Archive for Africa

Sudan: On the Path to Transition?

By Reem Katrib, a RightsViews staff writer and a graduate student in the Human Rights MA Program.

After a 30-year conflict over its autonomy, South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan through a referendum in 2011. The Enough Project explains that this secession “caused a severe economic shock in Sudan, as the country lost nearly 75 percent of its oil reserves and 95 percent of its foreign currency reserves.” Since then, the Sudanese government has repressed political opposition, often using violence against civil society and opposition groups who have expressed their dissent at the mismanagement of the economy. 

Prior to secession, Sudan had been plagued by conflict with continuing human rights violations that has meant a distrust of the judiciary in the present. In April 2019, a military council replaced Omar al-Bashir when he was forced out of office. The military leaders and opposition members negotiated to form a “sovereign council” the following August. This council acts  as a transitional government and calls for holding the previous government accountable for human rights violations.    

Institutional Reform and the Transitional Justice Draft Law  

While Omar al-Bashir was ousted from his position in 2019, protests have continued in the face of the economic crisis, doubling of food prices, and the sanctions imposed on Sudan by the United States. The beginning of October 2020, however, saw a peace agreement that would end fighting in the west and south of Sudan and end U.S. sanctions on Sudan. This peace deal was drafted by the transitional government and rebel groups. The drafting of this transitional justice law necessitates these advancements; that is, the lack of active conflict and an end of sanctions on Sudan.

With this drafting process, it is important to note the significant roles women have held throughout the protests, at the forefront of sit-ins and as symbols of the revolution. These protests started as a result of the increase in the prices of bread and fuel after subsidies were cut.  Many groups, namely women and victim activist groups, believe they ought to be more involved in this transitional period, both in government and in the drafting of a law on transitional justice.

In the third week of October, the Ministry of Justice claimed that the Justice Chamber is concerned about the compensation of victims in the transitional justice file. Significantly, the undersecretary of the Ministry of Justice, Siham Osman, “called for reform to the judicial institutions.” These reforms would include providing assistance to the Transitional Justice Commission and representatives of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Her concerns are shared by many people in Dabanga Sudan who are worried that despite previous purging of officials affiliated with al-Bashir’s regime in the judiciary, judges who are affiliated with the regime remain in the system. More so, there is a recognition that laws need to be revised and new ones created in order to prosecute crimes not currently in legislation marking another concern for institutional reform.

The crimes that will be looked at in the transitional justice draft law include war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture, and genocide. The trials to be head in the Sudanese case are meant to allow for reparations, and remedies; specifically, compensation to those affected both materially and morally by the perpetrators. Siham Osman says “that the ministry attaches special attention… to fulfill the rights and rehabilitate the victims and people affected.” She also argues that it is essential that perpetrators confess to the crimes committed. 

With the creation of the transitional justice draft law, numbers of women’s and victim’s rights activists have emphasized the importance of including victims and women in the transitional justice process. These groups signed a petition that calls for a victim-centered and gender-sensitive approach to transitional justice that ought to be restorative. Their demands emphasize the importance of understanding the needs of those most affected in transitional justice processes. 

Transitional Justice, Victim-centered, and Gender-sensitive Approaches 

The concerns raised by the victim’s and women’s rights activists are well-founded in the field of transitional justice. This is especially true when it comes to a court or commission’s formation of a metanarrative of victimhood; a narrative that serves as a telling of the conflict and the commonalities between targeted victims. While usually done to highlight the atrocities of certain crimes, this often disregards the complexities of being an individual affected by these crimes. 

In fact, metanarratives often do not account for intersectionality and dynamics of class, race, and gender, which expose the systems of oppression in place. The inclusion demanded by activists extends discourse on sexual violence and refuses to settle for brief meetings on gender-related issues. The victim-centered and gender-sensitive approach demands a reclamation of women’s and victim’s agency; they want to be at the table, discussing restorative means of justice. 

While the Sudanese Ministry of Justice has only recently discussed the drafting of a transitional justice law, much of the discussion thus far has been related to prosecution of perpetrators, and the compensation of those affected by the conflict. 

Institutional reform has also been brought to the forefront with regards to the judiciary system in particular, and the judges that uphold that system. This begs the question whether other transitional justice mechanisms will also be considered throughout this process, such as memory and memorialization. The aforementioned mechanism could be essential to opening discourse and transparency, especially on a governmental level, with the recognition of the atrocities of human rights violations. It also recognizes the power of those who pushed for democracy. 

Another concern in this push towards a transition is the demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of armed groups. With the peace agreement in place, it has been agreed that the security sector in Sudan must be modernized and a cohesion between different groups established. With these concerns in mind, one may then ask, what does a grassroots transitional justice process look like, particularly one that adopts a gender-sensitive and victim-centered approach?  More precisely, moving forward, how would the Sudanese transitional justice process ensure the inclusion of some of these voices that need to be heard most, and that are essential to sustainable change and reform? 

Non-Violence in Communal War in Central Nigeria

By James Courtright, Staff Writer for RightsViews

On January 30th Dr. Jana Krause came to speak with students and faculty at Columbia’s School for International and Public Affairs about her new book, “Resilient Communities: Non-Violence and Civilian Agency in Communal War.” Her work centers on communal conflict – non-state armed conflict between identity groups – in Plateau state in Nigeria and Maluku province in Indonesia. In both places the violence tended to be simplistically referred to as Christian against Muslim, but upon further investigation she found it was deeply rooted in local political and economic dynamics and narratives. After explaining how communal violence was organized, she then delved into neighborhoods in Nigeria and Indonesia where violence did not occur, analyzing how the choices of civilians and their collective efforts to prevent fighting saved the lives of hundreds of people.

Conflict in Jos

When she first visited Jos, Nigeria in 2010, Dr. Krause had to pass through multiple checkpoints along the road from the capital Abuja before entering a city where half-destroyed houses lined the streets and every major traffic junction was accompanied by a heavy military presence. As she started comparing her interviews with journalistic accounts, data sets, and human rights reports she realized that conflict in the city of Jos and rural Plateau State claimed more than 7,000 lives between 2001 and 2010. This violence, she concluded, was not sporadic clashes – it was war.

Dr. Jana Krause. Photo from her website.

Dr. Krause builds on the work of political scientist Stathis Kalyvas, whose work has advanced the idea that what civilians do in conflict matters. Unlike the journalistic shorthand of “neighbors killing neighbors,” she explained, violence is usually perpetrated by militias formed in surrounding neighborhoods. These militias would mobilize after hearing rumors that their perceived enemies were arming themselves, and then travel to where they believed clashes were occurring or where they had planned to attack. When they arrived in other communities, some residents there would collaborate with militias to identify “the enemy” based on their identity or hyper local grievances. Thus, communal violence results from rumor, threat assessment, mobilization and information sharing, grievances linked to previous violence, and local conflicts.

After delving into these dynamics, she began asking if residents knew an area that was vulnerable and religiously and socio-economically mixed, but where violence did not occur. She was pointed to Dadin Kowa, a community that sits in the southern suburbs of Jos. As she spent more time with residents of Dadin Kowa, she came to better understand how they managed to maintain an uneasy and tense peace while thousands of people were being killed or forced to flee their homes in surrounding neighborhoods.

How to avoid or forestall violence?

