Africa - Antiterrorism and human rights : 10 years of non-compatibility?

Terrorism in Africa is a more current threat than ever before. The attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 suggested that the African continent would be the next battlefield for international terrorism in the 21st century, but the past decade has made this perception more relative. Attacks in Africa have been few in numbers, except for those perpetrated by two groups claiming to be part of Al Qaida, i.e. Aqmi (Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb) in the Sahelian zone and the Somali Shebabs in Uganda. Terrorist attacks, thus have been location-specific and not widely spread throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, although terrorism is now, as ever, a strategic issue in Africa.

The leaders of the international campaign to fight terrorism – spearheaded by the United States – feel that this part of the world is a fertile ground for recruiting terrorists, a potential hideaway, a safe haven for illegal procurement of weapons and a chosen spot for murky financial operations connected to terrorist activities. Recently Africa, especially the Sahelian area, has become the scene of terrorist attacks, e.g. Niger, Mali and Uganda, especially targeting Western interests. A good example is the well known Aqmi strategy for attacking French interest in Africa. Aqmi has also become an important player in the criminal, mafia-type circuits of West Africa. Its involvement in the drug trade and in human trafficking to Europe, combined with the difficulty of the African states concerned to fulfil their sovereign duties in the desert regions partly explains why Aqmi has been able to sink roots in this part of Africa (Mali, Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, etc.) Kidnapping foreigners is a way to meet the organisation’s political objectives and obtain considerable funding in this part of the world.

On the other side of the continent, in Somalia, radical Islamic groups, joined together under the name the Shebabs, have claimed responsibility for the double bombing attack on 11 July 2010 in Uganda that caused 76 deaths. The Shebabs control the centre-south of Somalia, and stand up to the Somali government whose authority does not extend beyond Mogadiscio and whose survival depends on the presence of the Africa peacekeeping mission, Amisom composed of 9,000 Ugandan and Burundi military personnel. Out of vengeance, the Shebabs have often threatened to perpetrate attacks in Uganda and Burundi.

Under both diplomatic and politico-economic pressure from the international community and sometimes even out of opportunism to increase security, many Sub-Saharan African states have ratified international and regional conventions on combating terrorism, especially the Organisation of African Unity Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism, and its protocol which still needs five ratifications to be eligible to enter into force. Further, many countries have translated specific provisions on the fight against terrorism into national law.

AN analysis of the regional legal framework and the national laws has shown that certain provisions could be liberticidal. The tendency in a certain number of African countries is to adopt legislation that uses an especially vague definition of “terrorist act”, e.g. Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Swaziland. These ambiguous definitions can be used to criminalise the legal exercise of basic freedoms, (e.g. the right of assembly and freedom of speech), political and peaceful social opposition, and other legal acts.

Further, despite their commitments, some African states have not converted international provisions for the protection of human rights concerning arrests, detention and torture into national law. Some other states have incorporated these provisions but do not respect them in their fight against terrorism. And some states, on the pretext of combating terrorism, (e.g. Mauritania, Zambia, Tanzania, Uganda, Mauritius) have adopted laws that are contrary to international law on human rights. In many other countries, questions relating to terrorism fall under the responsibility of special or military courts, which totally contradicts the principle of the independence and impartiality of judges (especially in Zimbabwe).

One tendency observed in Sub-Saharan Africa is to severely attack any “apology” for terrorism or the publication of information, which could be useful in committing acts of terrorist. The lack of a definition of the term “apology” coupled with the lack of a precise definition of “terrorist act” have led to a clear risk of violating the right to freedom of expression and information (South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda).

Following the example of the United Nations and the European Union, the Africa countries, through their regional organisations or individually, have drawn up lists of alleged terrorists or terrorist groups. Establishing these files and making it impossible to query their contents are questionable practices in terms of human rights. But going a step farther, the broad dissemination of these lists seriously impinges upon the presumption of innocence (Nigeria, Mali).

For more information:

Human rights Violations in Sub-Saharan African Countries in the Name of Counter-Terrorism: A High Risks Situation (2008) (in English)

Afrique : Violations des droits de l’Homme en Afrique subsaharienne au motif de la lutte contre le terrorisme : une situation à hauts risques (2008) (in French)

Mauritania : The Case of the “Islamists”, Torture in the name of the Fight Against Terrorism (2007) (in English)

Mauritanie : L’ affaire des « islamistes » : la torture au nom de la lutte « anti-terroriste» (2007) (in French)

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