Africa, Headlines

RIGHTS-ANGOLA: UN Peacekeepers Turn A Blind Eye On Abuses

Mercedes Sayagues

LUANDA, Oct 5 1999 (IPS) - While the Angolan government clamps down on the independent media and the unexplained murders last month of two journalists and a Unita legislator send shivers through Luanda, the roots of Angola’s appalling disregard for human rights are uncovered in a recent report by Human Rights Watch.

In “Angola Unravels: The Rise and Fall of the Lusaka Peace Process,” researcher Alex Vines paints a horror picture of gross rights abuses committed by both warring sides, the MPLA (the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) government and rebel Unita, since the Lusaka peace protocol was signed on Nov 20, 1994.

Most appalling is that these abuses were committed while 7,000 United peacekeepers were deployed in the country to ensure compliance with Lusaka.

According to the New York-based rights watchdog, since the protocol was signed, the government has engaged in torture, disappearance, and summary execution, particularly of UNITA supporters; indiscriminate killing of civilians and pillaging during military operations; arbitrary recruitment into the military; forced displacement of civilians; harassment and censorship of the media and of political opposition.

The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) is to blame for a host of similar abuses including indiscriminate shelling of besieged cities; summary execution and torture; mutilation of the dead and living.

Since war broke out again last December, both sides are laying new landmines indiscriminately, on military targets as well as to deny food, water and safe passage to civilians.

Laying new landmines appears to be a worse offense for the government, because it signed the 1997 Ottawa convention that bans antipersonnel landmines, although the Angolan Parliament has not yet ratified it.

These human rights abuses occurred under the watchful eye of two UN peacekeeping missions, UNAVEM III, and its successor, MONUA, at a cost to the international community of 1.5 billion US Dollars.

Vines traces the origins of the problem to flaws in the peace agreement. “Human rights issues were kept as a subtext in the Lusaka Protocol, mentioned only as a commitment to general principles of human rights in the protocol’s annexes,” he writes.

At the time, Angolan non-governmental organisations (NGOs) complained bitterly that civil society had been excluded of the protocol. By privileging the warring sides and excluding civil society, an opportunity to strengthen a culture of respect for human rights and tolerance of dissent was lost.

A joint commission, comprised of UN, government and UNITA representatives, with the USA, Portugal and Russia as observers, oversaw the implementation of the Lusaka Protocol. Accord violations verified by the UN or by one of the parties were reported to the commission.

Besides flaws in the Protocol, the policies of the UN special representative, the Malian diplomat and judge Alioune Blondin Beye, come under scrutiny.

The policy can be summarised in “see no evil, speak no evil.” Beye ordered the UN to turn a blind eye and effectively sanctioned impunity toward breaches of the accords.

Human Rights Watch was told by a UN official in 1995 that “the situation is too sensitive for serious human rights monitoring. Making public what we know could undermine the peace process and put us back to war.”

On the contrary, says Human Rights Watch, better rights monitoring and reporting would have made it harder for both the government and Unita to abuse Angolans, while the UN could have pressed for accountability.

“The impunity with which rights were abused eroded confidence in the peace process and created a vicious cycle of rights abuse that steadily worsened,” says the report.

The UN human rights division in Angola carried out little serious investigative work on rights abuses, produced no publication, and discouraged journalists from talking to it.

In early 1998, with the peace process unravelling, Beye ordered a change of strategy shortly before his death in an unresolved plane crash near Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire, in May. A UN report on the crash was due six months later but has not been mentioned since.

Beye’s depleted UN mission became for the first time more robust at investigating human rights violations – but it was too late to save the peace.

“The UN’s practice of ignoring the two parties’ deceptions and depredations and its own lack of transparency encouraged both parties to regard the peace process with contempt,” concludes the report.

By mid-1998, both the Angolan government and Unita had determined that war was their preferred option. Full-scale war resumed in December and is going on now. So are human rights abuses.

Angolan peasants in Unita-controlled areas are treated like medieval serfs. In the MPLA-controlled cities, peace activists, journalists and opposition politicians are harassed and intimidated. Donors and the UN keep quiet.

Human Rights Watch plans to soon launch in Luanda a Portuguese edition of the report, with updates on sanctions-busting: how Unita ilegally sells its diamonds and how both warring sides buy weapons.

Although an oil and weapons embargo was slapped on Unita in 1993, Human Rights Watch says the rebels bought weaponry from, among others, private sources in Albania and Bulgaria.

UNITA was effective in “sanctions-busting” through South Africa, Congo, Zambia, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), Togo and Burkina Faso.

Zaire was the major sanctions-busting gateway until the fall of President Mobutu in mid-1997. The locus then shifted to Congo- Brazzaville until late 1997, when the Angolan government helped overthrow the elected government of Pascal Lissouba.

By 1998, there were fewer sanctions-busting flights to UNITA, but not because the UN had become more effective in policing. Human Rights Watch says that, until it was too late, the UN largely turned a blind eye to violations of the 1993 embargo.

These violations could have been avoided if the UN had deployed its peacekeepers promptly and empowered them to undertake proper monitoring and reporting of ceasefire, embargo and rights violations.

“There is also an urgent need for a clean break with the past, by making Angola’s leaders accountable for their actions and cognisant of the potential penalties they face if they knowingly endorse abuses of human rights,” concludes the report.

 
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