Djibouti: Defending economic and social rights comes at too high a price

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The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the World Organisation against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), today released the report of a fact-finding mission entitled Djibouti: defending economic and social rights comes at too high a price. This report is the result of a mission sent by the Observatory to the Republic of Djibouti from 20 to 28 August 2005. The purpose of the mission was to meet national authorities and civil society in order to assess the respect of economic and social rights in the country, as well as the situation of human rights defenders, particularly trade-unionists.


For more than ten years, defenders of economic and social rights - and especially independent trade-unionists - have been targeted by the Djiboutian authorities because of their struggle in favour of labour rights and freedom of association. In spite of the numerous international commitments made by Djibouti (9 international conventions on human rights and 67 International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions were ratified), the authorities of this strategic country located in the Horn of Africa do not respect most fundamental economic and social rights, in particular workers’ rights. In the absence of democratic change, human rights organisations and trade-unions progressively became the only mode of independent expression for civil society. However, they soon became one of the main target of political authorities due to their condemnation of, inter alia, the opacity of social and economic management of state-owned companies, in a country where all resources have been taken over by the political power.

The economic situation is undermined by corruption and political racketeering

Djibouti is a rich country but the Djiboutian people are poor. The geo-strategic position of Djibouti has attracted most Western military units (USA, France, Netherlands, Spain) that fuel the State budget with about 80 million euros per year. Profits emanating from Djibouti’s harbour and foreign military bases are not entirely accounted for the State budget. For the President of the National Assembly this document is « not that important ». Meanwhile, the Court of Audit made an alarming comment on the management of public receipts: the fact that 65 million euros disappeared from the public finance record in four years shows that « corruption is everywhere and impunity is complete », according to an senior official.

The appropriation of State resources for personal ends « gives the image of authorities that only want one thing: to draw milk from the people », according to a journalist. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) stated that « bad governance has been identified as a major obstacle to poverty reduction and to a sustained economic growth in Djibouti ». However, over the past 10 years, the extreme poverty of the Djiboutian people has been increasing continuously and affected more than 42% of the population in 2002. Officially, the unemployment rate reaches 70% and with the new Labour Code that entered into force on 28 January 2006, those who have a job are no longer guaranteed a decent minimum salary. This new Code abolished the Inter-professional Guaranteed Minimum Salary, which was equal to 100 dollars a month.

Independent civil society organisations - trade unions and human rights organisations - that highlight these patent violations of economic, social and cultural rights are faced with increasingly arbitrary power that is all the more ready to strike down any form of opposition at the time of forthcoming elections. [1]

2005 - 2006: Outbreak of attacks against defenders of economic and social rights

Since the emergence of powerful independent labour unions in 1995, the defenders of economic and social rights have paid a heavy price: arrests, dismissals, acts of harassment by the police and the judiciary, threats, etc. All means are used to try to prevent them from defending the rights of the Djibouti people.

After dismissing most of the union leaders (1995-1997), creating "clone" labour unions (1999) and shutting down any means of communication of labour unions (between 1999 and 2003), the authorities increasing attacked defenders in 2005 and 2006, through arrests and multiple legal proceedings.

At the end of February 2006, four leaders of the most representative labour union in the country, the Djiboutian Union of Workers (Union djiboutienne du travail - UDT), were imprisoned for more than a month because they had organised the participation of two of them in a training-course on trade-unions at the invitation of an Israeli trade-union. [2] The international pressure in favour of their release probably played an important role in the decision by the authorities to release them on 6 April 2006. Yet, they remain accused of "foreign intelligence" and were therefore unable to present their recommendations at the 95th session of the International Labour Conference (ILC) in June 2006, as their passports were seized on 20 February 2006 and they have been placed under judicial control since then.

In Djibouti, collective bargaining also remains a risky practice. In September 2005, while negotiations were initiated by the unions of the Port of Djibouti in order to put an end to a strike, the management of the Port boycotted the negotiations and ordered the arrest of 156 strikers: 60 of them were dismissed (among whom 11 were union activists) and 120 others received an "ultimate warning before dismissal". [3] 11 trade-union leaders were condemned to up to two months’ of prison with probation. These examples of repression towards independent trade-unionists in Djibouti provide a clear illustration of 10 years of intimidation and harassment practices by the police and the judiciary, as well as imprisonment and dismissals, targeting daily independent trade-unionists in Djibouti.

