The Status of Human Rights Organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa

The Political and Economic Enviroment

The transition to a more democratic political environment in some African countries clearly provides human rights organizations with new opportunities. However, it also forces many to redefine their role in relation to political parties. In the past, when opposition political parties were unable to function, the line between political and human rights criticism of the government became blurred or totally obscured. As the transition has taken place, many human rights activists have emerged as prominent figures within political parties--often, of course, a political party which comes to power in democratic elections. Thus human rights groups are being forced in a number of countries--for example South Africa, Malawi and Zambia--to define their mandates more closely in order to underline the politically impartial nature of their work. In some other countries, this division between active political engagement and human rights work has been less successfully negotiated.

In other countries--Rwanda, Angola, Chad and Somalia are among the most glaring examples--African human rights monitors continue to try to function under the old conditions of extreme repression. Many other countries fall into a middle category in which human rights activity is tolerated but activists are constantly harassed and operate under difficult conditions.

In a small number of countries--Liberia, Mozambique, Somalia and lately Rwanda--the local state has almost ceased to exist and most of its functions have been assumed by intergovernmental agencies. In a number of other countries--for example, South Africa until recently--there is a strong presence of intergovernmental organizations involved in seeking reconciliation or assisting in political transition. However, these intergovernmental bodies have themselves become political actors and need to be subjected to scrutiny and independent monitoring. United Nations troops in Somalia and the West African peacekeeping force in Liberia (ECOMOG), for example, have both been accused of serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, while the UN forces in Mozambique are also alleged to have committed abuses against the civilian population. At the same time, it is unclear who monitors these bodies or by what standards they are to be judged; the UN in Somalia has indicated that it does not consider itself to be bound by the Geneva Conventions, and in Liberia, it has been difficult for local human rights groups to criticize ECOMOG because it is seen as the main guarantor of their security.

These brief examples underline the variety of political contexts within which African human rights groups operate. The economic environment is in many respects more uniform. The continent is in a deep economic crisis resulting from declining terms of trade, a growing burden of debt and overpopulation. The measures taken to address this crisis--usually consisting of some form of "structural adjustment"--carry enormous social costs which are met by the poorest sections of society. In most African countries, as a result of the strong tendency of international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to dictate the political agenda, both government and opposition parties support structural adjustment measures and effectively abdicate responsibility for economic policy-making to the IFIs. One of the consequences of this abdication is that political parties offer the population no alternatives among which to choose with respect to economic policy. In the absence of such choices, parties tend to draw support on the basis of factors such as regional and ethnic affiliations.

In addition, the international political consensus--which is echoed by many African human rights groups--links together the introduction of multi-party political systems, respect for human rights and free market economics under the general heading of "good governance". In practice movements for political change and respect for civil and political rights in countries such as Zambia and Nigeria have often been stimulated by the failure of the state to enforce economic and social rights. However, the explicit linkage of human rights to a single economic doctrine impedes African rights groups from addressing the impact of structural adjustment policies from the perspective of social and economic rights. It is not that human rights groups should align themselves with a single alternative view, but rather that they should take as their starting point the human impact of any policy. Thus a vital aspect of their work has to be monitoring the impact of economic policies on the economic and social well-being of the population. The human rights movement risks becoming marginalized if it is unable to address issues of such primordial importance.

Two broad exceptions can be identified where human rights organizations have analysed and campaigned on social and economic issues from a rights perspective. One is South Africa where, for peculiar historical reasons, issues such as housing, pensions, education and land are seen as central elements in the struggle for human rights. The other is the many African organizations campaigning for women's rights, which have generally been equally active on political/legal rights and social and economic issues. It was our observation that in this--as in other areas--the African women's movement can offer important lessons to the broader human rights community.

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