Opening remarks by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay at a press conference during her mission to Angola
Luanda – Good afternoon, and thank you for coming. This is my first ever visit as High Commissioner for Human Rights to Angola, and it has, I believe, been a fruitful one. Having heard about the progress the country has made over the past ten years, I wished to see for myself how much has been achieved and what are the principal challenges remaining on the human rights front, as well as to offer the Government the services of my Office in finding solutions to some of those challenges, and I would like to thank the Government for its invitation.
During my three-day visit I held discussions with President José Eduardo dos Santos, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Justice and Human Rights, Interior, Family and Women’s Affairs, and the Attorney General’s Office. I also met with the members of the Constitutional Court, the Ombudsman and the Governor of Lunda Norte province with whom I discussed various issues relating to irregular migrants, and visited the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Shortly after arriving on Sunday, I hosted a full and informative meeting with around 30 members of Angolan civil society organizations, some of whom travelled from distant provinces in order to attend the meeting.
Angola has indisputably made a great deal of progress in the ten years since the end of the conflict in 2002, aided by abundant natural resources, especially oil and diamonds. The Government has invested heavily in important infrastructure including schools, medical facilities, major housing projects, water and electricity supplies, improved prisons, and thousands of kilometres of roads. Work continues to remove the many thousands of landmines which continue to blight so much of the country’s beautiful, fertile and remarkably unpopulated interior.
This development has not been without controversy. Two issues that have consistently been brought to my attention are the huge disparities that have developed between the richest and the poorest, and the sometimes harsh methods used to evict people from land earmarked for development, especially in and around Luanda.
In my talks with President dos Santos this morning, I stressed the importance of reducing these disparities over the next four or five years. Related issues such as corruption, unemployment, high cost of living and extreme poverty need to be tackled before disillusionment starts to set in, especially among the country’s youth.
In my discussions with the Government, I have also emphasized the need for a continued strengthening of the human rights protections of its citizens, since development of infrastructure without parallel development of human rights is insufficient and self-defeating. In certain circumstances this can lead to social and political upheaval, especially if an ever-larger swathe of the population feels excluded from the country’s economic gains.
I am particularly concerned by the fact that millions of Angolans have not been registered, including 68 percent of children under five. This has enormous ramifications for their future ability to play a full role in society, receive benefits and find employment and could potentially lead to problems of statelessness. I understand the Government is taking significant steps to rectify this, but urge it to make it a top priority.
The President told me that in the immediate aftermath of the war there was a need to prioritize infrastructure, and that the Government now plans to focus more on families and improving people’s livelihoods, and quoted figures showing a substantial decrease in poverty. The Government has also increased the budget for social services in 2013.
Angola has a new Constitution, which is strong on human rights, and a redesigned Constitutional Court to ensure it is observed. The Government is also bringing in some new laws to strengthen the protections guaranteed by the Constitution. It has made impressive progress on women’s rights, in particular, with the enactment of the Law on the Participation of Women in Political Life leading to 34 percent of today’s Parliamentarians being women; and an important new Law against Domestic Violence enacted two years ago. The Government provided me with details of its strategy to try to increase the impact of that law, through education and public awareness programmes.
However, more new laws, amendments to existing laws, and proper implementation are needed to draw the full benefit of a principled Constitution. Access to justice is a problem at many levels, and the benefits of the new Constitutional Court are not yet being fully realized, with too few key cases being brought to stimulate further beneficial change to the country’s laws and supporting institutions.
There are still problems, for example, in the content, interpretation and implementation of laws on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, with the police sometimes suppressing protests in a heavy-handed fashion. In addition, we continue to receive periodic reports of cases of arbitrary detention and excessive use of force – especially, but not only, in Cabinda.
During this visit I have raised with the relevant Ministries the unsolved cases of two organizers of a protest by former members of the military claiming unpaid pensions, who disappeared immediately after a rally in May 2012. I was assured by the Minister of Interior and the Attorney-General’s Office that an investigation was launched and is continuing, and I hope that this will soon shed light on what happened to the two men, and that anyone responsible for abuses in this case will be brought to justice. It is imperative that whenever there are allegations of abuses by authorities that credible and transparent investigations take place, and that when abuses are confirmed the perpetrators are held fully accountable under the law.