While many community leaders across Jos strove to avoid violence during this painful decade, Dadin Kowa’s leaders were arguably the most successful. One of the main reasons for this, Dr. Krause argued, was that both Christian and Muslim community leaders and everyday residents painstakingly created a broader identity as ‘being a resident of Dadin Kowa’, overcoming the fractious Berom Christian and Muslim Jasawa political agendas. From early on there was a tacit agreement, and later a more formal one, between religious leaders that they would preach to their respective congregations to avoid violence. People were still politically polarized, but when it came to violence, leaders constantly stressed a deeper fealty to their shared humanity and their neighborhood of Dadin Kowa.

Women’s groups also played a key role. At one point, tensions at the market became so serious that women began to travel out of the neighborhood to buy their vegetables and staples from their own religious group, dividing the community further. As tension at the market became a serious hindrance in their lives, women across the religious divide began meeting and sharing their stories, fears, and aspirations. As Dr. Krause writes in her book these meetings “fostered determination that their neighborhood would not be devastated by clashes.”

However, creating a unifying identity was not enough in and of itself. Dr Krause pointed out how civilians consolidated social control of the neighborhood. Women’s groups and other informants would pass information about suspicious activities or rumors to community leaders, who at times used open threats and even violence against people in the community to maintain order.

Young men in the community were told that under no circumstances were they allowed to go and fight with groups outside the community, and at the first sign of trouble they should return home. A clear communications network was built by community leaders so whenever trouble appeared on the horizon leaders on both sides of the religious divide could call and coordinate their actions to calm tensions. Mixed youth patrol groups were even created to guard the neighborhood and coordinate with the military and police.

In addition to dense networks built within Dadin Kowa, to deter attacks leaders in the community engaged in extensive negotiations and coordination with leaders in neighboring communities as well as the police and military. They even paid thinly veiled bribes to facilitate good relations and regular police patrols. For example, some of the women’s groups cooked lunch for the soldiers in order to maintain good relations. Both Christian and Muslim community leaders from Dadin Kowa went to mosques and churches in neighboring suburbs of Jos and publicly presented their agreement not to fight in Dadin Kowa.

In at least one case violence was averted by the actions of a single individual. In January 2010 when two external Christian militias threatened Dadin Kowa a community leader identified as Timothy in Dr. Krause’s book went out and single handedly negotiated with the militias, telling them that they would not be allowed into the neighborhood and no one would collaborate with them. He slowed their advance until they could hear the gunshots of the military nearby, and the militia turned around without harming anyone in Dadin Kowa. Timothy had lived through the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s and understood the dynamics of how violence happened and how and when to intervene.

In some cases, peace was only maintained with the credible threat of violence. One of Dr.  Krause’s interviewees, a Christian resident of a nearby neighborhood identified as Abraham, revealed that not only was the agreement not to fight in Dadin Kowa well known outside the neighborhood, it was also understood that the agreement would be enforced with violence. “If the boys from outside want to overcome them, then the Dadin Kowa boys will fight them,” Dr. Krause quotes Abraham saying in her book. “If you go there to fight, they will kill you. That’s the agreement.”

However, Dr. Krause stressed that Dadin Kowa was not an oasis of harmony during these episodes of violence. The community was tense as people fleeing violence sought refuge and leaders struggled to exert control over rebellious youth. Tensions within women’s groups over rumors and unfair burdens of labor also created problems. In some cases, as in the January 2010 episode mentioned previously, people in Dadin Kowa agreed it was the fateful intervention of a single person which averted catastrophe.

What can Dadin Kowa teach the world?

After her presentation Dr. Krause was asked about the implications of her work for practitioners. She responded by saying that we need to complicate the “islands of peace” idea that non-violence is isolated from outside forces. Instead, she pointed out, Dadin Kowa was deeply enmeshed in the conflict environment and political dynamics. The leaders of Dadin Kowa who were most effective at averting violence were those who understood exactly how the violence was organized because they had seen it before. Before foreign organizations rush in to “sensitize” people about conflict dynamics, she continued, it is important to recognize that foreigners arriving and starting programs has its own political and economic implications for the community and its neighbors.

While her findings from Nigeria and Indonesia shared some basic similarities, Dr. Krause stressed that knowledge of local contexts should be foremost in the minds of outsiders seeking to work on these issues. She concluded her talk by pointing out that in both Dadin Kowa and Indonesia non-violence is less connected to pacifist attitudes but a desire to survive and partly results from direct threats of violence and coercion against those most likely to engage in killings. Acknowledging this uncomfortable reality is essential in designing local and international peace building efforts.

Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations…But What About Justice? An Interview with Nana-Jo Ndow

RightsView contributor James Courtright recently sat down with Nana-Jo Ndow to discuss Gambia’s transitional justice process. For 22 years, Yahya Jammeh ruled The Gambia through widespread corruption, repression of media, torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. He was voted out of office in December of 2016, and fled after a political impasse at the end of January 2017. At the beginning of this year the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) began hearing testimony in The Gambia from victims and perpetrators of Jammeh’s regime. 

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Nana-Jo Ndow, daughter of disappeared and murdered Gambian buisnessman Saul Ndow. ©Jason Florio

Can you introduce yourself?

My name is Nana-Jo Ndow and to put it simply I like to say I’m from Ghana – Gambia – UK. My Dad was a business man, he went wherever there was opportunity. 

What brought you to human rights work?

I had a father who was very into human rights and politics, so we’d always have debates and conversations. I volunteered with Amnesty International about 12 years ago in London. I thought I wanted to be a doctor, but at Amnesty I realized I didn’t necessarily want to treat people, I wanted to understand the root causes of why these things are happening. 

Regarding transitional justice in The Gambia, which is what I’m working on now, that was sparked by what happened to my father (Saul Ndow). He was a fierce critic of Yahya Jammeh, the former president of The Gambia. In 2013 he was forcibly disappeared on the orders of the former president. At first, I thought my father was just being kept somewhere, so I was trying to find his whereabouts and trying to get him freed. It really had a devastating impact on me physiologically, physically, and also in the family. I don’t want anyone else to go through that. If I can help one person not go through that, I would have done what I’m meant to do on this earth. 

You’ve never heard anything from the Gambian government?

The government kept silent, that’s the whole thing with enforced disappearances. It’s the silence. It’s another way of torturing people because you’re not sure if you’re moving in the right direction. Am I making that person be tortured more if I speak up? Am I putting myself in danger? There’s this constant fear, this constant guilt. We never spoke up, but we reached out various individuals, groups and institutions including the UN, the working group on enforced and involuntary disappearances, the Senegalese, the UK, the Red Cross, and Amnesty International. We were frantic but also relentless. I knew who to reach out to because of my work for Amnesty, but even knowing who to turn to, it was still very … I wouldn’t even say frustrating, it was debilitating. Now imagine all these others who are not connected to the internet or are completely isolated, what they go through in their heads, how powerless they feel. 

I want to take a few steps back. Can you talk a little about your experiences in Latin America?

I moved to Argentina in 2001 because I liked the idea of moving to South America. In Argentina I really got to understand more about what Argentinians went through with the dictatorship. When I found out about my father it was easier for me to speak about it with my Argentinian friends because to them this was not a new concept. They probably knew someone who knew someone whose father’s sister’s uncle’s father’s uncles’ brothers had been forcibly disappeared. The military there tried to impose some kind of amnesty so no one would be held accountable, but Argentinians got up in arms. You see the Madres de Plaza de Mayo saying they want answers, and they still haven’t given up. It was very inspiring to see how they pushed back.

