Senegal has made significant progress in improving human rights, but the country should put the former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré on trial for international crimes, and combat the trafficking of children across West Africa, the United Nations human rights chief said today.
Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stressed that as a country that has the custody of a suspect of international crimes, Senegal is “under the obligation to either try or extradite Mr. Habré.” Mr. Habré has been living under house arrest in Senegal since fleeing Chad after he was ousted in 1990. He stands accused of mass murder and torture during his rule.
She took note of the fact that a joint meeting between the African Union (AU) and Senegal will take place in Addis Ababa next week to discuss the matter, and urged Senegalese authorities “to find a sensible solution with the African Union in order to move forward with the trial as rapidly as possible.”
During her three-day visit to Senegal, Ms. Pillay met with President Abdoulaye Wade and several cabinet ministers, including the Foreign Minister and the Justice Minister, as well as representatives of women’s associations. She also met with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for West Africa.
“In a part of the world which has seen more than its fair share of conflict and human rights violations in recent decades, Senegal has been notable for its stable democracy and a steady improvement in human rights,” said Ms. Pillay. “As I have learned during this visit, it is also prepared to continue that process in order to overcome some of the remaining gaps and shortcomings in its domestic protection systems.”
Ms. Pillay and Senegal’s Foreign Minister, Madické Niang, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) extending the mandate of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Regional Office for West Africa for an indefinite period. The office was established in 2008, initially for a two-year period.
“It is, unfortunately, very rare that States enter into open-ended agreements like this with us,” she said. “This is a forward-looking agreement that enables us to engage in serious long-term planning at the regional level, as well as within Senegal itself.”
Ms. Pillay welcomed Mr. Niang’s announcement that Senegal would extend a standing invitation to all independent UN experts, known as Special Procedures mandate holders, to visit the country. Senegal is only the fifth African country to do so.
While noting the Senegalese Government’s efforts to advance the rights of women, the High Commissioner urged it to remove a number of discriminatory elements that are still in national legislation, and which hamper efforts to achieve true equality between men and women.
She highlighted, in particular, provisions recognizing the husband as the sole head of the family, which prevents children from acquiring Senegalese nationality through their mothers, and discriminatory provisions regarding inheritance.
During her meetings with Mr. Wade and Cabinet ministers, Ms. Pillay received assurances that the Government attaches great importance to the new law on gender equality, and that it will implement it as soon as possible, including its provisions relating to gender equality in electoral lists, which will be applied during next year’s legislative elections.
She expressed concern over the plight of the so-called “Talibé children”. They are often victims of trafficking and exploitation, who are deprived of education, health care, decent housing and food.
Talibé children generally come from poor rural families who entrust them to the “care and education” of Qur’anic teachers, but are often subjected instead to forced begging and cruel treatment if they fail to bring in their daily quota of food or money to their marabout or teacher.
The number of children who are victims of trafficking in the sub-region – particularly in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali and Senegal– was on the rise, Ms. Pillay said.
“We cannot tolerate, in any circumstance, the violation of the human rights of children. This is a matter of urgency,” she said. “Children’s lives are being permanently blighted by trafficking. Governments in the region need to act quickly and decisively to punish all of those responsible, including traffickers, and free children from this deplorable exploitation.”
Yesterday, the High Commissioner visited a centre which rehabilitates victims of torture from the region, located in Thiès, some 60 kilometres east of the capital Dakar. The centre is primarily funded by the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture.