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Rights commission challenges Africa's leaders

An African human rights commission has criticized the continent’s worst rights offenders, including Sudan and Zimbabwe, in a report analysts say marks a “coming of age” for the organization.
/ Source: Reuters

An African human rights commission has criticized the continent’s worst rights offenders, including Sudan and Zimbabwe, in a report analysts say marks a “coming of age” for the organization.

The African Union’s commission issued candid reviews of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the report, obtained by Reuters on Wednesday.

Those countries said they wanted a chance to reply before the report became public, ensuring it remained confidential.

“If the African Union is to have a strong voice it has to foster constructive criticism, not bury it,” said Reed Brody from the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Alarm bells
The report expressed concern at “the intimidation of independent judges and the interference of the executive in the judiciary” in Zimbabwe.

It also expressed alarm at the number of people displaced because of government demolitions and urged Harare to immediately stop the policy which has made 700,000 people homeless.

It condemned Eritrea for arbitrary arrests and long detentions of ex-ministers, journalists and parliamentarians, and demanded their immediate release.

In Ethiopia it called for the release of political prisoners and said it “deplored the death of civilians during confrontations with security forces." It also urged an inquiry into the clashes over elections last year.

Summit host Sudan, snubbed for the chairmanship because of atrocities in its western Darfur region, was urged to immediately cease all attacks on civilians and to support aid workers trying to feed two million refugees.

Sudan should fully cooperate with the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is probing alleged war crimes, the commission said. Sudan says it will not let ICC investigators enter Darfur.

Change of tune for leaders
The AU is reluctant to criticize members, but at a summit this week it elected judges for an African human rights court and fought a fierce diplomatic battle not to allow host Sudan to become its head, showing it would no longer ignore atrocities.

One AU official said this report was a challenge to member states and proof the rights commission was a serious organ.

“Here we see how sensitive our member states are to criticism, but the commission is finally fulfilling its mandate and challenging them,” said the AU official, who declined to be named because the report was not yet public.

“The states will get their chance to comment but then the reports will be released,” he added.

Brody said this was a sign of maturity in the AU rights commission. “The African commission is coming of age. Now it is the African Union’s turn to do so,” he said.