The capacity of trade-unions to play fully their role is all the more limited today than the new Labour Code [4] has enabled the authorities, since 28 January 2006, to control or refuse the creation of a trade-union. Indeed, whereas the right to adhere or create a trade-union is maintained, the procedure for prior authorisation by the government has been reinforced: Article 215 of the new Code provides that the union must obtain an authorisation from the Ministries of Interior, Employment and Justice as well as of the labour inspectorate and of the public prosecutor in order to be legally registered. Upon request from the relevant ministries, the prosecutor can close down a trade-union through a simple administrative decision.

The new Labour Code was briefly discussed with social partners and international organisations. The various ILO departments and several ILC Commissions have for several years been asking Djibouti to send them the draft Labour Code. These repeated requests were unanswered by Djibouti. The Labour Code was adopted by an Assembly composed exclusively of members of political parties in power.

Furthermore, the various bodies of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) seized by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders said they were "worried" by the trade-union situation in Djibouti. Thus, in June 2006, the Committee on Freedom of Association noted "with deep concern the new allegations recently formulated by the ICFTU" and the Observatory concerning "the serious interference of the government in trade-union activities". Regarding threats and acts of harassment of which independent trade-union organisations are victims, the Committee emphasised the importance and the urgency the situation in Djibouti, by asking the Government of Djibouti to accept "a mission of direct contacts". Likewise, at the 95th session of the International Labour Conference, held in Geneva in June 2006, the Conference Committee on the Application of Standards "underlined the close links existing between the principle of full consultation and direct participation of the two sides of industry (...) and the higher principles of trade-union freedom and the collective bargaining", while the Credentials Committee requested that the Government of Djibouti "submit for the next session of the Conference (...) a detailed report substantiated with relevant documentation on the procedure utilised to nominate the Workers’ delegates and advisers" in order to allow the representative independent trade unions to take fully part in the work of the Conference.

Recently, political, economic and social deadlock prevalent in Djiboutian society has led to internal conflict. The incapacity of the authorities to undertake and implement democratic reforms, in particular freedom of association, which would certainly help to heal the deep causes of this conflict (confiscation of power, under-development in large parts of the country, judiciary under political control, limited freedom of the press and of expression, etc.) increases tensions.

In the light of these flagrant violations of the international human rights instruments ratified by Djibouti, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders makes the following recommandations to the Djiboutian authorities:

  • Put an end to any form of harassment and reprisal against trade-union members or leaders, as well as against human rights defenders in Djibouti, in order to allow them to carry out freely and without infringement their human rights activities;
  • Reintegrate all leaders and trade-union activists who were dismissed because of their trade-union activities;
  • Fully implement recommendations and conclusions of the various ILO’s bodies and in particular those adopted at the 95th session of the International Labour Conference in June 2006;
  • Implement a general framework for social dialogue between trade-unions and the authorities in order to discuss strategies for the development of the rule of law, as required by the international instruments ratified by Djibouti in the context of its candidacy to the United Nations Human Rights Council. In this respect, Djibouti must create an Ombudsman with competence in respect of the above;
  • Implement the commitments made by Djibouti in the framework of its candidacy to the United Nations Human Rights Council, notably the respect of the international standards regarding human rights and the rights of refugees; ratify the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination and the Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child;
  • Adopt a new Labour Code: the draft of this code will need to be drawn up in cooperation with trade-unions as well as representatives of civil society. It will need to include regional and international provisions for the protection of human rights as ratified by Djibouti;
    Conform to the provisions of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 9 December 1998, especially to Article 1 which provides that "Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels" and to Article 12.2, which states that "The State shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone who suffers any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of the legitimate exercise, individually and in association with others, of the rights referred to in the present Declaration";
  • More generally, conform strictly to the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to the international and regional instruments for the protection of human rights to which Djibouti is a party, particularly Conventions N°. 87 and 98 of the International Labour Organisation concerning the freedom of association and collective bargaining.
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