Do you think The Gambia can learn anything from Argentina?

The Gambia is different in many ways. It’s in West Africa and it’s a tiny country, while Argentina is a Latin American country and is very big. That being said, it was bizarre [for the organizers of the Gambian truth commission] to go to South Africa and Sierra Leone, because the context was completely different. In South Africa they had apartheid, in Sierra Leone it was a civil war. In The Gambia you had a repressive state. It started with a junta, which it what you had in Argentina. In both countries there was a small group of people terrorizing society and completely ripping families apart, so for me there’s so much to learn from Argentina.

How does the Gambian Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) fit into this?

In The Gambia it’s the Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission – but reconciliation between whom and whom? Is this meant to replace justice? What really bothers me is this narrative that if you’re seeking justice, which means holding someone accountable for their actions, it’s portrayed like you’re asking for revenge. This is not what we’re asking for. In Argentina people insisted accountability was their right, and Argentinians pushing back set a precedent for other cases in Latin America. When you say let ‘bygones be bygones’, you’re giving license for others to do the same thing. Some of those who were involved in my father’s case had been mercenaries in Liberia and were given amnesty. Then they moved to Gambia. What does that say? In Liberia they also went through a truth commission, but up to this day not a single person has been prosecuted.

Are you worried about that in the Gambia?

I’m very worried about that. Some people in government are trying to portray victims who are asking for justice as being unreasonable or as being selfish by saying we’re stopping society from moving on. But you don’t just sweep this under the carpet. Maybe I can forgive you, but you still have to be held accountable. The truth commission is to have a historical record of the human rights violations that happened in the last 22 years. But for me somehow it looks like it’s a way for society to accept it. The burden is always placed on the victims and I think that’s why I’m so inspired by the Argentinians.

What is reconciliation for you?

To begin with, it’s having people know your story. But it’s also listening to what victims say they want. I feel like so much emphasis in The Gambia has been placed on those who’ve committed crimes. The focus has been on the perpetrators, and again the victims are forgotten. The government cannot come in and say “this is how we’re going to reconcile.” They must listen to those who’s suggestions they don’t necessarily agree with or like. As a government they’re serving the country, they have to listen to people, it has to be an inclusive process. The Gambia is such a small country, someone’s brother’s uncle’s cousin killed that person. There could be tensions, but you have to make it clear that with reconciliation you also have to be accountable for your actions. It’s very important for future generations. 

What are you working on now?

I’m the founder and the executive director of the African Network against Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances (ANEKED). We’re a small organization led by victims of the former regime. My cousin went through the emails back when we were trying to find my dad in 2013, and she said it made her realize that ANEKED actually started back then. That for me was like wow, everything we learned back then, we brought it with us when we officially launched. 

We have quite a number of protects, one of which is the TRRC Digest, which is a repository of the truth-seeking process in The Gambia. People need to know what’s being said at the commission, but many don’t have time to sit in front of the screen all day, so we’re summarizing as accurately as possible. We then have it translated into the four main local languages, Fula, Jola, Wolof, and Mandinka, and we air it on the radio. We’ve received great feedback. Information is so powerful, people need to know what witness said happened in their community and in other communities. It’s easy with so many things coming out every day to lose track, but with the Digest we can go back and say this one person killed x number of people, what are we going to do about it? It falls into the four principles of dealing with the past: right to know, right to justice, right to reparations, and guarantee of non-recurrence. We need to have this out there so no one can come along and decide to re-write history. 

We also got funding to do a memorialization project. We want to have a place where there will be a memorial center where you would have the stories of witnesses and objects. What inspired us is the Argentinians with the Museo Sitio de Memoria ESMA where you have this former detention center where they show you what people went through and give you names of missing people. I think this should be out there for people to visit and for schools to take students because it’s part of the history. 

Also, again the name says it all, it’s a network for young activists. It’s very easy to feel alone doing this work, to feel isolated. You need to know there are other activists out there and share good practices and tactics. But safely! 

I’m also involved in ongoing litigation. I filed against the government of The Gambia for the failure to conduct proper judicial investigations and prosecute those who were accountable. My case, well that of my fathers, is very clear. Names were out there before the truth commission. Why don’t they conduct a judiciary investigation? There’s already a lot of evidence out there and we’ve given that evidence to the government. So, it’s sort of trying to make them understand there needs to be accountability, and hoping this sets a precedent for other people. 

How do you stay centered and healthy doing this difficult work?

I want this to be out there because there’s so much stigma about it – I see a therapist. Therapy has really allowed me to put boundaries, to know when I’m reaching my limit because I hear stories that are so heavy and make me go all over what I went through. Sometimes I have to pull back because I’m no use if I burn out or have a breakdown. Therapy allows me to really share how I feel. It’s difficult, and I have to constantly re-center myself, but I was given tools through therapy. I’ve been very blessed to be surrounded by great people. My husband is amazing and has been incredibly supportive. My cousin I work with is amazing. I have another cousin who is fantastic, I can share my feelings and my frustrations with them. My mother has also been trying to be very supportive of the work ANEKED does. In this work I’ve come across a lot of people who have complexly lost their ability to empathize. I constantly remind myself you have to have empathy. It’s OK to be irritated, but you have to let it go. Don’t hold onto that feeling, its unhealthy. It doesn’t serve you. 

LGBTIQ rights |Recent developments in Kenya

Guest contributor Brian Dan Migowe is a graduate of the 18′ LL.M class at the Center for the Study of Human Rights at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK. 

July 2019 marks a month since the Kenyan High Court dismissed a consolidated petition of the National Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission (‘NGLHRC’) and other interested parties seeking inter alia abolishment of sections 162(a),(c) and 165 of the Kenyan penal code, which forbid same-sex relations and prescribe a jail sentence of up to 14 years for those found guilty. A long-awaited pronouncement, the NGLHRC’s challenge to the constitutional standing of these two legal provisions has been a subject before the court for the last quadrennium. Petitions have come to the court on two separate occasions. The first petition was initiated by Eric Gitari (then the Executive Director of NGLHRC) in 2016. Two other organizations, the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (‘GALCK’) and the Nyanza, Rift Valley and Western Kenya Network (‘NYARWEK’), along with individual petitioners who had been personally affected by the laws, filed a second petition in the same year raising similar arguments. The High Court consolidated the two petitions and referred them to a three-judge bench.

Substantially, the petitioners argued that Kenyan anti-LGBTQ+ laws stood in stark breach of the assurance of protection from discrimination and the right to human dignity and privacy as proscribed in the country’s constitution. In Kenya, guaranteed rights include the freedom from discrimination (Article 27), the right to dignity (Article 28), freedom and security of the person (Article 29), the right to privacy (Article 31), and the right to the highest attainable standard of health (Article 43). Petitioners further argued the government’s lack of political will to enforce in affirmation the rights of minorities and marginalised groups, per article 56.

The respondents to the case, led by the Attorney General (representing the Government) and a group of interested parties, argued that the constitution outlaws all same-sex relations. Additionally, they claimed that the LGBTIQ community is not assured categorical protection from discrimination, given that the country’s values and morals as enunciated in the constitution are against same-sex conduct and interrelations. Accordingly, the law was legitimate insofar as it criminalised such said conduct.

