Africa, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Europe, Headlines

AFRICA-EU: Dodging the (Human Rights) Issue

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Dec 6 2007 (IPS) - On the eve of the second Africa-European Union summit, there is broad agreement on the need to defend human rights, above all else. But academics, analysts and activists from both continents harbour serious doubts that this noble aim will find root in reality.

“It is an unavoidable truth that human rights and democratic values are one level below strategic interests,” said researcher Manuela Franco at the Portuguese Institute of International Relations, in statements published Wednesday by the Público de Lisboa newspaper.

This new relationship between the two continents “is being fomented because Europe is losing market share in Africa” as China’s influence there grows, she said.

On Saturday and Sunday, Lisbon will receive 52 government delegations from Africa, 27 from the EU member states, and observers from the African Union, the European Commission – the bloc’s executive organ – the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the United Nations.

The first Africa-EU summit was held in 2000 in Cairo, Egypt, also on the initiative of Portugal, when it held the EU rotating presidency, as it does now.

The human rights controversy first broke out when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced in September that he would not attend the summit if the president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, took part. He confirmed the boycott in late November.

Britain’s position, backed by the Netherlands and Denmark, and, more quietly, by Sweden, was in reaction to the human rights situation in that southern African country.

But Portuguese-African observers accuse Britain of turning a blind eye to frequent human rights violations in other African countries, especially Sudan – in the region of Darfur – and Ethiopia, but not Zimbabwe, because those affected by the Mugabe regime are white landowners of British descent.

“There are not just two yardsticks, but many, depending on the interests at stake,” political analyst Eugenio Costa Almeida told IPS.

“There are humanitarian, political and social reasons to criticise Mugabe and his team, but these were only brought up (in London) after the landowners were ‘nationalised’ and some British firms were touched – although not all of them; for example, British Airways continues to fly to Zimbabwe,” said Costa Almeida, who holds a doctorate in political science from a Portuguese university.

As long as the white farmers were not affected by the Zimbabwean government’s policies, “the corruption, misappropriation of funds and theft by Mugabe and his friends went unnoticed by the British,” he said.

Portuguese Prime Minister José Sócrates “is claiming victory because he is bringing together Europeans and Africans, including around 23 heads of state and government, in a summit, something that had never before been achieved – independently of who will be there: dictators, strongmen or corrupt leaders,” he added.

In Portugal, the corruption and autocratic system in Angola is frequently cited, “but everyone forgets about countries where corruption and authoritarianism are deeply-rooted, like Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Somalia, Guinea-Bissau and the Democratic Republic of Congo,” he said.

There are also others that “discreetly maintain a certain autocratic attitude, like Mozambique, Zambia, Algeria, Egypt, Libya or Ethiopia. And we also forget, or make every effort to forget, the refugees from Somalia, Uganda and Chad, due to an even worse humanitarian crisis, that of Darfur,” he said.

Pointing to China, Costa Almeida argued that when economic interests are at stake, the EU forgets about human rights.

“It is China that most protects the African countries I mentioned, due to its interest in fossil fuels and minerals, while Europe continues to see Africa as a market for its products, rather than a partner on an equal footing,” he said.

Journalist and analyst Ana Dias Cordeiro, who specialises in African affairs, wrote that “civil society in Africa is urging the EU not to forget in Lisbon the values on which the European bloc was built.”

Analysts from several countries and representatives of civil society in Africa have criticised the EU’s silence with respect to human rights abuses or lack of electoral transparency in Africa, saying that what has predominated are the lack of a firm stance, omission and complicity, said Dias Cordeiro in an article this week in Público.

These criticisms “are based on the viewpoint that the EU-Africa summit will be like so many others: a club where heads of state and government gather to discuss big questions among themselves, while turning their backs on the real problems facing ordinary citizens.”

The official aim of the summit was summed up by Portuguese Foreign Minister Luís Amado, who said that what is important is that “problems are tackled in a multilateral manner, since they are not limited to a single state.”

“This vision is the new strategy,” because it identifies specific problems that countries are facing today, he said, adding that “this is the spirit of the new strategic partnership” between the two continents.

The strategic partnership proposed by Portugal as rotating EU president consists of the regulation, with a view to the long term, of relations between the continents based on common values and principles, to be implemented through successive plans of action that outline top priorities.

The first plan, which pays special attention to cooperation and the already existing political dialogue, covers the 2008-2010 period.

It is divided into eight chapters: peace and security; science, the information society and space; democratic governance and human rights; trade and regional integration; the Millennium Development Goals; energy; climate change and migration; and mobility and employment.

Roland Marchal, a French expert on Africa, said in a conference last week in Lisbon that he was “perplexed” at Europe’s indifference to the question of democracy in Africa, which, although it is one of the items on the summit’s agenda, will only be discussed quietly.

The Sócrates administration has mainly taken a cautious stance on the human rights question, but conservative President Aníbal Cavaco Silva, speaking Wednesday at the opening session of the Africa-Europe Youth Summit, did not avoid the issue.

“Respect for human rights, freedom and democracy” is fundamental to relations between the EU and Africa, and in the summit, the representatives of both continents should adopt a strategy “based on mutual respect and common values and interests,” said the president.

In its special news coverage of the summit, the Portuguese news agency Lusa published reactions on the human rights issue.

From Harare, Mugabe praised the Portuguese government for what he called its “correct reading” of the situation as reflected by its rejection of “Britain’s attempts” to keep Zimbabwe from taking part in the summit, and accused London of “attempting to internationalise bilateral differences.”

Foreign Ministry Deputy Director General Gert Grobler of South Africa said “I don’t think Africa can stop Europe if they decide to raise…the issue of Zimbabwe.”

But, he added, “South Africa and Africa would want this summit to focus on the substance of expanding the strategic partnership between the continents – that must be the key focus.”

At the Youth Summit, Angolan Ambassador Assunção Afonso de Sousa dos Anjos, said “sustainable development in Africa cannot be achieved in an isolated manner,” and the support received by the continent “can only be added to its own efforts.”

Cooperation between Africa and Europe “is essential for fomenting development,” but “we must be our own architects,” said Sousa dos Anjos.

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