Guinea's government should ensure that its security forces act with restraint and respect to preserve human life in responding to opposition protests, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said today. Since local elections on February 4, 2018, at least 15 people have been killed and scores injured in deadly clashes between the security forces, opposition demonstrators, and government supporters. Opposition leaders have suspended protests for Easter weekend but said that they will resume April 5.
An uptick of increasingly divisive rhetoric from all sides of the political divide, including incidents of hate speech on social media, has deepened social tension and created a risk of further violence. The authorities must take immediate action to curb the use of hate speech and political parties should condemn members who use it.
"Since early 2018, deadly political violence has been increasing, leading to a painful loss of life and property in Guinea's capital and beyond," said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "As Guinea braces itself for further demonstrations, it's vital for the security forces to prove that they can act impartially and professionally to facilitate demonstrations and protect both opposition and government supporters alike."
Political violence in Guinea is fueled by deep ethnic divisions, with the ruling party, the Rally of the Guinean People's Party (Rassemblement du Peuple de Guinée, or RPG), dominated by ethnic Malinké. Supporters of the largest opposition party, the Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (Union des Forces Démocratiques de Guinée, or UFDG) are largely drawn from the Peuhl ethnic group.
Guinea's local elections - the first since 2005 - had been postponed repeatedly since 2010 as the government and opposition failed to agree on how to organize them. The Electoral Commission announced on February 21 that the RPG had won 3,284 council seats to the UFDG's 2,156. The elected councilors, who also include hundreds of representatives of smaller parties and independent candidates, will now elect mayors in Guinea's 342 communes.
Although election day was relatively peaceful, the next day the opposition UFDG accused the ruling party of electoral fraud. The Election Commission has defended the election results, but opposition supporters have staged weekly street protests, setting up roadblocks in suburbs of Conakry, the capital.
Several demonstrations corresponded with a month-long teachers' strike over pay and conditions, and student protests over school closings due to the strike. Although the government reached a deal to end the teachers' strike on March 13, opposition leaders said on March 23 that protests against the local elections results would continue.
Security forces have used teargas, and in some instances live ammunition, to disperse demonstrators and respond to violence by protesters. These clashes have led to the death of at least nine protesters or bystanders, including four people shot on March 14, and a gendarme who a police spokesperson said was killed by a rock thrown by a protester on February 19.
Guinea's security forces have a history of using unnecessary and excessive force - often resulting in the loss of life - and lacking political neutrality. The government meanwhile alleges that, in past years, rocks thrown by protesters or sharp objects from slingshots have injured and, in a few instances, killed security force members and that some protesters carry weapons.
Political tensions have also led to violence between opposition and government supporters, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said. An alleged arson attack on February 5 killed five people, including four children, following clashes between government and opposition supporters in Kalinko.
Opposition leaders have also called for an investigation into a March 17 fire at Conakry's Madina market, which destroyed hundreds of shops and kiosks, alleging that government supporters had threatened to target the market. The government said that the investigation into the cause of the fire is ongoing but that they suspect the fire was caused accidentally by an electrical short-circuit. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have, since 2010, documented the destruction of property in markets by mobs associated with the ruling party, often together with members of the security forces, and to a lesser extent, by opposition supporters. On March 12, protesters vandalized media outlets in Conakry.
Media monitors, including the Guinean Association of Bloggers, have raised concerns about an , which refers to advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred to incite violence, hostility, or discrimination.
The government has taken tentative steps to reduce communal tension and ensure accountability for alleged abuses. On March 14, Gassama Diaby, the national unity and citizenship minister, promised justice for victims of violence during demonstrations and said that the Guinean bar association would provide lawyers for victims' families. Human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, wrote to Diaby on March 20 to support the initiative and ask him to follow through on these promises.
On March 6, Diaby also announced the creation of a committee to monitor potential hate speech in the media and the internet. He has called for judicial proceedings against a government minister who, in a February 20 speech, told ruling party members that they should "take revenge" against those responsible for riots and property damage after the local elections. In policing hate speech, the Guinean government should refer to the Rabat Plan of Action, a set of UN-backed guidelines that discuss how to prevent incitement of violence, hostility, or discrimination while protecting freedom of expression.
The government should also direct all security force members to abide by the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights Guidelines on Policing Assemblies in Africa, and provide ongoing training on the practical application of these principles. Security force members implicated in serious crimes and demonstrators who commit violence should be brought to justice in fair trials.
"Given Guinea's long history of election-related clashes, the risk of further violence remains high," said François Patuel, Amnesty International West Africa Researcher. "The government should send a message that human rights abuses committed in the context of demonstrations will be impartially investigated and prosecuted in fair trials. Political leaders in Guinea should also make clear and strong public statements, at the highest levels of each party, denouncing inter-communal violence and hate speech."