Angolan human rights improving?
UNHRC points to progress and concerns
Things are definitely changing in Angola – slowly, perhaps, but surely. After an unprecedented invitation from the government, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Navi Pillay, undertook her first ever visit to the country – a country that has long been renowned for its failure to promote and protect the basic rights of its people.
Speaking at the end of her three-day visit – during which she held talks with President José Eduardo dos Santos and numerous ministers as well as hosting a meeting with around 30 civil society activists and visiting the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo – Pillay highlighted a number of serious concerns, including increasing inequality, unjust evictions, limits to freedom of speech and assembly, impunity for abuses by security forces and the lack of a fully-fledged human rights institution.
However, she did acknowledge that a considerable amount of progress has taken place since the end of the civil war in 2002 – but stressed that much more still needs to be done.
“The government has invested heavily in important infrastructure, including schools, medical facilities, major housing projects, water and electricity supplies, improved prisons, and thousands of kilometres of roads,” said Pillay. “This development has not been without controversy. Two issues that have consistently been brought to my attention are the huge disparities that have developed between the richest and the poorest, and the sometimes harsh methods used to evict people from land earmarked for development, especially in and around Luanda.”
Dwelling on this critical point, Pillay said, “I fully recognise that the government must free up land to carry out construction projects necessary for the further development of a modern, prosperous economy. However, people should never be ejected, and their housing bulldozed, without prior consultation, adequate compensation and alternative housing being made available.”
“Issues such as the proximity of their new place of residence to their place of employment need to be taken into account, or else their livelihoods may be destroyed along with their homes and their dignity,” she added. “There are clear international standards governing the appropriation of property and relocation of people. I suggested that the government accept a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, and am glad that they have agreed to accept such a visit.”
She also stressed that related issues such as corruption, unemployment, high cost of living and extreme poverty need to be tackled before disillusionment starts to set in, especially among the country’s youth. Coincidentally, her comments about corruption come just days after the publication of a damning new report into a hugely corrupt Angolan-Russian debt deal, involving the looting of over US$700 million from the Angolan Treasury – some of which ended up in the pockets of President dos Santos and other senior Angolan officials.
“I also emphasized the need for a continued strengthening of the human rights protections of Angola’s citizens, since development of infrastructure without parallel development of human rights is insufficient and self-defeating,” said Pillay. “In certain circumstances this can lead to social and political upheaval, especially if an ever-larger swathe of the population feels excluded from the country’s economic gains.”
Pillay was particularly concerned by the fact that millions of Angolans have not been registered, including 68 percent of children under five – pointing out that this has enormous ramifications for their future ability to play a full role in society, receive benefits and find employment and could potentially lead to problems of statelessness. And she urged the government to make rectifying this a top priority.
The UN High Commissioner welcomed Angola’s new Constitution, which is stronger on human rights, and the redesigned Constitutional Court that is intended to ensure it is observed. She also highlighted the impressive gains in relation to women’s rights, in particular the enactment of the Law on the Participation of Women in Political Life which has led to 34 percent of today’s parliamentarians being women, and an important new Law against Domestic Violence.
“However, more new laws, amendments to existing laws, and proper implementation are needed to draw the full benefit of a principled Constitution,” she added. “Access to justice is a problem at many levels, and the benefits of the new Constitutional Court are not yet being fully realized, with too few key cases being brought to stimulate further beneficial change to the country’s laws and supporting institutions. There are still problems, for example, in the content, interpretation and implementation of laws on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, with the police sometimes suppressing protests in a heavy-handed fashion. In addition, we continue to receive periodic reports of cases of arbitrary detention and excessive use of force – especially, but not only, in Cabinda.”
During her visit, Pillay also raised the unsolved cases of two organizers of a peaceful protest by former members of the military claiming unpaid pensions, who disappeared – allegedly at the hands of the security forces – immediately after a rally in May 2012.
“It is imperative that whenever there are allegations of abuses by authorities that credible and transparent investigations take place, and that when abuses are confirmed the perpetrators are held fully accountable under the law,” she said.
While claiming – controversially many would say – that the media, and especially the private media, are generally free to criticize the authorities in Angola, Pillay did call for the repeal of the law on defamation, which is a serious and direct threat to investigative journalism. “Efforts are also needed to lift restrictions on and broaden the reach of independent media – especially radio and TV – and to increase the access of different points of view to the State-run media,” she added. “A free pluralistic media is an essential component of a multi-party democracy, and I urge the government to respect dissent.”
Pillay also called on the government to engage in a more constructive dialogue with civil society.
“A strong civil society is also vital to a thriving democracy, and civil society organizations are clearly feeling vulnerable and therefore constrained in Angola,” she stressed. “Freedom of assembly, freedom to protest, and freedom to investigate and expose possible abuses, should not be undermined by heavy-handed actions, threats and intimidation on the part of the authorities.”
The other major issue that Pillay discussed at length during her visit was the persistent allegations of abuse – and especially sexual abuse – of migrants committed by members of the security forces and border officials. Stressing that she supports efforts to tackle the “extremely complex and difficult issue” of irregular migrants at a regional level and has agreed to raise the issue of closer cooperation by the DRC, from where around 80 percent of the migrants entering Angola originate, Pillay nevertheless called on the Angolan government to rein in its security forces.
“The need to tackle human rights violations against migrants on Angolan territory is the responsibility of the Angolan Government, and the Angolan Government alone,” she said. “During my visit to a remote border crossing in Lunda Norte, I received indications that sexual abuse of female migrants is continuing, as well as theft of property. While the scale of the problem may be disputed, one rape is a rape too many, especially when carried out by a member of the security forces who ought to be protecting civilians from crimes. I believe a full and transparent cross-border investigation is long overdue. Anyone found to have sexually abused any woman, including migrants – irregular or otherwise – should feel the full force of the law.”
And finally, Pillay recommended that one way to improve Angola’s human rights laws, and monitor their effective implementation, would be to create a full-fledged National Human Rights Institution (NHRI), in accordance with the international system known as the Paris Principles.
“There are now more than 100 states with such institutions around the world, but Angola is not among them,” she said.
The UN Commissioner concluded that Angola was heading in the right direction, despite the widespread criticism of the government’s human rights record.
“In general, my impression is that the government of Angola is genuinely committed to improving human rights,” said Pillay. “If the Government does create a robust National Human Rights Institution, if the Constitutional Court is enabled to live up to its potential, and if the other key state institutions continue to strive to improve, then I believe Angola can become a model not just in this region, but for many other countries as well.”