Africa

Minamata Convention Seeks to Curb Mercury use in Africa

By: Adam King
Impunity Rights News Reporter, Africa

Two boys seperarte gold from ore. Courtesy of Human Rights Watch.

DADOMA, Tanzania — A new UN convention on the trade and use of mercury held its inaugural meeting on September 24, 2017 in Geneva, Switzerland. The treaty, known as the Minamata Convention on Mercury, seeks to cover a wide range of areas related to mercury,

“The treaty holds critical obligations for all 74 State Parties to ban new primary mercury mines while phasing out existing ones and also includes a ban on many common products and processes using mercury, measures to control releases, and a requirement for national plans to reduce mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining. In addition, it seeks to reduce trade, promote sound storage of mercury and its disposal, address contaminated sites and reduce exposure from this dangerous neurotoxin.”

The name of the convention is derived from a fishing town in Japan that involved many cases of mercury poisoning. The connection between mercury and African countries is its use in a process used to mine for gold.

Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Mali are but a few African countries that use mercury to separate gold from ore.  The mining process that utilizes this method is known as artisanal and small-scale gold mining or ASGM.  This process is utilized in rural areas where gold mines are located, but are not central mining hubs. While the process is not as intensive as opposed to larger mining operations, the practice does pose some health risks.

The danger of using mercury in ASGM have short and long term effects on those who come into direct contact with the mercury, “Mercury is a shiny liquid metal that attacks the nervous system. Exposure can result in life-long disability, and is particularly harmful to children. In higher doses, mercury can kill.” Children are often utilized in ASGM, given the relative ease of the process.  For some, it is a way for them to earn money to support their families. The reliance on ASGM in rural communities has grown steadily over the years.

A report released by UN Environment details the amount of reliance on ASGM in Africa and worldwide,“ASGM is now responsible for around 20 per cent (600-650 tonnes per annum) of the world’s primary (mined) gold production. It directly involves an estimated 10-15 million miners, including some 4.5 million women and 1 million children.” While 20% seems to be a small percentage of the overall gold production, the numbers may not tell the entire story.  In the same report, statistics detailed the level of inaccuracy regarding the reported figures of ASGM.

Data showing ASGM use by country. Photo courtesy of UN Environment.

The numbers show the wide disparity in the quality of the data reported, which is further explained by some countries who are known to export mercury, but do not necessarily disclose all instances of its export, “Trade between the countries mostly appears to be undocumented. For example, Kenya did not register any exports during 2010-15 period.”

While the convention brings more than 100 countries together to address the issue of mercury use, the convention may face challenges regionally in Africa.  ASGM is a source of income for many rural families.  Taking a hard stance against ASGM, where mercury is the primary agent for ore separation, could hurt a source of income for rural gold miners.  

Beyond the individual considerations, country-level considerations are also relevant.  Some of the more wealthier African countries play a role in the mercury trade, “Kenya and South Africa were the main supply hubs for mercury used in ASGM, especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa itself.” Many of the countries rely on gold production as an important source of revenue.  Limiting the use and trade of mercury could have an impact on the gold industries in those countries.

The requirements of the convention also call for swift and decisive action for compliance purposes,

“The convention comes with a long checklist of deadlines. Nations must immediately give up building new mercury mines and, within three years, they need to submit a plan of action to come to grips with small-time gold miners. By 2018, they need to have phased out using mercury in the production of acetaldehyde – the process that poisoned Minamata is still in use. By 2020, they need to have begun phasing out products that contain mercury.”

Three years to comply could pose some challenges to countries who have to not only begin phasing out the use of mercury, but also replace the lost revenue streams from ASGM with new ones.

For more information, please see:

Human Rights Watch — ‘Mercury Rising: Gold Mining’s Toxic Side Effect’ — 27 September 2017

Daily Nation — ‘UN pledges to curb sale and use of mercury’ — 25 September 2017

Phys.org — ‘Something in the water—life after mercury poisoning’ — 26 September 2017

UN Environment —  ‘Global mercury supply, trade and demand’ — 14 September 2017

AllAfrica — ‘Minamata Convention, Curbing Mercury Use, Is Now Legally Binding’ — 16 August, 2017

Human Rights Groups Rebuke Egyptian Arrests on Suspicion of Homosexuality Crackdown

By: Adam King
Impunity Rights News Reporter, Africa

Concert Goer at Mashrou’ Leila Concert Displays LGBT Flag. Photo Courtesy of The Independent.

CAIRO, Egypt — A string of arrests following the recent display of the LGBT flag at a concert in Cairo has human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International calling for an ease in crackdowns against suspected homosexuals. According to the Independent, the flag in question was displayed at a Mashrou’ Leila concert on September 22, 2017. Since the concert, a number of people have been detained on suspicions of homosexuality,

“Both Amnesty and HRW said in their Saturday statements that a total of 11 people had been arrested since the concert, held at an upscale mall in an eastern Cairo suburb.”

One of the techniques commonly used in a homosexuality investigation is an anal examination. Countries such as Tunisia are moving away from the mandatory use of anal examinations, but that does not change the status of homosexual people in the Middle East.

Homosexuality remains a sensitive topic in Egypt particularly,

“Homosexuality is highly taboo in Egypt among Muslims and minority Christians alike, but it is not explicitly prohibited by law. Egypt regularly arrests gay men, with large police raids on private parties or locations such as public baths, restaurants and bars.”

The majority of Egyptians see homosexuality in a negative light and as an import of Western culture, “Most Egyptians see homosexuality as a practice that goes against nature and religion and insist it is a social disease exported by a decadent West.”

Mashrou’ Leila actually developed as a counter to the environment around homosexuality in the Middle East. Founded in 2008 at the American University of Beirut, the band has been touring the Middle East and large parts of the United States. The band is billed as an alternative rock band. The lead singer, Hamed Sinno, has developed a notable reputation for his advocacy through music,

“Hamed Sinno, the band’s lead singer and lyricist, may be the most prominent gay musician in the Arab world, and much of his songwriting takes aim at homophobia and misogyny.”

Music has been utilized as a prominent tool for resistance from Africa to Russia. The art form offers some the ability to connect with those that share similar struggles without openly voicing those struggles.

For more information, please see:

The Independent — ‘Human rights groups urge Egypt to halt crackdown on LGBT people after rainbow flag waved at concert’— 30 September 2017

Impunity Watch — ‘Tunisian Authorities Pledges to Stop Forced Anal Examinations for Homosexuality’ — 30 September 2017

CNN — ‘Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova: Authoritarianism is spreading like ‘sexually transmitted diseases’ — 18 August 2017

Wikipedia — ‘Mashrou’ Leila’ — August 2017

The New Yorker — ‘Mashrou’ Leila and the Night Club’s Political Power’ — 31 July 2017

Tunisian Authorities Pledges to Stop Forced Anal Examinations for Homosexuality

By: Adam King
Impunity Rights News Reporter, Africa

Tunisian authorities recently announced a change to compulsory anal examinations for accusations of homosexuality. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

TUNIS, Tunisia – Tunisian authorities recently announced that it would be ending its current practice of forcing those who face accusations of homosexuality to undergo mandatory anal testing.  In Tunisia, a judge has the power to compel a defendant accused of homosexuality to undergo an anal examination to collect evidence against the defendant. Under the new policy, defendants would be able to refuse the examination.  According to Mehdi Ben Gharbia ( a Tunisian politician), “judges can still request that a suspect undergo the test but that person has every right to refuse, without his refusal being held up as proof of homosexuality”.

The United Nations and other human rights organizations have equated the practice of mandatory anal exams to torture. In March 2016, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing instances of forceful abuse of the anal examination protocol against Tunisian citizens.  One victim recalled his experience with the examination process,

“[T]he policeman took me outside to a small garden. He hit me. He slapped me on the face and punched me on the shoulder and said “You will do the test.” The doctor was not watching, but he knew I was being beaten. The policeman pushed me back into the room and said to the doctor, “He will do the test…..He entered one finger inside my anus, with cream on it. He put his finger in and was looking. While putting his finger in, he asked “Are you ok now?” I said, “No, I’m not okay.” It was painful…Then he put in a tube. It was to see if there was sperm. He pushed the tube far inside. It was about the length of a finger. It felt painful. I felt like I was an animal, because I felt like I didn’t have any respect. I felt like they were violating me. I feel that up to now. It’s very hard for me.”

Amnesty International covered the issue of abuse against homosexual and transgender persons in Tunisia originally in 2015. In their report, they detailed the challenges that homosexual and transgender persons faced when trying to seek redress for the harms against them,

“In some cases, instead of duly investigating these homophobic and transphobic crimes – as is their obligation under international law – the police warned or openly threatened survivors, including lesbian women, to drop their complaints if they did not wish to be prosecuted themselves. In other cases police officers have exploited LGBTI people’s fears of prosecution to subject them to blackmail, extortion and, at times, sexual abuse. Gay men and transgender individuals who do not want to be arrested are often forced to bribe police officers and give up their phones or other valuables.”

