Much needs to be done to secure human rights in Africa, but "the tide is turning" and mobile phones and FM radio have arguably done more than most other conventional methods to pursue this objective, reports Amnesty International in its annual report.
"In many countries in Africa," says Amnesty, "there is now a vibrant civil society, which, although often still repressed, can no longer be ignored by those in power."The advocacy group's secretary-general, Salil Shetty, says in the report that, across the world, 2010 "may well be remembered as a watershed year when activists and journalists used new technology to speak truth to power... Information is a source of power, and for those challenging the abuse of power by states and other institutions, it is an exciting time."
Shetty also praises what he calls the innovative use of tracking and recording abuses pioneered by the Ushahidi.com website in Kenya. He says the site has opened up a whole new set of possibilities for conflict prevention.
But he also points out that "there is nothing magical or deterministic about the Internet and other communications technologies" and warns that technology itself "neither respects nor undermines human rights... Technology will serve the purposes of those who control it – whether their goal is the promotion of rights or the undermining of rights.
"We must be mindful that in a world of asymmetric power, the ability of governments and other institutional actors to abuse and exploit technology will always be superior to the grass-roots activists, the beleaguered human rights advocate, the intrepid whistleblower and the individual..."And while recognizing the contribution of WikiLeaks to promoting human rights, Shetty says the morality of revealing secret cables written by American diplomats was not clear-cut.
"The dissemination of documents with apparent insufficient concern regarding the security of those exposed and the controversy surrounding the sexual offences case against Julian Assange [the founder of WikiLeaks] made moral clarity difficult."He nevertheless says that those who see the behaviour of WikiLeaks as amoral need to be aware that "those who live with the daily abuses of power may understandably celebrate WikiLeaks. Their last hope for accountability is disclosure – however messy, embarrassing and apparently counter-productive it may be."
In assessments of the state of human rights in countries across Africa, Amnesty says:
- In Uganda, law enforcement officers "committed human rights violations, including unlawful killings and torture, and perpetrators were not held to account" and "a number of new and proposed laws threatened the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly."
- In Zimbabwe, "police continued to arbitrarily arrest and detain human rights defenders and journalists undertaking legitimate human rights work." However, there was "some loosening of restrictions on the media and Parliament debated a bill to reform the repressive Public Order and Security Act."
- In Swaziland, "human rights defenders and political activists were subjected to arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and harassment... Torture and incidents of unjustified use of lethal force were reported. The prime minister appeared to publicly condone the use of torture."
- In Sudan, "human rights violations, mainly by the National Intelligence and Security Service, continued to be committed with impunity. Perceived critics of the government were arrested, tortured or ill-treated and prosecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. Death sentences were handed down, including against juveniles. Women, young girls and men were arrested and flogged in the north because of their 'dress' or 'behaviour' in public places."