In its dismissal pronouncement, the High Court rejected claims put forward by the petitioners, finding that the impugned provisions were well defined in the Kenyan law, thus not ambiguous; and  that the provisions remained non-discriminatory without singling the LGBTIQ persons unless contra evidence was sufficiently presented and proved. The court also argued that the constitutional rights to privacy and dignity are not absolute and should be read in the context of Article 45 (2) of the constitution, which states that “Every adult has the right to marry a person of the opposite sex,” an ultimate [narrow] read which underpinned the dismissal of the petition. In the bench’s reasoning, decriminalizing the impugned provisions would indirectly open the floodgates in favour of same-sex marriage, an argument already contented to be imprecise. 

The ruling flies in the face of several other Kenyan court decisions that have upheld LGBTIQ people’s fundamental rights. In 2015, the High Court ruled in support of NGLHRC in a case that concerned freedom of assembly and association. The Non-Governmental Organizations Board (NGO Board), a government agency, had refused to register NGLHRC after three failed attempts , claiming that doing so would be ‘acting inconsistency to the laws of the republic’ and that the organization’s actions would be permitting immorality. The court found that the NGO Board was impermissibly discriminating based on the presumed sexual orientation and gender identity of NGLHRC’s personnel, in violation of constitutional protections around equality and non-discrimination [Article 27]. The Court of Appeal recently upheld  this ruling in March although the NGO Board has appealed to the Supreme Court which now awaits the determination of the Apex court.

A 2018 court decision continued the seeming progress by Kenyan courts. After forced anal examinations were carried out on two people arrested in Kwale by the police in 2015, on suspicion that they were gay, a three-judge bench of the Court of Appeals handed down a ruling in 2018 overturning the orders that set pace for abhorrent perceived medical acts and in effect stopped any such examinations on people charged with consensual homosexual conduct. 

Positively pedalling, especially on issues concerning transgender persons, Kenyan courts have moved the needle forward. In 2014, the High Court ruled in favour of a transgender activist, Audrey Mbugua, on her right to have her school certificate reissued with her female name, and with no gender marker. A separate 2014 ruling also compelled the NGO Board to register Transgender Education and Advocacy (TEA), a non-governmental organization led by Mbugua.

Thus, the High Court’s most recent failure to decriminalize same-sex relations [repeal Ss 162 (a), (b) & 165] both reverses previous precedential progress and transgresses on its international law obligations. In its 1994 decision in Toonen v. Australia, the UN Human Rights Committee – the body that interprets the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Kenya is a state party – held that laws prohibiting consensual same-sex conduct infringe on the rights to privacy and non-discrimination of persons of this association – contra to the scholarship now being developed by the High Court at Milimani, Nairobi!

The 24 May ruling is particularly disappointing considering progress elsewhere in Africa and around the world. In January, Angola presented into operation a revised penal code that no longer punishes so-called “vices against nature.” Other African countries that have equally soundly revoked anti-homosexuality laws through penal code reform in recent years include Seychelles, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe, Lesotho and Botswana. Visibly slow pedalling are  33 countries in Africa which still have laws on the books that outlaw consensual same-sex relations. Elsewhere in the world, courts are striking down these anachronistic colonial-era laws that criminalize same-sex relations, such as Kenya’s penal code. India decriminalized same-sex relations through a landmark court ruling in 2018, as did Trinidad & Tobago, while Belize’s Supreme Court struck down its sodomy law in 2016. Palau, Nauru, and Northern Cyprus have decriminalized homosexual conduct through legal reform in recent years.

Kenya’s government has adopted an ambivalent stance on LGBTIQ rights, with dissimilar remarks on a case for their recognition and safety from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Kenya accepted a recommendation at the UN Human Rights Council in 2015 to adopt legislation prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, consistent with constitutional guarantees of non-discrimination, but no such legislation has been passed. Most notably, as the appeal at the apex court remains on the May 24 ruling, LGBTIQ persons shall continue, directly and indirectly, in similar or dissimilar fashion continue to suffer indifference to their equal protection by the law recognition their [own] existence, at least for now.

Gemfields’ Quest for Conflict Rubies in Nthoro, Mozambique

If you’re thinking of purchasing rubies in the New Year, you might want to reconsider purchasing any cardinal gem sourced from Mozambique. In 2011, a “poor and illiterate” farmer in Mozambique discovered a precious red gemstone, creating a “ruby rush.” This find made the country one of the world’s largest ruby producers. However, due to the rarity of rubies, according to the World Bank, land rights within Mozambique are a contentious issue, where ill-informed citizens are coerced into land grabs by government officials and influential corporations to mine rubies.

As a central place for exceptional quality rubies, Gemfields Limited, a mining corporation that specializes in the mining and marketing of gems, wanted copious blood-red coloured gemstones from Mozambique. In 2011, Montepuez Ruby Mine (MRM), a subsidiary of Gemfields Limited, won the mining rights to 36,000 hectares of ruby-rich land in Nthoro, Mozambique. This created horrendous human rights violations on the local level. Having promised to relocate victims after winning mining rights in Nthoro since 2011, Gemfields continues to disregard issues of compensation. A lack of responsibility has exacerbated issues related to lack adequate food, housing, employment, social security, education and healthcare. Nthoro native Jerionimo Amade, said, “I’ve seen so many people killed, houses burned all because of rubies. I just want them to give me the money they promised so that I may go and redo my life somewhere else.”

Another Nthoro citizen, Queen Cristina, stated, “In this village, we had a good life. But when our land became a mining concession area, everything changed.” To add, “[if] you are in the mining concession area of MRM, [you are] forbidden to farm, cultivate, build homes or do any mining.” This is a case illustrating, not only, human rights risks and harms, but also, much more broadly, contests over development agendas and who gets to set them.

Examples of the harm caused by Gemfields operations are numerous. But, relocation has been an under reported human rights violation. In accordance with concession laws in Mozambique, MRM promised to rehouse the Nthoro population. However, with a population of approximately 12,000 people, after seven years, many Nthoros have not been relocated and continue to suffer from dire living conditions and human rights abuses. In 2018, Gemfields responded to the relocation crisis, issuing the following statement “[Gemfields] defends itself by ensuring that the relocation plan is in the process of being finalized.”  Gemfields stated that the company has identified 105 families currently living in Nthoro, where these families will be rehoused in the district of Montepuez, for a total investment of USD$10 million. The group promises the relocation will include new schools, a church, a mosque and even a training centre. Finally, in April of this year, Cabo Delgado governor Julio Parruque discussed the resettlement plan that will take place in Namanhumbir, Montepuez district, indicating that the process will take a total of 24 months. “The process seems long and time consuming, but these steps are necessary to ensure that nothing fails and that your rights and benefits are safeguarded,” says Parruque. However, Nthoro residents say this hasn’t happened. As a global norm, corporations should seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations. By citing Mozambique’s 2014 Petroleum and Mining laws,“the mining contract must contain rules concerning the participation of the State in the mining venture, local content and protection of local communities.”While Gemfields stated that “we go over and above accepted practices operating in a way that not only meets international and national laws, but that also challenges the sector by setting new benchmarks around sustainability,” it is clear that the growing number of human rights abuses question the company’s integrity towards human rights.

