Africa: Commission Hands Down Significant Human Rights Decision

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OneWorld US

Groups hailed Tuesday a sweeping and unprecedented ruling by Africa's premier human rights tribunal that held that the former military regime of Nigeria violated the economic and social rights of the Ogoni people by failing to protect their property, lands, and health from destruction caused by foreign oil companies and the Nigerian security forces.

The decision, which was based on findings that the military regime had violated some seven articles of the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, calls for the civilian-led government, which took power in 1999, to provide adequate compensation to the victims and ensure that future oil development on its territory is closely monitored to ensure the rights of local people.

"This is the first decision by the African Commission to specifically and comprehensively address violations of economic and social and cultural rights under the Africa Charter," said Felix Morka, director of the Social and Economic Rights Action Center of Lagos, Nigeria, which acted on behalf of the complaining parties in the petition and is now consulting with Ogoni leaders to determine the group's next steps.

"It is also the strongest and most articulate statement on the validity and enforceability of economic and social rights emanating from any intergovernmental human rights body," he added.

The judgment by the nine-member African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights was quietly conveyed to the Nigerian government and the plaintiffs early last month, but was not publicized.

"The condemnation is clear and unequivocal," according to Roger Normand, director of the New York-based Center for Economic and Social Rights, which co-sponsored the petition.

"I believe that this can serve as a precedent not only throughout Africa but also for all similar efforts to hold governments accountable for gross human rights violations linked to abusive corporate practices," he said, adding that the decision could be used to ensure that the current Nigerian government, headed by President Olusegun Obasanjo, lives up to its own human rights commitments.

The case was originally filed in 1996, shortly after the execution of nine leaders of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), including world-renowned playwright and author Ken Saro-wiwa. MOSOP and Saro-wiwa led a global campaign to publicize the plight of the Ogonis whose lands and rivers had been polluted as a result of operations by Shell Petroleum Development Corporation, the area's largest foreign oil producer, as well as the Nigerian National Petroleum Company.

In response to widespread protests by the Ogonis in the early 1990s, the military government sent in security forces to carry out what one internal memo called "ruthless military operations" and "wasting operations" against Ogoni villages and suspected MOSOP activists, which culminated with the 1995 executions.

Apart from one submission that confirmed the widespread destruction wrought by oil development and the security forces in Ogoniland, the Obasanjo government did not participate in the case and failed to reply to repeated Commission requests about whether relief for the plaintiffs might be accorded through Nigerian courts. The African Charter is incorporated in Nigerian domestic law.

As a result, the Commission, whose members include jurists and legal scholars from throughout North and Sub-Saharan Africa, declared that no apparent domestic remedy was available and that plaintiffs were right to appeal to the Commission.

The 14-page decision found that the African Charter confers on governments the responsibility to protect the rights of individuals and peoples to health, to a clean and safe environment, to housing and to food. It charged the former military regime with not only failing to secure those rights, but with responsibility for "massive violations" of them.

"It is the first time that an intergovernmental human rights commission has used the strong language of 'massive violations' with regard to economic, social and cultural rights," said Normand.

These rights were included in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- along with political and civil rights -- largely at the behest of the Soviet Union after World War II, although they were also strongly supported by one of the Declaration's chief architects, Eleanor Roosevelt.

Although the U.S. government has long agreed that all of the rights included in the Universal Declaration are indivisible and interdependent, Washington has tended to treat economic and social rights more as privileges than as core rights. Indeed, the State Department's annual human rights country reports do not explicitly cover economic and social rights.

In that respect, said Normand, the African Commission's decision "is moving ahead of western standards in the protection of economic, social and cultural rights -- an important achievement for Africa, but an example for the rest of the world."

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