13 March 2008

Mozambique: Human Rights - An Exercise in State Department Hypocrisy


Maputo — The US State Department published its annual report on human rights this week, full of the omissions we have come to expect.

Turn to the chapter on Cuba, for example. We are told what a nasty place Cuba is, how it is a totalitarian dictatorship, and in particular how prisons in Cuba "continue to be harsh and life-threatening".

One of the largest prisons in Cuba is at a place called Guantanamo Bay. It contains hundreds of prisoners, snatched illegally from all over the world, held without charge or trial, with no idea of when or if they will ever be released. Surely this gross and persistent abuse of human rights merits a prominent place in any report by a body that purports to be concerned about human rights?

I scanned the chapter on Cuba, looking for any mention of Guantanamo Bay - and could find none. For this prison is not run by Cubans. It is not Cubans who pick up alleged terrorists from Afghanistan and elsewhere and dump them in a judicial black hole. Guantanamo Bay is an American prison, run on a corner of Cuban territory occupied by the United States against the will of the Cuban government.

A real defender of human rights, Amnesty International, earlier this year described Guantanamo Bay as "a symbol of injustice and abuse. Secret detentions, torture, rendition and indefinite detention without charge flout basic human rights principles and jeopardize rather than promote security".

But not a whisper of this is allowed into the US State Department reports. In those reports, the United States' own human rights abuses are always exempt from criticism. They are not acknowledged to exist - the United States is the one country in the world which has no chapter in the report.

US forces operating abroad are likewise exempt from criticism. So there is no mention of abuses committed by US troops in Iraq, just as in 2004, when the rest of the world was appalled by the photos of US soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison, no mention of these scenes of torture could be found in the State Department report for that year.

Indeed, you would never guess from the State Department's chapter on Iraq that there are any US troops in the country at all. They are not mentioned - although there are couple of coy references to something called the "Multi-National Force-Iraq" (MNF-I).

When we turn to the chapter on Mozambique, we find several egregious factual errors. Quite the worst of these is the claim that Nyimpine Chissano, businessman son of former President Joaquim Chissano, was "joint moral author" of the assassination of the country's foremost investigative journalist, Carlos Cardoso, in 2000.

Has the US State Department taken upon itself the right to put Mozambican citizens on trial and find them guilty? For no Mozambican court ever found Chissano guilty of "joint moral authorship" of the assassination.

That was the accusation against Chissano - but he died, in November 2007, before the case reached court. The disgraceful lethargy of the Mozambican judicial system meant that the Mozambican public never had the chance to find out, through an open trial, if there was any substance to the allegations against Chissano, and Chissano himself never had the opportunity to clear his name.

The State Department (or the diplomats in the US embassy in Maputo who doubtless compiled the Mozambique section of the report) have not even bothered to read the Mozambican constitution. The report states "The law grants citizenship to the foreign-born wife of a male citizen but not to the foreign-born husband of a female citizen".

This did indeed use to be the case, but the law has been changed. The Constitution passed by parliament in 2004 states (in article 26) "Any foreign man or woman, unless stateless, who has been married to a Mozambican woman or man for at least five years acquires Mozambican nationality as long as he/she a) declares a wish to acquire Mozambican nationality and b) fulfils the requirements and offers the guarantees fixed by law".

Thus while it may still require running through a fair amount of red tape to acquire Mozambican nationality by marriage, there is no longer any barrier merely because of one's sex.

A serious allegation, made repeatedly in the report, is that the judiciary is "heavily influenced by the ruling party". No source whatsoever is given for this claim, and the report does not provide a single example of such influence.

But it is not difficult to guess what the source is - it is last year's report. And the source for the claim then, was the report of the year before, and so on. For this is just one of those allegations that crops up year after year, and is mindlessly repeated, with the compilers of the report taking the attitude "if we said it last year, it must be true".

It must be admitted, however, that the State Department has cleaned up its act somewhat. Earlier in the decade, whole paragraphs were lazily lifted from one year's report into the next's. That practice, at least, has gone.

Some statements are made that cry out for statistical backing. Thus the report claims "While broadcasting debates on important issues of the country, Radio Mocambique tended to invite participants that were not critical of the government". Has the US embassy really taped all Radio Mozambique discussion programmes throughout the year, decided which guests were pro-government, which were hostile and which were neutral, added it all up and reached a reasoned conclusion? How much airtime was given to pro-government guests, and how much to opposition figures or other critics?

Without a solid statistical basis, this statement is no more than a vague impression. If a Mozambican journalist were to write that CNN, for example "tends to invite participants that are not critical of the US government", he would be asked to provide some evidence. Why should the State Department be allowed to get away with an equally vague and subjective claim?

The report leans heavily, but usually without acknowledgement, on the Mozambican press and reports from the Mozambican Human Rights League (LDH). This has the virtue that many of the claims about, for example, the police and the prison system, are substantially accurate.

It is true that Mozambican prisons are overcrowded, and often endanger the lives of inmates. It is true that extra-judicial killings have been carried out by the police. The reason the State Department knows about this is that we in the Mozambican press have written about it.

But there is a curious omission in the State Department. It talks about "unlawful deprivation of life", but never mentions legal killings, judicially approved executions. And the reason for this is obvious - if the state Department were to mention executions it might have to admit that most of the world is far more civilized than the US in this regard.

So the State Department studiously ignores the fact that Mozambique abolished the death penalty in 1990. The United States authorities, however, continue to kill US citizens at a rate of about one a week, usually through the ghoulish method of pumping their veins full of poison.

In 2006, only five countries in the world executed more of their own citizens than the United States did - they were China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and Sudan. Full figures for 2007 are not yet available, but it seems likely that the US will drop to number seven on this list of shame - but only because more people were executed in Saudi Arabia in 2007 than in 2006.

As for prison conditions - yes, they are certainly bad in Mozambique. But they don't affect that many people. What the State Department fails to mention is that Mozambique has a fairly small prison population: according to a UNDP report, there are only 50 people in jail per 100,000 Mozambicans.

The United States, however, has the largest prison population in the world. 714 out of every 100,000 Americans are in prison. The total US prison population at the end of 2006 was 2,258,983.

A racial breakdown of the prison population shows that you are much more likely to be incarcerated in a US prison if you are black. In 2006, 3,042 black male Americans were serving prison sentences per 100,000 of the black male population. This compared with thus 487 male white prisoners per 100,000 American whites (the figure for Hispanics was 1,201 per 100,000).

These figures (which come from the US Justice Department) put a rather different slant to the State Department's concern about human rights.

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