Tag Archives: ACHPR

Regional advocacy on the UN human rights mapping exercise in the Democratic Republic of Congo

by Shane Quinn

With the focus on North Africa these days, it’s a little difficult to sway observers of human rights issues to other pressing situations such as that of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). After all, DRC has received its fair share of analysis over the years from human rights and rule of law to humanitarian and peace-building perspectives, and yet this conflict continues to bubble accompanied oftentimes by horrendous mass rapes and internecine massacres. DRC has become synonymous with a deficit of accountability and lack of recourse for victims of grave human rights abuses.

So how then, will the recently published UN Mapping Exercise on Grave Human Rights Abuses from 1993-2003 manage to establish some long awaited justice for the many victims of its wars? With great difficulty, is the proverbial answer. Although the report succeeds in pointing out the roles and responsibility for human rights abuses of different actors including the Congolese state and its neighbours in the region, the latter have effectively dismissed the report as groundless. The Rwandan government in particular has been highly critical of the mapping report and related lobbying and advocacy activities of civil society organizations (CSOs) in DR Congo and Rwanda, directly questioning the UN’s mapping methodology and referring to the content of the report as lies.

The Human Rights in Ireland blog gives a very balanced overview of the expectations on the mapping report, while also dampening the expectations felt by many civil society actors within the DRC and the Great Lakes. The fact of the matter is that this mapping report – while initially shaking the regional status quo by accusing Rwanda and Uganda amongst other countries of grave human rights abuses – has failed to ignite a regional push for greater accountability by either civil society or international actors.

It is early days of course, and only three months have passed since the publication of the report, but already plans are being laid for the elections in DRC in June 2011 and the mapping has not been mentioned as a central issue of any electoral campaign. Instead, the danger is that it assumes a similar fate to prior human rights reports conducted in Timor Leste and Sudan, which attracted little more than a passing glance by the international community. The worrying proof is also in the lack of hits on the internet since the publication date of 1 October last year. Having waiting for this report to be published, maybe civil society actors in the region can now start communicating across the region’s borders and try to establish some momentum before the elections.

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Upcoming guest-postings on Democratic Republic of Congo by Chris Huggins and Shane Quinn

by Rhodri C. Williams

As we become inured to a steady procession of breaking political and humanitarian crises, it is relatively easy to forget about the many protracted low-level conflict scenarios that seem to grind relentlessly forward, perpetuating human misery in isolated corners of the world without ever improving or deteriorating sufficiently to register very strongly in the public consciousness. The situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is arguably the premier example of this phenomenon. Featured in the most recent issue of Forced Migration Review (FMR), the situation in DRC is succinctly described by former UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes as ‘a scandal that needs to end’.

With nearly two million internally displaced persons and a history of being locked into its own conflicts and victimized by those of its neighbors, the untapped human potential and resource wealth of DRC is staggering. However, the nervous initial reception and subsequent awkward silence surrounding an October 2010 UN Mapping Report on human rights violations committed between 1993 and 2003 in DRC hint at the extent of the challenges to addressing the root causes of conflict there. This blog has not done justice to land and human rights issues in DRC to date, but that is about to change thanks to the expertise of two upcoming guest-bloggers:

First, Chris Huggins will be contributing his third guest-posting on TN, this time introducing an October 2010 report he wrote for International Alert on ‘Land, Power and Identity: Roots of Violent Conflict in Eastern DRC’. As indicated in the title, Chris’ report focuses not only on the significance of land for individuals but also its role as a sustaining factor in inter-group conflicts, particularly in the volatile province of North Kivu.

Second, first time TN guest-blogger Shane Quinn describes the role of civil society organizations (CSOs) in the Great Lakes region in seeking to draw attention to the findings of the above-mentioned UN Human Rights Mapping Report. Efforts to end impunity and promote reparations for victims identified through the report have been proposed through both political processes such as the upcoming DRC elections and legal procedures such as those before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR).

As in virtually all other contemporary conflicts, land is a crucial underlying issue in DRC. In both the findings of a recent RSC workshop and a number of articles in the latest issue of FMR (available for free download here), experts and practitioners have attested to the link between land competition and ethnic tensions that persist both within the eastern provinces of DRC and across its borders.