Recently, Gemfields’ focus on environmental protection aims to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which pushed the company to launch a “Every Piece Unique” Global Campaign to raise awareness for responsible sourcing in the gemstone industry. As written in the trade magazine, Jewellery Focus, “Gemfields believes that coloured gemstones should be mined and marketed by championing three key values – ’transparency, integrity and legitimacy’ – and seeks to challenge itself and the sector by setting new benchmarks for responsible sourcing.” In response, Gemfields stated, “we wanted to bring to life the many stories behind responsibly sourcing precious gemstones in Africa, as there is far more to our business than industry-leading mining and geology.” Yet, according to Times Live, the Nthoro population continue to lack piped, potable water, electricity or adequate healthcare, while living in homes built from wooden stakes and dried grass. On the other hand, minutes away from MRM’s mining site, the company’s camp has power, running water, restaurants and a proper health clinic. Evidently, SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) and 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) are being violated. According to testimonies from Nthoro citizens, the hypocrisy between Gemfields’ global sustainability campaign and their work in Mozambique illustrates the mining company’s neglect for human rights and its inability to mitigate human rights violations occurring within and around their own mine sites.

In order to address the numerous human rights violations occurring in Nthoro because of Gemfields’ mining activity, Dr. Joanne Bauer, Adjunct Professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and Vice Chair of Inclusive Development International stated, “Clever business and human rights strategies need to be multipronged; looking at a wide range of strategies to figure out how to sequence them and approach it from all angles until justice is obtained.” Bauer argues that a multitude of approaches, such as a public campaign andan exposé analyzing investment chains or even working with shareholders can penalize Gemfields in some way.  However, in the case of Gemfields, Bauer believes that “[human rights commitments] aren’t retroactive – it would be for investments going forward. Gemfields would have to keep moving forward, but they do not necessarily have to provide remedy to have access to capital… remedies remain rare, particularly when it comes to economic and social rights.”

In accordance with Bauer, in 2016, 100Reporters concluded a three-year investigation observing that MRM dug more than $100 million dollars worth of gems in Mozambique, creating a number of human rights concerns over violence and land rights in association with Gemfields operations. Despite public claims to showcase Gemfields stance for “sustainable extraction, transparency, integrity and legitimacy,” this raises questions about their  high ethical standards pledge. Two years later, remedies for victims continue to remain rare. While Nthoro, Mozambique was once a fruitful home, many citizens are now leaving Nthoro to avoid the deadly human rights violations that are happening in the midst of Mozambique’s ruby rush.

By Juana Lee, RightsViews Staff Writer

LGBTQ Rights in a Global Perspective

On November 12, Pepe Julian Onziema spoke to attendees of an event focusing on “LGBTQ+ Rights in a Global Perspective,” moderated by Professor Katherine Franke of Columbia Law School and the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. Onziema, who is from Uganda, is currently a Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia. He is an outspoken activist for LGBTQ Rights in Uganda and is the Programs Director of the non-profit organization “Sexual Minorites Uganda” (SMUG). His talk was centered around the history of LGBTQ persecution, as well as activism, in Uganda and the role that SMUG has played in making changes for acceptance and policy change.

Giving some initial background on Ugandan LGBTQ history, Onziema explained that Uganda was colonized by the British and since 1894 male same-sex relations have been illegal—for females, it was made illegal more recently, in 2000. Further entrenching the criminalization of LGBTQ identity, the Uganda Constitution was amended in 2005 to declare that “Marriage between persons of the same sex is prohibited” and is “against the order of nature.” Today, Uganda is still highly LGBTQ-phobic. It is important to note, said Onziema, that the homophobia in Uganda stems vastly from colonizing countries, not from pre-colonial conceptions of gender which did not present as homophobic.

SMUG was created in 2004 to challenge the discrimination and maltreatment of LGBTQ folks in Uganda. Onziema described that their entry point into the advocacy space was through HIV/AIDS discourses—SMUG hosted an international HIV/AIDS meeting about the stigma against same-sex relationships and HIV/AIDS. Since then, SMUG has expanded its agenda and developed a system based on four pillars: advocacy and law reform, research, capacity strengthening, and safety and protection. SMUG is “for the community, by the community,” explained Onziema. Everything they do is to “support Ugandans with crisis response and human rights-based programs.”

One form of advocacy that SMUG does, said Onziema, is litigation. Although the Ugandan Constitution clearly prohibits same-sex marriage, “in Uganda, as homophobic as it is, always in laws you can find gaps,” said Onziema. SMUG has participated in several victories for the improvement of rights for LGBTQ folks, including winning a court case in which two suspected lesbians had had their houses searched illegally by arguing that their rights to privacy and dignity had been violated. In a case in which Onziema himself was a plaintiff, a local tabloid had released a newspaper “outing” many suspected LGBTQ folks, including providing personal addresses and phone numbers to the public, under the headline “Hang Them, They are After Our Children.” SMUG filed a violation of the right to privacy and dignity of person and won that case as well. Yet, Onziema described that SMUG still has a ways to go to get legal recognition of LGBTQ persons— remarkably, even the organization itself has been denied registration because its name is “undesirable” to the Ugandan government.

That being said, Onziema and SMUG hold a unique connection to the United States and Columbia themselves—Professor Franke, who is also on the Board of Directors at the Center of Constitutional Rights, was counsel to SMUG in a Massachusetts federal court case Sexual Minorities Uganda v Scott Lively. Lively, a homophobic evangelical, had been travelling for years to Uganda preaching anti-LGBTQ hate rhetoric. Onziema described that Uganda is 86%  Christian and highly religious, making it a “soft spot” for religious evangelicals like Lively to sow homophobic seeds. SMUG filed in court under the Alien Torts Statute, which allows foreign victims of human rights abuses to seek civil remedies in court. Onziema said that SMUG won the case in 2017, and Lively lost on appeal again in 2018. Onziema has truly seen an impact now in Uganda—he said that US evangelicals have now stopped speaking publicly homophobic messages when they visit. “Fighting this was a really a plus for us,” he said. As well as its impact on SMUG and Uganda, Franke also explained how monumental the Lively decision was: for the first time, a US court held that sexual orientation-based persecution is actionable under the Alien Torts Statute. This is a landmark precedent.

SMUG and Uganda still face many challenges today with homophobia not only within state law but also in state and police action. At Ugandan Pride 2016, said Onziema, 16 people, himself included, were rounded up and arrested while the police surrounded the event carrying AK47s and batons. He was beaten to the point where he lost hearing in his left ear. LGBTQ people are “just trying to be their authentic selves,” he said, “and in doing that they fall into the hands of the law that criminalizes that.” On more nuanced levels, LGBTQ folks face family rejection, eviction, expulsion from schools, lack of employment, and a lack of access to the justice system. SMUG works with the community with its “Know Your Rights” Project that teaches people about the Ugandan Bill of Rights and encourages people to get reparations where they are due. “Knowing our rights and knowing that we can actually go to court is important,” said Onziema. “We are trying to challenge the very laws that criminalize our existence.”

Other projects that SMUG works on are training to health service providers for the queer community, running counselling at their own SMUG clinic, creating a hotline for psycho-social support with their “see the invisible” campaign, and keeping in contact with people in the community constantly. Onziema described that because SMIG began as an HIV/AIDS advocacy organization, much of the financial support benefits men who have sex with men, gay men, and trans women, but can leave out other queer identities such as lesbians, trans men, and women who have sex with women. In HIV studies, he said, there is very little data on transmission other than men with men—this leads to some tension in that “as a trans man, I struggle to keep receiving money that is only catering to a smaller group.” Yet, this will not be the agenda forever said Onziema. SMUG hopes to only grow in its efforts.

