Supporting Equatorial Guinea’s embattled rights defenders

Luke Holland is a researcher and communications officer with the Center for Economic and Social Rights. This blog entry includes video interviews (in Spanish) with several of Equatorial Guinea's leading human rights defenders. To view these clips with English subtitles, click on the 'cc' icon at the bottom of the video frame.

Despite rates of economic growth that leave many wealthier countries in the shade, the majority of Equatorial Guinea’s population continues to live in poverty. The government of Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who seized power over three decades ago in a coup détat, maintains a vice-like grip on power while suppressing the activities of human rights and pro-democracy activists who seek to create a better future for both themselves and their compatriots.

With this stark reality in mind, CESR is collaborating with local rights defenders to help address such injustices. On Monday 12 and Tuesday 13 September we joined forces with EG Justice and several Equatoguinean NGOs to stage a capacity-building workshop in Madrid. The event was designed to provide activists from Equatorial Guinea with the knowledge and understanding they need to make better use of international human rights structures.

The two-day event, which was held behind closed doors due to the often-times brutal repression of social justice campaigners in Equatorial Guinea, focused on the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism. When the Equatoguinean government last appeared before the UPR in 2010, it agreed to implement more than 80 recommendations covering a broad range of economic and social provisions. Civil society organizations participating in the workshop learned about the potential usefulness of the UPR to propel change back home, and discussed the concrete indicators which can be used to evaluate their government’s compliance with the recommendations. Throughout, those in attendance shared their experiences of trying to protect human rights amidst the significant constraints in their homeland.

Supporting local efforts to promote economic and social rights is made all the more important by the Obiang regime’s apparent indifference to the wellbeing of most citizens. One might expect a country that has enjoyed spectacular levels of economic growth in recent years, largely thanks to the discovery of oil and gas reserves in the 1990s, to show corresponding improvements in basic social indicators. While GDP per capita climbed from US $7,600 in 2000 to US $35,000 in 2008, child mortality has actually increased, however.  

Now ranked as the wealthiest country in Sub-Saharan African, the almost total lack of transparency and staggering levels of corruption have led to the country’s extensive resources being squandered by a tiny elite. Both the news media and anti-corruption NGOs such Global Witness have documented the lavish lifestyles enjoyed by the president and his inner circle. Indeed, the profligate spending of Obiang’s playboy son Teodorin has become notorious well beyond the borders of his own country, leading to a series of investigations in the US Senate, alongside police inquiries a legal case in France.

This undignified contrast between Equatorial Guinea’s ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ is manifested in health and education statistics that show it lagging far behind many of its poorer African neighbours. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Equatorial Guinea ratified in 1987, obliges States Parties to devote the maximum available resources to the realization of economic and social rights, and to prevent retrogression in the provision thereof. With the country’s overflowing coffers being channeled into the building of luxury mansions and man-made private beaches, while budgetary allocations for basic social services remain among the lowest in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is clear that the Obiang regime is ignoring its obligations under human rights law.

If Equatorial Guinea’s resource wealth is to translate into meaningful improvements in the lives of normal people, the determination and commitment of local civil society will be crucial. Effective monitoring and evaluation of UPR commitments, along with the preparation of detailed reports for consideration at the country’s next review in 2014, require the active participation of Equatoguinean rights groups.

When the workshop drew to a close on Tuesday afternoon, the participants agreed the event had been a success and that further capacity-building efforts should be arranged so as to ensure broader and more effective participation in the UPR process. It is CESR’s hope that its continuing support may play some small role in helping local activists overcome the obstacles they face in creating a more just Equatorial Guinea.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of CESR.

Posted by Luke Holland on September 20th, 2011

Equatorial Guinea reports to the UN on human rights commitments

We just got back from Geneva, where on Friday the government of Equatorial Guinea faced the UN's Human Rights Council. They were there to report on the country's human rights record.

The Vice-Prime Minister in charge of the Social and Human Rights Sector, H.E. Mr. Salomon Nguema Owono, appeared before the 13th session of the Human Rights Council to explain just how the country will meet the council's recommendations to improve the country's human rights record. Those recommendations were made public in the Report of the Working Group in January. CESR had contributed to the process that led to the UN recommendations with research and recommendations of our own.

During its presentation, government representatives emphasized that during the Council's "Universal Periodic Review" (UPR) process "there was an unequivocal commitment by the government with respect with the ideas and values of the promotion and protection of human rights which are part and parcel of human dignity of nationals of our country."

The government assured members of the Human Rights Council that it will renew its readiness to continue working with technical assistance and cooperation of the UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights "in breaking down the legal, institutional, political, economic, social and cultural obstacles which today continues to prevent or limit the full enjoyment in Equatorial Guinea of the human rights recognize for persons."

For a full video presentation of the Government's response to the Council, visit the UN Webcast site

In relation to the UPR recommendations on how to improve its human rights record, the government highlighted that they fully agreed and accepted 86 of the recommendations and discussed some of the measures they are already taking to implement these recommendations. For example:

  • Beginning to trigger legal procedures for the possible incorporation of certain international treaties into national legislation, such as the optional protocol to the ICESCR
  • Implementing a law against torture (which it emphasized is a political priority for the government)
  • A package of measures related to discrimination against women
  • The approval of a new criminal code.

The government was very clear, however, that there were some "recommendations we cannot accept." In particular they referred to three:

  • Ratification of the statute of the international criminal court
  • Ratification of the optional protocol of the covenant relating to the abolition to death sentence
  • Granting access to military installations for the UN's Special Rapporteur on Torture.

The government argued that it could not support these recommendations because of "serious difficulties which we say are of the legal order and are related to social conscious as well."

CESR made a joint statement with Abogacía por un Desarrollo Sustentable (ADesaD) about how Equatorial Guinea, one of the richest countries per capita in sub-Saharan Africa, has a duty to fulfil its human rights obligations, including economic and social rights.

Further, we argued that monitoring mechanisms for the implementations of the UPR recommendations must be put in place to hold the government accountable of its commitment to human rights under the UPR process. CESR and ADesaD also coordinated with other organizations including Human Rights Watch, Open Society Justice Initiative and EG Justice to deliver oral statements during the Human Rights Council session that emphasized the lack of respect and protection of human rights in the country. We highlighted the lack of participation for national civil society in general and during the UPR process.

During the HRC session in Geneva, CESR together with EG Justice and Open Society Justice Initiative, also organized a side event: "Human Rights in Equatorial Guinea: taking actions on the UPR recommendations." The event featured a series of panelists from inside Equatorial Guinea to debate possible follow-up options to ensure the implementation of the UPR recommendations.

You can download a copy of our statement to the Human Rights Council below.

Posted by Maria José Eva on March 25th, 2010