7 February 2013

Guinea Bissau: The Country's Untenable Human Rights Situation

analysis

While other situations in West Africa continue to dominate popular news coverage, the deteriorating conditions in Guinea-Bissau have struggled to capture the headlines.

The Guinean Human Rights League (GHRL) released a major report on its human rights situation today, which should act as a serious wake-up call for those who have taken the relative lack of concern as a sign of peace and stability.

Last April, the country was destabilised by a coup d'etat, which has been followed by an uneasy transitional period that was brokered by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and has been characterised by the repression of political voices.

Violence without justice

Some of the largest international human rights organisations have been silent on Guinea-Bissau for months - notably Human Rights Watch did not include the country in its 2012 report. In this light, the work of the Guinean Human Rights League report has assumed heightened importance.

Whilst the report documents violations of economic and social rights, as well as violations of the rights of women and children, the most timely sections are those focusing on the widespread and brazen impunity, the justice system and the armed forces.

Starting with April's coup d'etat, the League writes:

"fundamental rights and liberties, namely the freedom of expression, of protest and assembly, were and continue to be illegally restricted by the [military] command, the possessor of real power in the country, which operates in the name of guaranteeing non-existent peace and stability, and stands in clear violation of the Constitution of the Republic and international human rights instruments. Guinean society lives today against its will, in a climate of insecurity and bitter helplessness, hostage to a divided, unpredictable and violent political and martial class."

What specific incidents of violence does the report allude to? In October, after violence at an airbase and allegations of coup plot, its supposed leader was caught and an opposition leader was kidnapped and savagely beaten. Reports then surfaced of the murder of young people in Bolama, who fell victim to the military crackdown.

In November, the Guinea Human Rights League denounced the kidnapping of a well-connected man whose "lifeless body was found days later in the morgue of the country's main hospital".

Political persecution may be the most common form of violence but it is not the only one. Military men and civilians connected to the government are using the climate of impunity to settle personal scores.

Hopes for the future

High-level diplomats yesterday told the UN Security Council that there is a "general atmosphere of fear" in the country. UN envoy and Nobel Peace Laureate José Ramos Horta is set to arrive in the coming days.

The GHRL writes in its report:

"Guinea-Bissau has become an isolated country in an increasingly globalised world, a country where panic and terror walk hand-in-hand. The population lives entrenched in its own dread of waking up to new violence... worsened by the fact that the international community cannot come together to guarantee [its] interests and aspirations."

In the face of this oppression, civilians have been resolute. Recent months have seen citizen initiatives arise, like Movicidadão, which is a coalition of individuals and groups who will participate in a drive to register and issue documents to the numerous citizens who lack these.

One blogger, Ação Cidadã, shows how young people are "appropriating" public space in the town of Buba and renaming streets and public places with resistance slogans such as "Active Voice Alley" and "Patio of Justice". Guinean poets and artists recently organised a week of cultural activities in Portugal to show the world that "Guinea-Bissau has much more than the military men".

A version of this report was originally published by Global Voices.

Janet Gunter works as a consultant for projects promoting transparency and citizen participation - most recently in Mozambique, and blogs about Portuguese speaking Africa at Global Voices with a growing team of bloggers.

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