The African Union (AU) should make human rights central to its discussions about crises situations in Africa at its summit meeting this week in Ethiopia, Human Rights Watch said today in an open letter to the AU chairperson, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. The Ordinary Summit begins on January 21, 2013, and AU heads of state are due to meet on January 27 and 28 in Addis Ababa.
The AU summit should address the human rights crises in Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and Somalia as well as the human rights challenges around upcoming elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe, Human Rights Watch said. Of particular concern are the human rights implications of the deployment of an African Union/United Nations-supported international military force in Mali and the need to ensure proper safeguards for protecting civilians and a human rights monitoring capability. Potential abuses not only by the Malian security forces but also by the armed forces of countries potentially taking part in the operation bring particular urgency to the situation, with the recent resumption of hostilities in Mali.
"The AU summit is an important regional forum for ensuring that human rights considerations are injected into every crisis response," said Tiseke Kasambala, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "The AU has a crucial role to play in ensuring that the military intervention in Mali does not contribute to further human rights violations in already insecure environments. That means abiding by international law and making civilian protection a priority."
In eastern Congo, concerted regional and international action is required to help end the cycle of abuses, Human Rights Watch said. Over the past nine months, M23 rebels in eastern Congo have committed widespread abuses amounting to war crimes, including deliberate killings of civilians, summary executions, rapes, and recruitment of child soldiers. The rebels have received significant logistical and military support from neighboring Rwanda.
Talks between the M23 and the Congolese government, which began in December 2012 and resumed in January, appear to be faltering and so far, have made little progress.
"The violence in eastern Congo continues to lead to appalling loss of civilian life," Kasambala said. "Rwanda should immediately stop supporting the abusive rebel group M23 and the AU should insist that M23 commanders implicated in war crimes are brought to justice."
Ongoing talks over the deployment of an African-led intervention brigade as part of the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo should consider mandating this force to support arrest operations of suspects sought on international and national warrants for war crimes and crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said.
In Sudan, the human rights and humanitarian situation has deteriorated, particularly in the conflict-affected areas of Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile, and Darfur. The fighting between the Sudanese armed forces and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army-North (SPLA-North) in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states has affected nearly one million people, forcibly displacing hundreds of thousands from both states since mid-2011. The Sudanese military has used indiscriminate aerial bombardments in populated areas of both states.
Government forces along with government-affiliated militia are also responsible for other serious abuses against civilians in both states, such as ground attacks on villages, destruction of grain and water sources that are critical to the survival of the population, arbitrary detention, and sexual violence against women and girls. Sudan has blocked humanitarian aid groups from the areas outside government-controlled towns where civilians are in dire need of food aid.
In Darfur, armed conflict between the government forces and militias and the rebel groups continues, in addition to inter-ethnic clashes over resources. Scores of people have been killed in the fighting and the AU/UN Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) peacekeepers have repeatedly come under attack. The Sudanese government restricts the movement of AU/UN peacekeepers and nongovernmental organizations, preventing access to large parts of the region. The AU should press the government of Sudan to grant immediate and unfettered access to humanitarian agencies in the conflict-affected areas of Darfur, and Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan, Human Rights Watch said.
"An urgent response is required to resolve the humanitarian and human rights crisis in Sudan," Kasambala said. "The AU should demand that the Sudanese government immediately stop the indiscriminate aerial bombardments and other violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states."
During the past year, a new government replaced the transitional authority in Somalia, and AMISOM troops made significant military advances into territory held by the Islamist armed group Al-Shabaab. The human rights situation in Somalia nonetheless remains poor, Human Rights Watch said. State security forces have been implicated in serious violations of fundamental rights that contribute to the insecurity of the population. These include killings of journalists in government-controlled areas, rape, and severe restrictions on access to food and shelter for displaced people.
Foreign forces including Kenyan forces under AMISOM command, as well as Ethiopian forces, have also committed abuses in south-central Somalia during military operations, including indiscriminate shelling.
"The AU should urge the Somali authorities to end abuses by state security forces," Kasambala said. "The AU should also ensure that respect for humanitarian law and accountability for abuses during military operations by AMISOM are a priority."
The deployment of a long-term AU election observer mission to Kenya this coming March is an important contribution to free and fair elections, but the possibility of election-related violence is a growing concern, Human Rights Watch said. In the past year, 400 people have been killed and over 200,000 people displaced in incidents of ethnic, resource-based, and politically motivated violence in the coast region of Northern Kenya and parts of Nairobi. The pre-election violence has been among the worst in Kenya since 1992.
Few of those responsible for the violence that followed the 2007 elections in Kenya have been brought to justice, raising fears that those responsible for the violence during the 2007 elections could carry out further acts of violence in 2013.
"The ongoing violence and lack of justice for victims of human rights abuses during the 2007 elections makes it vital for the AU to send a strong message to the Kenyan authorities that grave abuses should not go unpunished," Kasambala said.
The AU should provide for early deployment and sufficient numbers of Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and AU election observers to Zimbabwe, where a lack of institutional and legal reform has raised the specter of violence and other rights abuses during elections to be held in 2013. The AU should keep the monitors on the ground after the elections, long enough to deter violence and intimidation.