While this measure will provide more protection to those accused of homosexuality, there are still some uncertainties around the proposal.  First, there is no set date when the measure will go into effect.  The policy is the proposition stage, with no indication as to how soon the measure will be enacted. The Tunisian medical council actually banned the practice in April of 2017, but that ban served more as a declaratory opinion rather than a legally binding mandate. Second, while the refusal of taking the exam is claimed to not be used as evidence against a defendant, the subjective outcomes may be different. As the victim detailed in the Human Rights Watch report, the coercion and violence can be used to compel a defendant to take the examination long before he comes in front of a judge.  This leaves an open question as to whether the change will adequately protect those accused of homosexuality. 

While much progress has been made since the coup of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the progress is still met with staunch opposition.  Tunisia is still a Muslim country that adheres to the pillars of Islam.  The measure also does not have broader implications for the acceptance of homosexuality in Tunisia. The measure for example does not make homosexuality legal in Tunisia, “Homosexuality is still punishable by three years in jail under Article 230 of Tunisia’s criminal code, which President Beji Caid Essebsi has said would not be repealed.”

For more information, please see:

Daily Mail UK — ‘Tunisia vows to ban anal examinations on ‘suspected homosexuals’ to determine if they are gay’ — 22 September 2017

Independent — ‘Tunisia medical council bans forced anal tests for homosexuality after nearly decade of abuse’ — 12 April 2017

Independent — ‘Tunisia is jailing men for having gay sex and forcing them to undergo anal exams, human rights group claims’ — 30 March 2016

Human Rights Watch — ‘Tunisia: Men Prosecuted for Homosexuality, Abuses in Detention, Prison’ — 29 March, 2016

Amnesty International — ‘Challenging Tunisia’s homophobic taboos’ — 30 September 2015

Upcoming Liberia Elections Signal New Chapter for Democracy

By: Adam King
Impunity Rights News Reporter, Africa

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf addressing UN General Body. Photo courtesy of UN News Centre.

MONROVIA, Liberia – Democracy hasn’t come easy for Liberia: a country ravaged with civil warfare aplenty.  October 10, 2017 will mark a historic achievement for Liberia. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, proclaimed the achievement:

“The [legislative and presidential polls] will mark the first time in 73 years that political power will be handed over peacefully, and democratically, from one elected leader to another….Democracy is on the march in Liberia and, I believe, on an irreversible path forward on the African continent.”

Liberia has gone almost a century without a peaceful transition of power from one government to the other.  President Sirleaf’s achievement in being the first woman to be elected in a democratic election on the African continent is right on par with the anticipated peaceful transition of power.  Former United States President Barack Obama underscores the importance of a peaceful transition of power in his farewell address:

“In 10 days, the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy:  the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next…it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face…But that potential will be realized only if our democracy works.  Only if our politics reflects the decency of the our people.  Only if all of us, regardless of our party affiliation or particular interest, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.”

President Sirleaf echoed Mr. Obama’s sentiments in the view that she has for Liberia going forward:

“Liberia’s transformation was powered by a world community that made a shared commitment to deliver peace to a country, and a subregion, beset by civil conflict and cross border destabilization. The UN and its partner nations were of one mind, and from that global unity, a new Liberian democratic state was born. Liberia is a post conflict success story. It is your post conflict success story.”

President Sirleaf assumed the presidency at a time when Liberia was facing stagnant development and civil war. Despite those challenges, Liberia has erected a new foundation through government restructuring and citizen engagement. President Sirleaf commented on some of the initiatives that have helped to revitalize the country:

“Further, previously dysfunctional public institutions now have the capacity to respond to the needs of our citizens through decentralized county service centers with ownership by strong local governments. And from the tragedy of the health crisis, we are strengthening our healthcare systems, prioritizing prevention and delivering capacity at the community level.”

Much remains to be seen as to how Liberia will fair upon the departure of President Sirleaf.  The local election commissions in Liberia are taking sizable precautions to safeguard the electoral process.  In addition to training for its volunteers, the government will be providing upwards of 6,000 security servicemen to assist with order on election day.  The field of candidates for the presidency is quite extensive (upwards of 20), leaving doubt as to what direction Liberia will take once the new president is elected and assumes power. While President Sirleaf has ushered in some notable achievements in here tenure, it has not all been free of scrutiny.   