Onziema gave his audience several ways to support SMUG: solidarity, working in the organization, urging our leaders to keep LGBTQ rights on the agenda, and getting media coverage of our stories. Onziema and SMUG are fighting tirelessly for rights for all sexual orientations in Uganda, truly giving us LGBTQ rights in a global perspective. To broaden your perspective even more, visit to learn, to campaign, and to donate.

By Rowena Kosher

When Political Transitions Work: Reconciliation as Interdependence

South Africa’s transition from apartheid to multi-racial democracy and subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) are often held up as a gold standard to be replicated by countries emerging for civil war or dictatorship. While recognizing the importance of elections, forgiveness, and truth, Fanie du Toit, Executive Director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, South Africa, and Virginie Ladisch, head of the Children and Youth program at the International Center for Transitional Justice, sought to challenge audience members to complicate our narrative of the political transition and reconciliation in South Africa and why and how it has and hasn’t worked.

In the popular imagination South Africa’s racially segregationist apartheid regime was brought to an end by democratic elections in 1994. Following the seemingly superhuman leadership of Nelson Mandela, South Africans forgave each other for the crimes of the past and agreed to build a future together. Ever since the TRC’s mandate ended in 1998 other countries transitioning from civil war or dictatorship to liberal democracy have looked to the South African model.

Complicating this narrative is the focus of du Toit’s new book, “When Political Transitions Work,” which is based on extensive interviews with the people at the highest levels of South African politics during the transition, thousands of pages of documents from the era, and du Toit’s scholarly pursuits and substantial practical experience with transitional justice across Africa and the Middle East. Du Toit emphasizes the importance of relationships in political transitions, and the centrality of the recognition of “pervasive, unavoidable interdependence” as a foundational building block of reconciliation. He sheds light on the often-forgotten institutions that guided South Africa through the negotiations to end apartheid, the successes and failures of the TRC, and the failure to deliver economic justice. Ultimately, he persuasively argues, transitions will only work when participants acknowledge their interdependence.

The recognition of interdependence in South Africa did not originate in forgiveness says du Toit, though this was important later, but instead from hard-edged realistic calculations in all camps. As the country tottered on the brink of civil war in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mandela and his counterpart F.W. de Klerk realized the only future was a shared one. South Africa would not survive otherwise. “We reconcile not because we choose to, we reconcile because we have to,” said Mr Du Toit, “Reconciliation is not for the dreamers or romantics, it’s for the realists.”

While Mandela and De Klerk negotiated in the early 1990s, crucial and often-forgotten new institutions were created which became spaces for inclusivity and fairness. The National Peace Accord, a body which eventually included civic, business, religious, and political leaders, was a non-partisan venue for politicians to denounce political violence and discuss what a transition might look like. In every region of the country the NPA created local bodies and trained of local peacemakers to promote trust and reconciliation, mediate conflicts, facilitate agreements on the operation of local public political events, and liaise with the local police and judiciary. It brought the transition and reconciliation to local communities and created space where a new way of dealing with conflict could develop leading up to the 1994 election. The NPA was also beginning to address the socio-economic violence caused by apartheid, a crucial issue for the millions of Black South Africans denied opportunity because of their skin. The NPA, according to du Toit, still had a lot of offer when it was dissolved after the 1994 elections.

Outside South Africa the TRC is probably the most known, and replicated, part of South Africa’s transition. Inside the country, it’s arguably the most contentions. Between 1996 and 1998 the country sat on the edge of it’s seat as victims and perpetrators of political violence gave emotional public testimony on what they had endured or committed. At the end, the commission released a list of recommendations, including the redistribution some of the ill-gotten economic wealth created during apartheid. These recommendations were by and large swept under the rug after South Africa embraced the free market consensus as espoused by western financial institutions in the late 1990s.

Du Toit has a more positive outlook on the TRC than many of his fellow South Africans – in “When Political Transitions Work” he points out that the TRC helped acknowledge and restore the dignity of victims, established accountability, and produced a public record of violations to act as a permanent reminder – no mean feat considering South Africa’s particularly tortured history. While many White South Africans did not necessarily want to hear victim’s testimony, they couldn’t ignore it, and eventually it forced White South Africa to at least acknowledge what happened under the Apartheid regime. Du Toit’s criticism of the TRC concentrates on the failure of the government to follow through on ameliorating the socio-economic violence caused by apartheid.

As the 1990s drew to a close, the recognition of mutual interdependence began to fade. The abandonment of the NPA and other structures that guided South Africa through the negotiations eliminated a neutral space where political, business and civic interests from all corners of South Africa could meet and discuss how to create a peaceful and just society. By neglecting to address the socio-economic violence of apartheid, racialized wealth disparities have persisted, driving communities further apart and creating the impression of two different South Africas.

While outsiders often point to South Africa’s transition as a stunning success, within the country the perception is far more mixed. Recalling her first visit to South Africa in 2000, Ladisch shared that at the time “reconciliation” was considered a bad word to many. Over the last two decades since the TRC undertook its mandate, the word “reconciliation” has come to mean different things to different people at different times. At times it’s seemed like the South African reconciliation failed, at other times the process seems to be going well. At salient moments, like the death of Nelson Mandela in 2013, South Africans engage in a new round of collective soul searching, and develop a new outlook on reconciliation, based as much on past experience as the contemporary political climate.

Recognizing that South Africa has become an example to many other countries trying to reconcile after years of conflict, Ladisch warned against a “copy-paste” prescriptive approach to transitional justice. “There is no recipe to transitional justice, just different approaches,” she said. South Africa arrived at reconciliation through a realization of interdependence. The political transition was guided and shaped by uniquely created inclusive and fair institutions which mirrored the prior realization. Truth telling was valuable, but to some, the failure to deliver socio-economic justice, has poisoned the word reconciliation. Instead of copy-pasting a South African-style TRC, countries coming out of conflict or dictatorship would do better to build their own fair and inclusive institutions – whether that be a truth commission, reparations bodies, or a new constitution – which reflect the fundamental principle of reconciliation as interdependence.  

By James Courtright

The Story of a Young Tunisian Mother’s Struggle for Safety

By Izzy Tomico Ellis, a journalist and activist who has been heavily involved in the refugee crisis since 2015. Additional reporting by Niamh Keady-Tabbal.

Syrine* is sitting on the edge of a bed inside a tidy room for two, in City Plaza — a squatted hotel in Greece where solidarians from all over the world have flocked to bring respite to its refugee residents. Her little son started walking yesterday. In between our conversation, she holds out her hands to catch him as he falls down. Soothing him, she recalls, “I looked on Facebook to find out what to do when he was crying. I was alone with a baby…I didn’t know anything.” 

When we asked her if we could write down her story, she smiled, “I’ve thought about telling it a lot.”

The strength with which she carried herself had compelled me to ask, and at the same time made me worry she’d laugh. For her, a 21-year-old mother, bravery comes so naturally. 

When we first met in Athens in the January darkness, she explained that her husband had gone out the previous night to buy cigarettes and never came home. In the morning, she had called the main hospitals.

