Extreme poverty among challenges to human rights in the country

Saturday, 22 October 2011 22:21

Although the number of albino killings has dropped drastically in the country, the acts greatly tarnish Tanzania’s human rights image and record. PHOTO | FILE

How is Tanzania’s record on human rights?
I think we must speak of very good records in terms of social cohesion, increasing attention to human rights in the new Mkukuta and Mkuza, as well as commitments towards the International Bill of Human Rights by ratifications of the two Covenants and reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the Constitution.
Tanzania is also known for having achieved great improvements in access to education, for hosting and finding durable solutions for large numbers of refugees and therefore contributing to peace and stability in the Great Lakes region. So, there are several positive and commendable efforts from Tanzania’s side in terms of human rights.  There are also some challenges.

Widespread poverty indicates difficulties in realising the right to an adequate standard of living.  We also know that the governments of both Mainland and Zanzibar are taking steps to address gender inequalities and domestic violence.  However, there is still a long way ahead towards full equality and the eradication of violence against both women and children.
Do you have any specific areas on human rights where you think Tanzania isn’t faring well?
Well, it is difficult to point out specific areas.  All human rights issues are linked to each other.  But, the recent and credible reports from civil society about a rise in killings, or arbitrary deprivations of life, particularly in the North West regions cannot be ignored.  One becomes particularly concerned about the stories of killings of women, where offenders are bringing up the card of witchcraft, as a pretext to commit serious offences and grab property or land from widows, or women living under other exposed conditions.

These reports also remind us about the situation we had with the killings of persons with albinism a few years back in the same region.  The number of deadly attacks on this group has recently dropped significantly — we are not aware of any murders in Tanzania so far this year– but there are still incidents of serious abuse and a need to address stigma among child victims, as well as their families.  Horrendously, it also seems there are still a market for buying body parts in Tanzania and some reliable indications of trafficking of the remains of victims from other countries over the borders.
So what steps did you take when there was an emergence of albino killings?
We worked closely with the government to look at immediate actions to respond and it stepped up quickly to its obligation to investigate and prosecute persons alleged to have committed these offenses in Tanzania. There was also a number of social protection measures put in place, such as safe shelters for children with albinism.

Albinism is nothing but a form of skin disorder, and as such, it raises needs for special medical attention. Such affirmative steps should also be coupled with a repeated message of zero tolerance for any discrimination of this group as the members are endowed with same rights and should be provided protection for the same reasons as for anybody else in the country.

Of late, human right activists have been advocating  the abolishment of death penalty, what do you think about this?
In terms of death penalty, the UN has developed and promotes a number of instruments on the formal and permanent abolition of the death penalty. A week ago, the UN System marked the fact that more 140 states, meaning a great majority of the countries in the world, have abolished the death penalty in one way or another.
And, even if the death penalty is still in the books of Tanzania, execution of these penalties have not been ordered for several years.  So, we may say that in practice, it is also not part of the Tanzanian sanctioning system any more.  The next question would then be to mirror this development in law, so that the criminal sanctioning system becomes reliable and predictable, not only for offenders but also for victims of serious crime and the public at large.

Don’t you think that, it is also a violation of human rights to keep prisoners who are in the death row without releasing them?
It is not a violation of rights as such, but depends on the circumstances of the trial and prison conditions. UN does not carry out prison monitoring so I cannot give an informed opinion on the situation within adult prisons in Tanzania.  But, the government and several civil society organisations have recently signalled an expectation that the question of death penalty and sanctions system will be up for discussion during the constitution reform review, once it takes off.  That seems to be the right way; it is in the constitution’s bill of rights that questions of death penalty and treatment of prisoners shall be settled.   So, I think we will soon see a clearer direction where we are going with this in Tanzania.

Is the UN trying to make efforts to push the government to speed up in terms of making a decision whether to do away with death penalty or to carry on with it?
Well, the UN would of course welcome  a clear commitment from the government through ratification of the human rights protocol abolishing the death penalty as well as the Convention Against Torture, regarding treatment of suspects, prisoners and other groups deprived of liberty.  It would mark an important step in Tanzania’s progressive approach to human rights, and perhaps additional opportunities for international support to the underfunded justice sector and prison reform initiatives.

Do you think the killings of albinos have been a stumbling block towards your efforts of promoting human rights?
For any country, a sudden rise  in killings of a particular group would be a devastating crack in the human rights situation.  We were witnessing abhorrent crimes and attacks on a vulnerable group of society that was already confronted with other unjustified abuses.  But, as much as the news of killings shocked the human rights community, the case also shows how the Government demonstrated a capability to address human rights violations as they arise.

UN is promoting rights of homosexuals and lesbianism. Don’t you think this contradicts African values?
Let’s first be clear on the UN stance. We are promoting tolerance for all minorities, whether characterised by ethnicity, age, disability or sexual orientation.  Not long time ago, the UN Human Rights Council commissioned an investigation into alarming trends of hate motivated attacks on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) society around the world and this week the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights afforded a Ugandan citizen a prestigious international price for her courageous defence of the rights of the LGBT society in her country.

So, I do not know on what basis one can call promotion of these general human rights principles a contradiction to African values.  In fact, Tanzania and many other African States have voluntarily acceded to human rights conventions prohibiting all forms of discrimination and incorporated such standards in their constitutions or other acts of law.  There is further nothing in the Tanzanian legal framework that permits a citizen to defame or harass others on basis of their convictions or relationships.

As to the general call for decriminalisation, we are fully aware that legal reform takes time and might be useless unless foregone by changes in public opinion.   An informed and open dialogue among government representatives, human rights defenders, the LGBT society and other stakeholders has proven useful in other countries.  It helps to define the questions and clarify the facts in a discussion too often infected by bias and misperceptions of the claims of the LGBT society. This might be the way forward in Tanzania as well.

Tanzania has just completed the Universal Periodic Review, what are your comments on  recommendations made and the next steps?
We are very satisfied with the preliminary results of the inter-State discussions.  Many members of the Human Rights Council commended Tanzania for the transparent, inclusive  approach and constructive tone during the dialogue in Geneva.  We also think that the Government has made bold commitments.
There are several important undertakings in the field of the rule of law, violence against women and children, civil society relationships and human rights education and awareness rising.  There is also a strong reiteration towards the establishment of a national action plan for human rights.  As a privy to the work that has been done so far, I believe this is an important process.

A national human rights action plan can become a vehicle for implementation of recommendations from UPR and other international human rights review mechanisms.

Most of all, it would guarantee a continued, transparent and broad-based dialogue on the human rights situation in Tanzania for the years to come.

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