The tenure of President Sirleaf herself has also been questioned by some.  Most recently, President Sirleaf proposed a law entitled the “Presidential Transition Act”.  According to the Liberian Observer, the act contained provisions related to peaceful transitioning of the government and protection provisions for the president and vice president including vehicles, security and dependent benefits. There were other parts of the law that were more controversial.  Some have argued that this bill could be used to shield President Sirleaf from charges of corruption for example.  President Sirleaf has since withdrawn the bill as of September 17, 2017.

For more information, please see:

Front Page Africa — 6,000 Security Officers to Guard Polling Stations on During Elections — 20 September 2017

Liberian Observer — Ellen Dispels Notion of Living in Fear after Tenure — 20 September 2017

UN News Centre — “Upcoming elections will signal Liberia’s ‘irreversible course’ towards democracy, President Sirleaf tells UN” — 19 September 2017

United Nations — “Focusing on People: Striving for Peace and Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet” — 19 September 2017

Bloomberg — Liberia Elections Body Says 20 Candidates Will Vie for President — 31 July 2017

Los Angeles Times — Read the full transcript of President Obama’s farewell speech — 10 January 2017

ICC Asked to Investigate Crimes Against Humanity in Burundi

By: Ethan Snyder
Impunity Watch Reporter, Africa

2015 demonstration amid failed coup d’état in Burundi. Photo Courtesy of BBC News.

BUJUMBRA, Burundi – On Monday, September 4, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Burundi called upon the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate alleged crimes against humanity. Established in 2016, the commission was charged with examining reports of human rights violations from April 2015 to present.

President Nkurunziza announced in April 2015 that he intended to seek incumbency for a third term in conflict with Burundi’s Constitution. After an unsuccessful coup and increasing political unrest, security forces cracked down violently on suspected opposition throughout the country. It is estimated that more than 350,000 people have fled to neighboring countries that include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda.

The commission interviewed approximately 500 witnesses who corroborated allegations of sexual violence, detention of opposition and journalists, extrajudicial executions, torture, and inhuman or degrading treatment. The Burundian government denies all allegations relating to state agents being responsible for crimes against humanity.

Chair of the Commission of Inquiry, Fatsah Ouguergouz, announced that the commission is “struck by the scale and the brutality of the violations” and that they are concerned by the “lack of will on the part of the Burundian authorities to fight against impunity and guarantee the independence of the judiciary.”

Despite multiple requests over the year-long period of investigation, the U.N. Commission was not allowed to go to Burundi and was forced to conduct the majority of their inquiry from neighboring countries.

Burundi’s lower house of parliament passed a law in 2016 to withdraw from the Rome Statute – the treaty that established the ICC. Burundi would be the first country to withdraw from the ICC. Many countries on the continent have threatened similar action citing a disproportionate number of cases and charges being brought against African nations for human rights violations. Burundi is projected to exit the ICC by October of 2017.

The ICC continues to have jurisdiction to investigate allegations of human rights violations in Burundi until their formal exit. If Burundi successfully withdraws from the Rome Statute, the ICC investigation would require a resolution from the U.N. Security Council referring the case to the ICC to continue its inquiry.

Presently, only African states have been charged in the six cases that are either ongoing or about to begin since the court was established. There are preliminary investigations that have been opened into events elsewhere in the world.

The Burundi commission noted that “[t]here is a climate of pervasive fear in Burundi. Victims have been threatened, even in exile.” Many witnesses have reported that they have been threatened or confronted by supporters of the Nkurunziza regime after fleeing to nearby countries.

Although Burundi has a history of high ethnic tensions, the commission does not find that the human rights violations are ethnically motivated.

For more information, please see: 

Human Rights Council: Interactive Dialogue on Burundi – Oral Briefing by Fatsah Ouguergouz – 19 September 2017

Africa News – UN asks ICC to investigate Burundi ‘crimes against humanity’ – 5 September 2017

New York Times – U.N. Group Accuses Burundi Leaders of Crimes Against Humanity – 4 September 2017

United Nations Human Rights: Office of the High Commissioner – Burundi: Commission of inquiry calls on the International Criminal Court to investigate possible crimes against humanity – 4 September 2017

Human Rights Watch – Burundi’s refusal to cooperate with inquiry in contempt of membership on UN rights body – 4 September 2017

United Nations Human Rights: Office of the High Commissioner – Burundi: UN investigation urges strong action in light of gross, widespread and systemic human rights violations –  20 September 2016