While the media, and especially the private media, are generally free to criticize the authorities in Angola, the law on defamation is a threat to investigative journalism, and would be better replaced with a clearer law on incitement, which can be a crime. International law (articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) sets a very high threshold in terms of when limits can be placed on freedom of expression. Efforts are also needed to lift restrictions on and broaden the reach of independent media – especially radio and TV – and to increase the access of different points of view to the State-run media. A free pluralistic media is an essential component of a multi-part democracy, and I urge the government to respect dissent.
A strong civil society is also vital to a thriving democracy, and civil society organizations are clearly feeling vulnerable and therefore constrained in Angola. Freedom of assembly, freedom to protest, and freedom to investigate and expose possible abuses, should not be undermined by heavy-handed actions, threats and intimidation on the part of the authorities. I have urged the Government to engage in more constructive dialogue with civil society.
Angola abolished the death penalty more than 20 years ago. It has also ratified most key international human rights treaties, with the two notable exceptions of the Convention against Torture, and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. While I do not perceive either torture or racial discrimination to be a major problem in Angola, ratifying these two treaties would demonstrate clearly that the Government is committed to them never becoming one, and I have urged that it ratify both Conventions.
As I mentioned earlier, the appropriation of land for development is an issue which frequently arouses concerns. I fully recognize that the Government must free up land to carry out construction projects necessary for the further development of a modern, prosperous economy. However, people should never be ejected, and their housing bulldozed, without prior consultation, adequate compensation and alternative housing being made available.
Many informal settlements in Angola are the product of displacement caused by the war or by extreme poverty. The people living in them need to be treated sensitively. Issues such as the proximity of their new place of residence to their place of employment need to be taken into account, or else their livelihoods may be destroyed along with their homes and their dignity. There are clear international standards governing the appropriation of property and relocation of people. I have suggested that the Government accept a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, and am glad that they have agreed to accept such a visit. Missions by a number of other independent experts appointed by the Human Rights Council – of which Angola is currently a member – might also be of great benefit.
The other major issue I have discussed at length during my visit has been the persistent allegations of abuse – and especially sexual abuse – committed by members of the security forces and border officials. I fully accept that the irregular entry of tens of thousands of migrants into Angola every year, many of them seeking to dig illegally for diamonds, is causing major problems for the Government which has a right to set limits to migration and to regulate a key industry. It also has a right to deport irregular migrants, but must do so humanely and in full compliance with international human rights laws and standards. I support efforts to tackle this extremely complex and difficult issue at a regional level, and have agreed to raise the issue of closer cooperation by the DRC, from where around 80 percent of the migrants entering Angola originate.
But the need to tackle human rights violations against migrants on Angolan territory is the responsibility of the Angolan Government, and the Angolan Government alone. During my visit to a remote border crossing in Lunda Norte, I received indications that sexual abuse of female migrants is continuing, as well as theft of property. Allegations of sexual abuse of migrant women along this border have persisted for much of the past ten years.
While the scale of the problem may be disputed, one rape is a rape too many, especially when carried out by a member of the security forces who ought to be protecting civilians from crimes. I believe a full and transparent cross-border investigation is long overdue. There needs to be major effort to sensitize police and border guards, and to make it clear that such crimes will no longer be tolerated. Anyone found to have sexually abused any woman, including migrants — irregular or otherwise – should feel the full force of the law.
One way to improve Angola’s human rights laws, and monitor their effective implementation, would be to create a full-fledged National Human Rights Institution (NHRI), in accordance with the international system known as the Paris Principles. There are now more than 100 states with such institutions around the world, but Angola is not among them. I have offered my services to help establish one, since NHRIs can play a truly vital role in enhancing human rights – for example by referring key cases to the Courts, advising on the drafting of legislation and supporting civil society organizations.
I have also expressed my willingness, and that of the UN Resident Coordinator, to support the appointment of a Human Rights Adviser from my Office to work in Angola. I warmly welcome the Government’s positive response to this suggestion, since Human Rights Advisers can also provide invaluable support to governments and UN Country Teams.
Despite the sensitive nature of some of the topics I raised, I found the President and his ministers very engaged, and our discussions were extremely constructive. The Government readily accepted that problems remain and we have discussed ways of making the necessary improvements.
In general, my impression at the end of this visit is that the Government of Angola is genuinely committed to improving human rights. If the Government does create a robust National Human Rights Institution, if the Constitutional Court is enabled to live up to its potential, and if the other key state institutions continue to strive to improve, then I believe Angola can become a model not just in this region, but for many other countries as well.
Learn more about the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/AboutUs/Pages/HighCommissioner.aspx
Human rights in Angola: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/AfricaRegion/Pages/AOIndex.aspx
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