“He wasn’t there. I was relieved a little,’’ Syrine recounts shakily. But a few hours later, she had discovered he was in prison after being caught without the legal papers for refugees in Athens.

Too scared to return to where she had been staying, Syrine had been pushing her son, Salah*, around the streets in a buggy ever since.

Alone and homeless, remarkably she kept a clear head. She spoke calmly in English, asking for a lawyer to come the next day to try and resolve the situation for herself and her family, and arranged a room at City Plaza.

It wasn’t the first time. The young Tunisian woman has spent nearly three years running to protect herself, her husband and their son. Salah was just 8-months-old when they had to flee their country after Syrine’s relatives threatened to kill her in revenge for bringing dishonor to the family. The couple had managed to marry just before Salah was born, but Syrine’s family continues to look for her.

“My brother would do it, I know he would,” she said. Until then, she had been at university, hiding the relationship and pregnancy from her family. “I didn’t want an abortion; it’s easy, but it was my baby with the man I loved.”

The International Women’s Day march in Athens, March 08, 2018. // Izzy Tomico Ellis

She described the double-life she was leading in Tunisia, scrolling through old Facebook posts and event pages of the electronic music nights she and her husband would attend in the city of Sousse, close to the country’s capital, Tunis.

Tunisia has made significant legal advancements in the push toward gender equality, including lifting a ban on Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men and ending a law that meant rapists could escape punishment by marrying their victims. However, systematic violence against women still persists: In 2016, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women said 70 percent of Tunisian women were victims of abuse and honor killings in Tunisia are still reported.

“One man told me there was no hope for asylum, and I should just go back,” she shakes her head . “He has no idea… My father is a famous man, he cares about what the people think, not about me —  we had to leave.”

After fleeing to Turkey, they arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos. Syrine describes what she saw in the camp as unbelievable. “Everywhere children without clothes or shoes,” she says. “Some people stay there for over a year —  one year!” Her eyes widen. “ I would go crazy.”

Moria camp has become an infamous symbol of the European refugee crisis where living conditions that lie behind barbed wire fences have been repeatedly condemned by leading human rights organizations. 

“We went to a hotel the next day and travelled to the mainland illegally. I couldn’t live there… with a baby,” she shakes her head.

“I think he misses him. He was happier before,” she gestures to Salah, as he refuses food in a restaurant close by to where they are staying.

Syrine has spent the last few weeks trying to arrange paperwork for her husband, to no avail. As the pair had left the previous island camp without the correct documents, she was told she would have to return if their asylum case was to be processed as a couple. Though, Syrine has relentlessly tried other ways.

“Every day I wake up early, I go to this organization — Katahaki (the Greek Asylum Service) — but each day passes and nothing happens,” she says. “Every night I would fall asleep and hope tomorrow will bring a solution.’’

But it hasn’t, so today she is leaving. Her hair is more blonde, and she’s cut it shorter. Her husband is still imprisoned, and Syrine is forced to leave her safe room in the hotel —  to travel back to a camp and live alone.

“It’s a dangerous step, but I must do it. I must go back there to help my husband,” she says. Her voice falters. Only a few days were spent at the camp before —  but she’s seen enough to know the dangers, the difficulties, the fear —  not being able to go to the toilet after a certain time, sleeping with her belongings wrapped in her arms, with her baby.

We find Syrine’s suitcase and bags parked outside the hotel. She comes out a few minutes later. Her face is made up. She looks European. It’s deliberate, for fear of police and discrimination. She pulls a hat over her son’s dark curls, speaking to him in English. Walking toward the train, she runs into friends on the street, another goodbye.

She made the same trip, just in the other direction, with her husband only months before. The closer we get, the more her face looks as if it will crumble —  her nervousness at the uncertainty that awaits her and her little baby lurching closer and closer each station we pass —  but it never does.

“I studied one year of architecture, then nursing, but now I think I want to be a mechanic,” she had told us in the days before.

Off the train, she gathers herself again, struggling to collapse the buggy into a taxi as the driver tuts impatiently, the hinges catching on baby toys —  as ever, she holds her cool —  once again methodically packing her life belongings.


*Syrine and Salah are false names used to protect real identities.


Izzy Tomico Ellis is a journalist and activist who has been heavily involved in the refugee crisis since 2015. Izzy graduated with a first class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster in 2016 and is currently based in Greece. Additional reporting for this article was contributed by Niamh Keady-Tabbal.


Kagame’s third term bid and the African Union’s silence

By Sylvester Uhaa, former Human Rights Advocate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, at Columbia University


I read with concern a report regarding a referendum to amend Article 101 of the Rwandan Constitution to allow President Paul Kagame another seven year term. A few days ago, the Rwandan Senate voted to allow him a third term.

d4388b385c0844d39574a83eb34f9873_18Kagame ascended to power in 2003 and was re-elected in 2010. By 2017, he will have spent 14 years in power as President. With the referendum likely to be in his favour, his victory at the polls will allow him to be president for 21 years.

It was with great discomfort that I first heard about this on CCTV News last April, at the peak of the political turmoil in Burundi, following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s similar moves for a third term. Nkurunziza succeeded, but not without the bloodshed of thousands of people, with thousands more continuing flee the country for safety. As the crises heightened, the EU and Brussels have also asked their citizens to leave.

I am not from that region, and I do not happen to be an expert on Rwandan politics, but I am an African who is concerned about the spread of tenure elongation on the continent and its implications for peace, political stability, economic growth, the rule of law, and human rights.

Experience has shown that constitutional amendments for third term ambitions in Africa often trigger violence by opposition or other interest groups, either for the sake of protecting the constitution and the rule of law, or simply out of mistrust for the entire process. There is no guarantee that this will not happen in Rwanda, if not now, then later. The voices of the 10 individuals who opposed the referendum, out of the over 10 million who voted for it, according to the AFP report, could multiply into thousands and even millions of opposing voices and throw the country into chaos. For a country that is just beginning to heal from the wounds of the 1994 genocide, this would be catastrophic.

Most fundamentally, tenure elongation undermines the rule of law and citizens’ right to choose their leaders, which along with the freedoms of expression, religion and association, form the foundations of democracy.

1411335851SenatorsArticle 101 of the Rwandan Constitution sets the tenure of the president at two terms. Of course, constitutions are not written in stone, and a referendum is a legitimate and legal process by which to amend a constitution. However, the amendment of constitutions should not be solely in the interest of a single individual, as it would be in this instance. Africa needs leaders who uphold, defend and protect the rule of law and human rights, not those who bend, amend, manipulate, misinterpret, and violate human rights to suit their personal interests.

Another concern is the precedent this might set for the future. Are the Rwandan people really prepared, for the sake of one man they like, to risk coping with future presidents they may not like for 21 years or more? While this is too much of a risk in my opinion, the recent referendum seems to suggest that it is one Rwandans are willing to take.

How can anyone be sure that Kagame, unlike Oliver Twist, will not ask for a fourth term? Why did he not groom a successor, who would continue his policies and style of governance if he is doing this for the sake of the people, as he says? Even the idea of grooming a successor is not entirely democratic; the people must be allowed the right to choose freely those who will lead them. But it is a lesser evil compared to tenure elongation by the same individual.