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Week in links – Week 2/2011

This week picks up a few interesting items from the end of last year as well as some more updated texts:

– Now that the referendum on South Sudan’s separation appears to have gone off peacefully, attention is turning to the contested territory of Abyei. As described in this NYT article, Abyei represents a microcosm of the North-South conflict but one which has, alarmingly, been left on the sidelines of last week’s putative solution. Here’s a sample:

“We will go to war over this,” said Rou Minyiel Rou, a veterinarian in Abyei. “This is about land, and we can’t compromise on land.”

– Anyone remember Osh? Fortunately Transitions OnLine does, and they released a series of reports last week on the aftermath of last June’s orchestrated attacks on Uzbek minority communities in this town in southern Kyrgyzstan. The first two reports focus squarely on land and property issues, including the plight of women left behind to safeguard destroyed family homes, and ongoing ethnic tensions over land access in the region. Against a chilling backdrop of arbitrary arrests of Uzbek men, the latter report notes that the reconstruction of Uzbek neighborhoods may not take place according to the victims’ preferences:

Other unsubstantiated claims center around the urban plan under discussion by city authorities. Few details have been released, but the plan is said to include building apartment blocks in place of the traditional family compounds where many Uzbeks live. Uzbek neighborhoods take up large areas of the city, particularly in central districts and around the famous Suleiman Mountain.

– Carl Soderbergh of Minority Rights Group International (MRG) wrote a two part report in the MRG Blog late last year on the threatened land rights of the Maasai in Tanzania. The first part of the report analogizes latter day practices of removing this indigenous group from the environs of a wildlife park with the colonial doctrine of terra nullius (sound familiar?) used to justify earlier annexations. The second part examines the violent expulsion of another group of Maasai from a wildlife sanctuary acquired on disputed legal grounds by the American tour operator Thomson Safaris. Fully 37 years after the facts that triggered the Endorois decision by the ACHPR in neighboring Kenya, this must be only one of many more such cases in the making.

Revisiting uti possidetis: Is Southern Sudan’s referendum scarier if it succeeds?

by Rhodri C. Williams

On day three, all signs indicate that the referendum on the separation of Southern Sudan from Khartoum is going shockingly well. Continued high turnout bodes well for achievement of the key threshold of 60% of registered voters and the mood appears to be nigh on festive at many polling stations. Violence has flared in the contested Abyei region, but it remains to be seen whether this dispute will join the ranks of the intractable (along with Jerusalem, Kirkuk and Nagorno Karabakh) or can eventually be arbitrated into submission (a la Bosnia’s Brcko District). So why are there still some long faces in the world of diplomacy?

In looking at land issues in conflict, it is helpful to recall that various individuals’ and groups’ asserted property rights are not the only relevant claims. States have traditionally had rather an important vote as well. Indeed, until recently states were relatively unfettered in their ability to regulate and expropriate property rights and forcibly remove people from their homes and lands when they deemed it necessary. Sovereignty-related concerns related to development, national security and territorial integrity were paramount.

Since the end of Cold War, greater attention to both regional and global human rights standards and the assertion of doctrines such as human security and responsibility to protect (R2P) have altered this balance. As a result, while states continue to enjoy  broad discretion over the use of their land resources, they have come under increasing pressure to recognize that their ‘territory’ is co-terminous with the homes, homelands, property and possessions of their citizens, and to respect the rights accruing to affected individuals and groups as a result.

The resulting situation should in theory ensure that the costs of necessary government action that infringes on private property interests are not externalized solely onto those directly affected. As I blogged on earlier here, both development and human rights standards are converging on this understanding. In situations where these rights are egregiously violated in the context of war and ethnic cleansing, legal remedies such as restitution have come to the fore, both in practice and in standards such as the Pinheiro Principles.

However, as many commentators have pointed out, the current exercise of self-determination by the people of southern Sudan hearkens back to older understandings of the primacy of state territorial control and threatens the integrity of a longstanding legal consensus of such age and fixity that it has been anointed with a Latin phrase. “Uti possidetis” or “as you possessed” is a sort of interstate rule of adverse possession that originally ratified territorial conquests in warfare and later shaped the process of liberation of former colonies.

