Global perspective Human stories

West African countries face ‘serious’ human rights issues – UN rights chief

West African countries face ‘serious’ human rights issues – UN rights chief

Louise Arbour
With war-torn West Africa still facing “very serious” human rights issues and tensions, the United Nations top rights official today voiced concern for deteriorating human rights in Côte d’Ivoire, fading protections for women in Sierra Leone, and the “profoundly inadequate” justice system in Liberia.

At a press conference marking her one-year anniversary as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour also renewed her call to African leaders to ensure that former Liberian President Charles Taylor – now living in exile in Nigeria – surrendered to the jurisdiction of the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, where he has been charged “bearing the greatest responsibility” for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed at the height of that country’s brutal 10-year civil war.

“Justice, I think, screams to be done both in Liberia and in Sierra Leone,” she said, adding that there was no reason for a valid legal process not to follow its course. “This man has been indicted by a mixed international and national court and, in my view, whether or not there is satisfactory evidence that he is breaching the terms of his exile, the time has come for him to stand trial and the international community should say so with no ambivalence.”

Ms. Arbour recapped her 10-day trip to the West African region where she surveyed the efforts being made to build effective systems for protecting human rights in post-conflict countries. She also met with the human rights officials attached to the UN peacekeeping missions in Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, and in Liberia.

While poised for presidential elections this fall, Côte d’Ivoire faced serious human rights issues, Ms. Arbour said, highlighting the recent massacres in Gitrozon and Duékoué, and the fact that rebel-held areas in the divided country were “virtually lawless.” In the Government-controlled areas, there was serious concern of the militarization of governance.

She said that, after visiting Gitrozon and Duékoué, it was obvious that people living in the region were terrorized and not forthcoming. She called for full accountability for the events that took place there last month.

Turning to Sierra Leone, Ms Arbour said that although the truth and reconciliation commissions dealing with the aftermath of the country’s bloody, decade-long civil war had completed their work, there was still among the people a very broad-based sense of marginalization and exclusion – not negligible factors and very much at the heart of the conflict in the first place. Before a stable and just peace could be achieved, these questions needed to be addressed, she added.

Ms. Arbour told reporters that she had been taken aback by the situation of women’s rights in the country, including by the Government’s “somewhat ambivalent” position regarding female genital mutilation, a serious violation of women’s and children’s rights. She said she also urged the Government to shore up its anti-corruption mechanisms.

Regarding Liberia, she said the weakest link on the human rights front was the country’s “profoundly inadequate” judicial system. She believed it would be very helpful for the Government to be receptive to open up to the idea of allowing regional justices to come into the country and lend a hand.