The Human Factor
issue 211 - September 1990
The good news is the rich world is at last taking human rights into account when
granting aid. The bad news is why. Rakiya Omaar and Richard Carver report.
Illustration: Robin Harris
Thanks to the dramatic transformation of Eastern Europe there is a new and flourishing international vogue for human rights. Even regimes with appalling records - such as Malawi and Somalia - are rushing to ratify international human-rights treaties. Their desire for correctness has not, however, extended to practice.
Why this sudden flurry? The main reason is that human rights has recently entered the vocabulary of international aid donors in a big way - and is being used to justify' policy changes that are being made for quite different reasons.
Take the recent statement from British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd: 'Countries tending towards pluralism, public accountability, respect for the rule of law', human rights and market principles should be encouraged. Governments who persist with repressive policies, with corrupt management, or with wasteful and discredited economic systems should not expect us to support their folly with scarce aid resources.'
Or the statement from French President Francois Mitterrand: 'France will link its contribution effort to the efforts accomplished to move towards more liberty".
Or the Canadian Government's announcement: 'Assistance offered to countries which have not demonstrated a commitment either to democracy or the open market is to be avoided'.
Now African campaigners regard Western concern about human rights as long overdue. But they are deeply sceptical about the motives of Western governments. Only weeks before delivering his homily, Mitterrand had sent French troops to Gabon - ostensibly to protect French nationals, but in reality to shore up the one-party regime of President Ornar Bongo which was facing widespread popular protests.
This pattern has been repeated throughout French-speaking Africa, with corrupt governments kept in power by French development aid and budgetary support as well as large contingents of French troops.
The UK also has a fine record of hypocrisy when it comes to human rights. In the mid-1980s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited Poland and publicly upbraided the government over its human-rights record. At the time the Polish Government held one political prisoner, according to Amnesty International.
Shortly afterwards Thatcher visited Kenya - a one-party state where political prisoners are tortured and sentenced after show trials and where independent organization is crushed. She singled out President Daniel arap Moi for praise, saying that he 'is just as concerned at any abuses of human rights as anyone else would be'. Shortly before her visit two observers from a human-rights organization attempted to attend the inquest of a political detainee who had died in custody. They were arrested and expelled from the country for 'unauthorized note-taking'.
Days before Thatcher's visit, Kenya had almost started a war with neighbouring Uganda because the latter had decided to save scarce foreign exchange by sending its exports by rail rather than road. This had angered senior Government ministers - who happened to own the Kenyan trucking companies.
Kenya, then, appears to fulfil a number of Hurd's criteria for having its aid cut off: it is repressive, corrupt, wasteful. There is no pluralism, public accountability or respect for human rights or the rule of law, However, 'market principles' rule and it is this, presumably, which differentiates Kenya from Eastern Europe.
Malawi was a port of call on Thatcher's next African trip. Now Malawi has been a one-party state since 1966 and exhibits many of the worst features of that kind of system. Ordinary Malawians need a Party card in order to board a bus or enter a market, Those who refuse are likely to be imprisoned or otherwise persecuted. Dozens of detainees are held without charge on political, religious or ethnic grounds.
Yet Mrs Thatcher refused to criticize the human-rights record of President Kamuzu Banda. And donors are not put off by Banda's accumulation of a vast personal fortune through corruption. Malawi has received regular aid and investment from the UK, West Germany and the World Bank.
A recent $70-million World Bank loan to Malawi carried various economic policy conditions but none on human rights. The World Bank is not allowed to be influenced by human-rights considerations in its lending, although it is increasingly concerned with what it calls 'governance'.
Of course Malawi, like Kenya, has a fiercely anti-communist government which is strongly aligned with the West in matters of foreign policy and economics. For many years Banda was South Africa's principal ally in the region at a time when the front-line states were urging the West to implement sanctions against Pretoria. This explains much.
And despite the West's recent rhetorical outbursts there is little reason to believe that its attitude to human rights in Africa is likely to change. They are simply responding to three developments.
The first is that changes in Eastern Europe have created a need to release funds for aid programmes which will be beneficial to Western investors. Already some technical experts attached to aid programmes in Africa have been transferred to Eastern Europe.
The second is a growing sentiment, especially in France, that donors are not getting sufficient return for their assistance. Recently a senior French official, writing under a pen-name in Le Monde, complained that African governments were accepting French aid and spending it on Japanese goods.
The third factor is the emergence of popular democratic opposition within African countries. In recent weeks we have seen an attempt to overthrow President Kenneth Kaunda in the one-party state of Zambia and courageous criticism of the Moi regime in Kenya. Eastern Europe has taught the West how quickly governments can be toppled by popular opposition and the current talk about human rights is a way of hedging bets - of keeping in with tomorrow's possible rulers as well as today's.
The constant sub-text of Western statements on human rights is that political freedoms can only be guaranteed by a capitalist economy. Africa has tyrannies of both right and left, but it is usually only the latter who come in for criticism,
Similarly, the awkward truth is that recent protests in Ivory Coast and Zambia were prompted by precisely the IMF-style economic measures which the West wishes to see adopted. Western leaders say nothing about Gani Fawehinmi, the Nigerian human-rights lawyer imprisoned last year for criticizing his country's structural adjustment programme, or Kempton Makamure, the Zimbabwean lecturer detained for criticizing his government's new open-door investment code.
This is not an argument against linking aid to human-rights considerations - merely for greater consistency. Such pressure can be used effectively to benefit the victims of human-rights violations. In 1983, for example, Sweden suspended aid to Zimbabwe until its army stopped the massacre of civilians in the Matabeleland region. In May 1990 Belgium announced the suspension of aid to Zaire after elite presidential guards had massacred protesting students in Lubumbashi - a move which could prove as effective as the Swedish one. Similarly in recent months the US has frozen all non-emergency aid to the Somali Government, which is engaged in a genocidal war against large sections of its own population.
What these examples have in common is that the donor countries were closely allied with the governments committing abuses of human rights. It is easy for a government to lecture its enemies on the virtue of good behaviour. It is much more difficult but twice as effective to adopt the same approach with one's friends.
More than 40 African governments have now endorsed the African Charter on Human and People's Rights, drafted by the Organisation of African Unity after the fall in 1979 of Idi Amin, Jean-Bedel Bokassa and Macias Nguema. Yet the very same governments daily violate this Charter, which guarantees the basic civil rights of both individuals and communities. It is not unreasonable to expect African governments to adhere to human-rights standards that they themselves have drawn up.
But the blanket approach signalled by Hurd, Mitterrand and the Canadian Government is not likely to be effective. Its intention is less to improve respect for human rights than to reshape their own aid programmes.
A better approach would be to make help in specific programmes like military or police training conditional upon specific improvements such as the release of political prisoners, the legalization of opposition parties and, of course, an end to torture. .
Rakiya Omaar is Executive Director and Richard Carver Research Director of Africa Watch, a non-governmental body monitoring African governments' adherence to internationally-agreed human-rights standards.