I am also worried that Rwanda will add to the number of African nations who have yielded to the strong, autocratic and manipulative influence of rulers who will do anything to stay in power. This would increase the popularity of power elongation on the continent.

Kagame’s third term bid might rekindle ethnic tensions in a country that has not forgotten the horrors of the 1994 genocide. Obama’s words in Ethiopia in July may be instructive: “When a leader tries to change the rules in the middle of the game just to stay in office, it [the country] risks instability and strife, as we’ve seen in Burundi. And this is often just a first step down a perilous path.”

Paul Kagame

Under international law, the international community has the responsibility to protect (R2P) citizens of a State when that State fails to do so itself. This responsibility has three aspects – the responsibilities to prevent, to react, and to rebuild. The most important of these is the responsibility to prevent.

If world leaders are serious about the R2P doctrine, then this is the right time. A stitch in time saves nine!

I applaud the condemnation of the military coup by the African Union (AU) in Burkina Faso and the intervention to restore civilian rule in that country. But I fault the silence of the AU on the ‘civilian coup’ by President Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi, and the coup currently being staged by President Kagame to overthrow both the rule of law, and the constitution  of Rwanda,  and the right of the Rwandan people to freely choose who will govern them.

The international community must apply every diplomatic and other means to stop Kagame from overthrowing the will and right of the people to freely choose their leaders. The Constitution of Rwanda sets the president’s tenure at two terms, and upholding this and the rule of law is the same as upholding the foundations of democracy.


Sylvester Uhaa is the Executive Director of CURE-Nigeria. He was a human rights advocate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University in 2013 and is currently a Commonwealth Scholar in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford, UK.

Blood Timber: A Resource Curse

By Rachel Riegelhaupt, graduate student of Human Rights at Columbia University


b3b4f58d-3328-4662-beba-a93a5beaa454When asked about buying conflict-timber from the Central African Republic during an undercover investigation led by Global Witness, a representative from the French manufacturing company Tropical Bois responded, “It’s Africa. War is so common we don’t really pay attention…it’s not a war where they attack white people. It’s not a war we have to avoid.”

The Central African Republic (CAR) has been plagued by violence since November 2012, when predominately Muslim Seleka rebels began to take up arms. In March 2013, they overthrew the president in a bloody coup d’état and pursued a campaign of violence throughout the nation, provoking a violent backlash from the Christian Anti-Balaka militia in September 2013. Although a transitional government is currently in place, with the Seleka’s leader Michel Djotodia serving as interim president, the balance of power is still rocked by clashes between ever-present armed groups. War atrocities such as the use of child soldiers, rape, summary killings, enforced disappearances, and torture have been prevalent, and thousands of civilians have been killed, hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced, and half a million have fled to neighboring countries since the fighting began.

One of the main funding streams behind this violence has been the country’s primary export, timber, leading the UN Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic to recognize logging companies as a key source of income for armed forces in the CAR. As Seleka rebels gained power, they instantly began to monopolize on the country’s prized natural resource; anti-Balaka movements have recently been taking over the country’s rainforest for the same reason. These armed groups sell timber to logging companies based in Europe, China, and Lebanon, who then illegally export it to their home countries. The companies with the largest presence in the CAR are IFB from France, SEFCA from Lebanon, and Vicwood from China—together, they account for 99% of the country’s timber exports.

4c2f5ca5-548d-4f1f-87fc-b578b16fe7a0According to Global Witness, all three of these companies frequently make payments to the Seleka rebels, “as bribes, to pass roadblocks, for armed escort, and for the protection of their logging sites, including a single transaction of nearly 381,000 euros by SEFCA to the Seleka government.” Based on the sheer size of these payments, these companies essentially fund the war, rendering them accessories to war crimes. However, foreign trade of CAR timber has only increased. Europe is the main destination for illegally harvested timber, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the CAR’s total exports. In fact, the French company Tropical Bois, the CAR’s biggest trader, increased profits by 247% over the course of the current conflict in the CAR (they are conveniently co-owned by the biggest logging company operating within the CAR, SEFCA).

Ironically, European governments have provided thousands of troops and invested hundreds of millions of euros to peacekeeping operations in the CAR. France deployed 1,600 troops to the CAR in 2013 in an attempt to disarm the Seleka rebels, along with 700 peacekeepers to maintain security. The UN peacekeeping mission currently has nearly 12,000 troops maintaining security in the CAR. Despite this, European governments have not taken adequate measures to block conflict timber from reaching EU markets. In 2013, the EU initiated the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) in order to regulate illegal logging. Its stated purpose is to “guarantee that any wood exported from a timber-producing country to the EU comes from legal sources [and to] help the partner country stop illegal logging by improving forest governance and regulation.” Once a VPA is established it is legally binding—both for the timber exporting country and for the EU countries importing timber. Though the CAR signed on to the agreement in 2011, the ongoing conflict has made it impossible for the CAR to maintain its end of the agreement. However, European companies have also ignored the agreement and continue to import and trade illegally harvested timber from the CAR.

99be3ff5-ab56-4177-9c09-40dc6acafcedIn contrast, the CAR was suspended from the Kimberley Process just two months after the coup d’état in 2013, prohibiting the country from exporting diamonds—the CAR’s chief export at that time—to international markets in an effort to control violence. The initiative is considered to be widely successful, and the trade of conflict diamonds has fallen significantly. Similar steps were taken to control exports of conflict diamonds from Sierra Leone a few years before. While the issue of blood diamonds has received international attention through groundbreaking exposés, shocking media campaigns, and beloved Hollywood films, blood-timber is seemingly less sexy. The lack of a substantial media campaign against conflict timber stops it from ever reaching the court of public opinion, giving companies no genuine incentive to enact risk-based due diligence measures and giving governments no real incentive to better regulate the trade of conflict timber.

Some may argue that sanctioning timber may inadvertently do more harm than good by hurting the CAR’s economy; they may argue that imposing sanctions against the Central African Republic violates the CAR’s Right to Development. Firstly, there cannot be sustainable development in the context of a war-zone. Secondly, while it would be ideal to hold only the companies at fault (and not the entire industry) accountable for their complicity in war crimes, the existence of the corporate veil makes this option tenuous. Even if litigation were to be brought against specific logging companies and were to be successful, the punishment would simply take the form of monetary compensation—a punishment not nearly substantial enough to bring an end to the company’s illegal activities. Thirdly, it should be noted that robust sanctions are not being suggested, but simply the sanctioning of the timber trade—the industry fueling CAR’s war. While the overall harvesting and sale of timber may create jobs and bring money into the country, these gains are insignificant when considering the role of timber sales in perpetuating the country’s instability and conflict.

Perhaps we need another Hollywood screenplay. Perhaps Edward Zwick and Leonardo Dicaprio will come together to disseminate another message about the resource curse to their audience, steering the public to hold its companies more responsible for their actions. Or perhaps it is time for the EU to properly regulate its timber imports and hold its companies accountable for complicity in war crimes. Or maybe, perhaps it is finally time for corporations such as IFB, SEFCA, Vicwood, and Tropical Bois to step it up themselves—to end illegal logging, to enact proper supply-chain due diligence measures and to ensure that their businesses are not fuelling conflict, human rights abuses, and the continual underdevelopment of the Central African Republic.


Rachel Riegelhaupt is an M.A. Candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. Her research focuses primarily on conflict resolution, peace-building, and women’s rights.