I heard you met with President Obama this morning. How did that meeting go?
It was a very good meeting, very positive. He is inspiring. He started by outlining America’s policy, which was very well received. It centers on strengthening multilateralism – a new US policy approach to ensure that complex global challenges are resolved through collective processes rather than through unilateralism. We as human rights defenders feel that any weakening of multilateral institutions like the UN, as well as the regional systems, poses a particular danger to our work. So his words resonated with us. One way he pushes this agenda is to always emphasize to other governments that human rights do not rank second or are inferior to other American interests in bilateral affairs. He also makes a point to have high level meetings with civil society as well as government. This does not make many governments happy, but he thinks it is important that America begin to relate with the world in a way that reflects American core values.
How would you characterize the state of Human Rights in Africa?
There is still a lot that needs to be done. Civil and political rights are on the same pedestal as economic, social and cultural rights because matters of very basic human necessities – food, accommodation, living free of disease – those are as important to Africans as the issues of free expression.
What are the most important distinctions across Sub-Saharan countries in terms of human rights?
Much of East and Southern Africa have similarities in legal and educational systems, not to mention language, as a result of British colonization. While Central and West Africa have some similarities, Central Africa is dominated by the pervasive influence of the DRC in the Great Lakes area. There is more instability and more serious human rights violations, almost a failure of government. If you look at the DRC, Congo, Chad, Central African Republic, and Sudan, especially the Western side of Sudan, you can see these countries are very fragile and lack popular participation in governance. East Africa is the most stable region with the exception of Somalia, especially post the Rwandan genocide. [Rwandan President] Kagame has done a good job, I think, in terms of re-invigorating a system of government and making sure the economy functions.
What are the most important issues across the continent?
Africa needs to be able to deal with very basic things like disease. If you look at HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria, there are just so many unnecessary deaths as a result of the failure to devote sufficient resources in national budgets, but also in bilateral discussions to bring attention to these things. It is an issue of basic human rights – food, access to healthcare. It doesn’t help the situation when you have weak governments or corrupted governments that are not accountable. Then you have weak governments sitting on weak people with limited ability to stand up to what is not right.
How would you characterize the situation in Zimbabwe right now?
Zimbabwe is on the mend. The economy has made significant improvements. Because of global political agreement, you will find that the oppressive violence, abductions, and executions that took place in the run-up to the 2008 elections have largely disappeared. You still have residual violations like arbitrary detentions, intimidation of human rights defenders, confiscation of newspapers, and preventing people from assembling to discuss issues around the constitution and trying to further the consolidation of democracy. These actions come from elements of the government who do not believe in the change process that is taking place. The concern is that unless there are effective democratic and political developments the progress can be reversed. Mugabe is still strong and still controls the security sector, though they have seen that they need the opposition and they are losing the propaganda war. People no longer believe the Mugabe mantra that the conflict in Zimbabwe is about the West versus Africa and is a fight for black economic empowerment. There is a general agreement on the African continent that Mugabe’s leadership has failed. As a result of that the ability to use brazen force has been reduced. But the capacity is still there.
The China question. Is the growing involvement of China as an investor and business partner having an impact on human rights in Africa, or could it in the future?
It has and it will continue to have an impact. Africans are playing the West versus China. They know what they can get from the West they can also get from China. They want to play what might be the desperation of the West not to lose out on the economic opportunities in Africa. The idea of conditioning relationships first on the observance of human rights and the rule of law, China doesn’t believe in that. It is able to distinguish between human rights and economic activity and pursue them differently. China sees talk about human rights and good governance as interference. However, when they get into extractive relationships with African governments, they don’t see this as interference. Yet ordinary Africans do see economic plunder of African resources as interference. I think at some point there is going be a backlash against China. There is anger that is building up because the Chinese have taken advantage of African despots to enter into these extractive relations that are no less serious human rights violations. So I see problems with China’s African relations in the long-run.
What do you think about the gay couple in Malawi who were put in jail?
Africa is going to be difficult terrain for gay activists because there are very strong cultural beliefs that support anti-gay stances. It is a failure at the policy level that is buttressed by entrenched cultural beliefs and high levels of intolerance on the part of ordinary people. When the authorities are faced with this type of relationship they can justify their protection of the couple against potential attacks by ordinary people who may be intolerant. The authorities blame the gay couple for their own fate. This is unfortunately going to happen in many countries, not just Malawi. In Uganda, it is already happening. It will happen in Rwanda. Mugabe has been very strong in attacking the gay community. He may have been the first African leader to come out very strongly, saying gay people are worse than pigs and dogs. It is only South Africa where there is a higher level of tolerance.
About the Author:
Arnold Tsunga is Director of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) Africa Regional Programme and one of the leading human rights lawyers in Zimbabwe. He previously held the position of Executive Director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), as well as acting Executive Secretary of the Law Society of Zimbabwe (LSZ). Arnold Tsunga also sits on a number of Boards of human rights groups, provides leadership on a voluntary basis to several non-profit organizations and has written numerous articles on the human rights and rule of law situation in Zimbabwe and the region. Although he has been harassed, threatened, arrested and beaten several times, he continues to represent people who have been arrested unfairly under the repressive conditions in Zimbabwe, especially those who have been physically abused while in custody. For his dedication to defending human rights in spite of the threat to his own life, Arnold Tsunga received both the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders and the Human Rights Watch Human Rights defender Award in 2006.