deplored yet another year of violence against civilians by all belligerents in the Democratic Republic of Congo and a situation in Somalia, which it said was "so dangerous that open human rights monitoring is virtually impossible."