Human rights in East Africa

(Updated in January 2012)

East Africa encompasses Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and in a wider sense also Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia (including the self-declared republic of Somaliland). The East African region is long subjected to economic underdevelopment and unequal terms of trade and conflict. At the same time, it is rich in cross-border cultural/ethnic commonalities.

Kenya and Tanzania are often referred to as representing stability and peace in the region. This should be seen in contrast to the exhausting civil wars played out in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi and the ongoing conflicts in the Horn of Africa as well as in Sudan and South Sudan. The conflict in Somalia, where the al-Shabaab militia continues to strengthen its position, also contributes to regional insecurity.

The militia is believed to have ties to Al-Qaeda. Somali militants of the al-Shabaab have been involved in terror attacks across East Africa, such as the bombings in Kampala, Uganda killing 60 people in July 2010.

Migration from Somalia continues to create challenges within the region. Appeals to the Eastern African Community, to act on the pressing issue of human trafficking, are lobbied by civil society organisations. Action is slow and governments have only been able to conclude a few cases.

The Eastern African Community (EAC), one of Africa’s regional economic communities, is the leading regional intergovernmental organisation. The EAC works in close collaboration with the African Union (AU). Its current members are Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda. With a total population of more than 125 million people and land area of 1.82 million sq kilometers, EAC bears great strategic and geopolitical significance. However, several problems are hindering full regional integration. The political landscape remains complex and national agendas are accused of superseding the agendas of the “community”.

The African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (1981) and the Grand Bay Declaration and Plan of Action on Human Rights are two instruments adopted by the AU to promote human and peoples rights on the continent. However, the International Criminal Court of Justice (ICC) and human rights organisations accuse member states of continuing to undermine justice for victims of human rights violations in the region. A stronger and renewed attention on impunity issues is called for within the AU.

The East African Court of Justice is one of the organs of the East African Community. The Court is facing criticism for lacking commitment towards the implementation of agreed decisions and a failure to communicate the same. There are also problems of divided loyalty between state and regional actors, as well as a lack of coordination and timeframes for implementation of decisions. In general, the rate of legal illiteracy is alarming. Few people understand the law, its processes or their own rights.

The reasons behind human rights violations and its consequences in the region each deserve to be analyzed in a context specific manner. Nevertheless, there are regional similarities and general patterns to be highlighted.

Democracy, Political Violence and Impunity
Political leaders fail to fully commit to democracy. Transparency and accountability remain weak, despite progress in terms of elections and citizen participation. Endemic corruption cripples political and economic development, increasing socio economic inequalities. The states continue to fall short in their ability to provide the basic needs of their populations.

Regional and international human rights organisations often report on political violence before, during, and after elections. Members of opposition parties express fear, and frequently publish reports of killings, torture and enforced disappearances of activists. The East African region is struggling with issues of impunity, which continues to occupy the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Privatisation of security
Private security companies represent an expanding industry in East Africa. States’ inability to provide security increases the emergence of vigilante groups within urban settings. States loose the monopoly over violence, and corruption within police forces is endemic. Private security firms have arrived to fill this “security gap”. From this perspective economic factors determine individual access to basic security, thus increasing the vulnerability of already marginalised groups.

Oppression of the media and civil society
Freedom of media, freedom of opinion and expression, and access to information and Internet is limited in the region, with some exceptions. Suspension of national newspapers and government crackdowns on journalists are frequent. Independent media outlets, journalists and human rights activists experience a climate of fear. Human rights organisations experience disruption to their work and are sometimes forced to shut down. Fears of imprisonment, torture or death have forced many human rights defenders to live in exile.

Rights of LGBT-persons and Gender Based Violence
The criminalisation, punishment, killing and stigmatisation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) activists are of pressing concern. Harassments and violence targeting LGBT-persons, sometimes carried out by police, are often followed by impunity.

In East Africa, women continue to be targets of gender-based violence with little access to justice. Rape as a weapon of war or as a tool of harassment and intimidation during peace is common in the region. The culture of shame and impunity surrounding these and other related crimes is of pressing concern. The stigmatisation of victims, increased domestic violence and spreading of sexually transmitted diseases stress the urgent need of refined models of legislation focusing on the prevention, and suppression, of sexual violence against women and children.

Persecution of Albinos
Human rights organisations report that thousands of people with albinism in countries such as Tanzania, Kenya and Burundi have been forced to relocate out of fear of persecution. The market for selling albino body parts is lucrative and driven by the mistaken belief that they possess magical powers. The majority of attacks and killings of albinos in the region remain undocumented and unreported.

Human rights in Kenya

Human rights in Sudan

Human rights in Uganda

Categories: Country reports.
Tags: Human rights.
Regions: East Africa.