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The Pinheiro Principles take a licking (and keep on ticking?)

by Rhodri C. Williams

Based on my early experience of both, working on international soft law standards seems a bit like parenthood – you have a limited period to create a warm, protective space around the text that will give it the resilience and flexibility to make a difference in the world and then you let it go and watch its fitful progress with your heart in your mouth. Maybe you don’t hear from it in a while and then, for better or for worse, there it is in the morning paper.

My first brush with the ‘Pinheiro Principles’ on property restitution for displaced persons came during their infancy, when I sent comments on a draft and was invited to participate in a March 2005 expert consultation to groom the text for  presentation to the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights. I was fresh from my prolonged engagement with Bosnian restitution and pleased to see so much of what we had struggled to articulate there being expressed in the draft. At the same time, a prior consultancy job with IPA had put me on notice that both the nature of post-conflict property issues and means of addressing them could take many forms.

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Overlapping land uses and indigenous groups – two’s a crowd?

by Rhodri C. Williams

A bit more evidence came this week that even as regional human rights bodies build up indigenous land rights in theory, global warming, population pressure and competing land uses are breaking them down in practice. In a law and society vein, the current situation raises the concern that decisions like that in the recent Endorois case (by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights) risk serving only to raise expectations on the part of threatened indigenous groups in all corners of the world that cannot possibly be met given the resources, attitudes and capacity in many of the states involved.

The most alarming reports are currently coming out of a cluster of Sahel states in Africa where indigenous pastoralist groups are facing severe recurring drought conditions. The FAO reported recently that 9.8 million people are  vulnerable to severe hunger in Niger and Chad, with “thousands more under threat in the north of Burkina Faso and northeast Mali.” Further east, WFP notes that 23 million people remain subject to food insecurity in Ethiopia, and the Famine Early Warning System Network has warned that half the rural population of Djibouti will require humanitarian aid through the remainder of this year.

The news for pastoralists in Africa is not entirely bleak, however. Most of the above reports highlight new or existing aid programs meant to provide for both short-term food distribution and longer-term resumption of food security through measures such as seed improvement for animal feed, cash for work programs to improve pastureland, and stocking or de-stocking, as need be. In some countries, such as Mali, there is evidence of both improved government response and local resilience. Other hopeful signs come in the way of innovations such as the development of rain calendars meant to both serve the narrow purpose of helping communities understand changing precipitation patterns and the broader purpose of supporting more informed local risk management strategies.

However, as if it was not enough that Sahel pastoralists must contend with recurrent drought and food insecurity, other factors such as population pressure and competing land uses appear to compound these threats in many regions. In its above-cited press release, the FAO notes that food security for both farmers and herders in Chad is impacted by the “influx of refugees from Sudan’s Darfur region and the Central African Republic, estimated at over 300 000 people”.

At least in the case of Darfur, it is already well known that displacement, both internal and across the border to Chad, has been fueled by competition between agricultural villagers and pastoral nomads for land. In light of the fraught conditions for agrarian livelihoods throughout the Sahel, displacement from open land conflict in any one part of the region risks intensifying land competition elsewhere and creating a cascade effect. Well away from all the publicity around Darfur, for instance, IRIN reports that land disputes in Burkina Faso between pastoralists and farmers have been aggravated by development projects and “threaten to spill into neighbouring countries as herders seek grazing pastures”:

Communities – mostly in the south – with no formal land rights have been pushed out by hydro-agricultural irrigation projects and migrants from other parts of the country that have formed sedentary farming communities, [Livestock Ministry director] Guissou told IRIN. “Indigenous groups are often left to their own resources in this [development] process and there has been no systematic effort to involve them, which frustrates them and leads to conflicts.”

Pastoralists pushed off the land are forced to travel farther across borders to find suitable pastures, Guissou added. “What were yesterday’s pastures have become hydro-agriculture projects in the south, which are not taking into consideration pastoralists,” the Ministry of Livestock director told IRIN.

There are eight million cows and 19 million other smaller cattle nationwide. Following the droughts of the 1970s, the government designated 185 pastoral zones covering two million hectares – which is more than one million hectares short of what is needed now, Guissou told IRIN.

He added: “Our herding and farming methods are still traditional and take up a lot of land. Since the 1970s drought, and [ongoing] climate change, there has been an increase of humans and animals on limited space with limited resources.”

