Human rights deteriorating as authoritarianism rises in Eastern Africa, report says

Somali children who were repatriated to Somalia from Kenya's Dadaab camp stand by their makeshift shelters in the Daryeel camp for the displaced, in Mogadishu, Somalia. Somalis say they were pressured to return to their country from the world's largest refugee camp in neighboring Kenya. November 2016 AP photo

NAIROBI – Conflict in the Horn of Africa and Great Lakes Region, along with increasingly authoritarian behavior by governments, has caused a rapid decline in human rights in countries across the region, a new report says.

Amnesty International’s annual report on human rights over the last year highlights a regression in human rights across the East African region. While authoritarianism appears on the rise in parts of the Western world, the human rights group says this trend in Eastern Africa is particularly worrying.

The Amnesty report highlights 11 countries where human rights have deteriorated over the last year. It highlights the Kenyan government’s forced repatriation of Somali refugees, civilians targeted with chemical weapons in Sudan, protesters jailed and killed in Ethiopia, and opposition and youth activists imprisoned in the Democratic Republic of Congo protesting Kabila’s failure to set an election date among others.

Amnesty claims that political leaders in the region are increasingly resorting to the “politics of demonization” in order to clamp down on civil disorder.

“Leaders bent on clinging to power in many instances stirred up fear and turned communities against each other, set their troops on unarmed civilians and blamed their own failures and ineptitude on minorities, including refugees,” Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes said in the report.

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Other human rights groups agree that abuses have become increasingly commonplace in the region.

“Generally we have been concerned that human rights situation in the region has deteriorated in recent years,” Otsieno Wanyama of Human Rights Watch told Humanosphere, adding that authoritarian responses to political crises tend to magnify human rights violations.

“There has been clampdown on free expression in several countries in the region – Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and Uganda. The ongoing political instability in South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Burundi has led to rights violations by the authorities,” Wanyama said.

“At the same time, response by governments in the region to al-Shabaab attacks has often been abusive with little attempt by the authorities to investigate these abuses or hold those responsible to account.”

The report also criticizes Pierre Nkurunziza’s refusal to step down as president of Burundi, which has seen a continued effort by security forces carrying out human rights violations, including unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatment, and arbitrary arrest.

Burundi opposition demonstrators confront army soldiers in the Mutarakura district, as security forces try to prevent people moving out of their neighborhoods, in the capital Bujumbura, Burundi. (2015 AP Photo/Gildas Ngingo, File)

Burundi opposition demonstrators confront army soldiers in the Mutarakura district, as security forces try to prevent people moving out of their neighborhoods, in the capital Bujumbura, Burundi. (2015 AP Photo/Gildas Ngingo, File)

“In several countries in the region, rulers ignored their own constitutions to stay in power, holding elections only in form and not substance. The resulting political instability and outbreaks of violence created a climate of fear, forcing people to flee across borders for refuge.”

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More than 380,000 Burundian refugees have fled for Uganda and other neighboring countries according to UNOCHA; Some 22,000 Burundian refugees fled the country last month alone.

Continued and increasingly intense conflict in South Sudan – which the U.N. described in recent months as being on the brink of genocide – as resulting in the degradation of rights. So far the conflict has forced 3 million people to flee their homes

“Human Rights Watch has continued has continued to engage with governments in the region on these human rights concerns,” Wanyama told Humanosphere.

Despite rights groups’ engagements with governments across the region. Wanyama says that progress across the region to reverse the declining trend is slow.

“We have in some cases worked hand-in-hand with other human rights organizations like Amnesty and diplomats in the region to raise our concerns with the government,” he said. “What has been worrying is the fact that there has been little traction on these issues by most governments in the region.”

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Charlie Ensor

Charlie Ensor is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist, focusing on refugee rights, development and humanitarian crises in East Africa. His work has also featured on the Guardian and WhyDev; he also writes his own blog on development and aid issues. Charlie tweets @charlieensor, and you can contact him at charlieensor1990@googlemail.com