To minimize the risk of conflicts between farmers and herders, the Ministry of Livestock has outlined a land clearing plan that takes into account herders’ migration patterns and animals’ water needs, but only a fraction of the millions of dollars needed to finance the plan has been raised by the government, said Guissou.

Meanwhile, in the other hemisphere, the New York Times reports on a brewing conflict between the Pemón indigenous group in Venezuela, which practices a form of ‘prairie swidden’, periodically burning patches of savanna for hunting and agricultural purposes, and an increasingly assertive non-indigenous population that has followed roads and economic opportunities into their territory. The article describes a scientific debate over whether traditional burning practices reduce or increase the risk of larger fires spreading to nearby cloud forests crucial to Venezuela’s important hydro-electric energy sector. While arguments against burning raise shades of similar assertions that have severely impacted on indigenous groups in Southeast Asia (see the final section of a report on Cambodia I wrote for COHRE a few years back, for instance), the scientific debate appears at risk of being overtaken by facts on the ground:

The Pemón face a backlash over the fires beyond the realm of scientific debate. Nonindigenous Venezuelans here often call them “quemones,” a play on the Spanish word for someone who burns a lot. “The Pemón are pyromaniacs by nature, and this year we’ve seen some of the worst fires in memory,” said Raúl Arias, 54, who operates a helicopter service in the area.

Some Pemón chafe at such statements. “Outsiders come here and leave their excrement and trash on the tepuis [local rock formations], then complain to us about fires that spoil their view,” said Miguel Lezama, 46, a leader near Mount Roraima.

New motivations for some Pemón to light fires complicate matters further. Scholars have seen an increase in fires to protest the installation of electrical towers and the opening of the satellite-monitoring base. Other Pemón sometimes start fires to harass the government into meeting demands for services.

Few experts know how these fires will affect the Gran Sabana, aside from sowing dissent.

“The government is wrong if it thinks the Pemón are its docile sheep in the savannas,” said Demetrio Gómez, 36, a Pemón leader who took part in a violent protest near Santa Elena de Uairén this year to dislodge squatters from Pemón land. “We burned these lands long before anyone else arrived,” he said, “and we’ll keep burning them into eternity.”

The article notes that the increasingly violent confrontation over traditional savanna burning in Venezuela “is part of a broader debate over the sovereignty and proper management of indigenous lands” and that much of the area in question has not been recognized as belonging to the Pemón but is rather “cordoned off as either national park or military territory”.

In fact, the failure of the Venezuelan authorities to recognize the land rights of the Pemón flies directly in the face of rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that were, in turn, heavily relied upon by the African Commission of Human and People’s Rights in their recent ruling in favor of the Endorois pastoralists in Kenya. However, the truly disconcerting question human and indigenous rights advocates must ask themselves is whether these hopeful but infrequent episodes of jurisprudential progress fly in the face of current reality – and if so, what can be done.

Endorois implementation campaign in Kenya

Thanks to Chris Huggins for forwarding a very interesting email announcing the beginning of a campaign by Kenyan human rights actors to ensure the implementation of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights recent decision awarding restitution of traditional lands to the Endorois indigenous group. Chris previously posted on the likely regional effects of this decision here and I posted on its legal implications for indigenous peoples’ right to property here. In opening the campaign for implementation of the decision, David Malombe of the Kenya Human Rights Commission writes:

Following the ruling on the Endorois land question under the African Union, a number of human rights organizations including the Endorois Welfare Council, Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), Centre for Minority Rights and Development (CEMIRIDE), MPIDO, Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR),  Kenya Land Alliance (KLA), International Commission for Jurists (ICJ-Kenya), Action Aid Kenya, Constitution Reform Education Consortium (CRECO) among others are organizing a commemorative and campaign rally in Bogoria on Saturday, March 20, 2010. We are expecting more than 10,000 participants drawn from the affected communities in the country; and state and non-state actors working on land rights and justice issues. After this, we shall have a campaign to ensure that the Government of Kenya complies with the AU recommendations.

It is often the case that winning a groundbreaking precedent decision like that in the Endorois case appears, in retrospect, to have been the easy part. Continuing advocacy work of the nature described above can be crucial to implementation and I will endeavor to provide further updates on this blog regarding how these efforts fare.