Guinea: A Wave of Horror But No UN Action

No one wants to deal with a new issue in the final days of a session when all the energies are concentrated on finding acceptable wording on resolutions so that they can be accepted by consensus rather than by having a vote with obvious divisions being highlighted.

The context of the situation in Guinea was generally known, but the Human Rights Council and its earlier incarnation, the Commission on Human Rights, had given little attention to Guinea.  There is a long-standing habit among governments to look at only a selected few countries within a geographic region.  West Africa already had the long-running conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone. There was trouble in the Ivory Coast, and Darfur, Sudan with the spill over into Chad was really all the attention that could be given to West Africa and its near neighbors.  Thus, human rights violations in Guinea were always known, but few wanted to discuss them.  The African States have always been an effective bloc to prevent considerations of human rights violations in Africa, suggesting in different ways that any attention given to human rights in Africa was a result of racism.

Human rights violations in Guinea had started soon after its independence from France in October 1958 – the first of the French African colonies to be independent.  The first President, Ahmed Sékou Touré, was considered a hero of the African independence movement and as a champion of Pan-African unity.  His rule fast became brutal and corrupt, leading many to leave the country while many others were killed at home.  However, the hero image lasted for a long time – and for some until his death in 1984.

The military officer Lansana Conté took power one week after the death in 1984 of Sékou Touré through an agreement among military officers that one of them should be president, and he stayed on until his death in December 2008.  His power was never shared, and the military who thought that they deserved part of the spoils of power were gotten rid of.  There was also some popular discontent as the conditions of life, always poor, got worse and worse.  Lansana Conté was ill for a long time which led to his spending less time on the affairs of government but without creating alternative forms of government decision-making.  People became increasingly restless with the army taking things into its own hands but in a disorganized way.  Military indiscipline became chronic.

As Richard Moncrieff, West Africa project director of the International Crisis Group, has written "This indiscipline can be traced back to the bloody repression of protests in February 2007 when over 100 people were killed in a very similar crackdown.  Such repression, along with a guaranteed immunity for the military’s abuses against civilians, kept the ailing Conté in power…In Guinea, the weakness of countervailing powers – political parties, parliaments, media – has opened space for the military, with the disastrous consequences we now see. More worrying, the border area with Liberia, which suffered a spill over from the Liberian civil war, is the site of increasing ethnic tension." The Liberian conflict which began in 2001 with Charles Taylor’s slow march to absolute power led to the creation of a number of independent, usually tribal-based, militias, some of which went to Guinea where there were members of related ethnic groups.

There have been reports that among those participating in the September 28 shootings and subsequent looting of shops were Liberians from the United Liberation Movement for Liberia for Democracy (Ulimo) militia who have continued living in the east of Guinea, but it is also easy to pass on the blame for abuses to foreigners.

Lansana Conté was president from 1984 until December 2008.  Two days after his death, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara took power, again because the army officers felt that one of them should rule.  Camara had no outstanding deeds to his credit, but neither did any other officer who might have been a rival. The army felt that if there was a gap in military-held power, there would be civilians who would demand elections.  Thus Camara was proclaimed president even before the funeral of Lansana Conté.

There was, however, some popular pressure to have elections, and so Camara said that there would be elections at the end of January 2010 and that he might not run.  On September 28, a large group of people, perhaps 50,000 who thought that elections would be a good thing, started entering the major football stadium in Conakry.  The meeting was to have been the "Forum des Forces Vives", and there were to have been speeches from civilian politicians who had been part of the Conté government, including two former Prime Ministers.

Before there could be any speeches, but with a large crowd of people waiting, army members shot first into the air and then into the crowd.  Panic followed as people tried to leave; others protested within the stadium.  Looting began in the shops around the stadium. What seems certain from multiple eye-witnesses was that in addition to shooting, the military used their bayonets.  It is estimated by UN sources that 150 died at the time and some 1,200 were injured, many seriously. What struck observers was the repeated attacks against women.  While rape has become a widely used political weapon in African conflicts, such rapes are usually carried out in houses or in fields.  Conakry seems to have been a first in the wide-spread rape and molesting of women in a public arena, leading the NGO "The Guinean Organization for Defence of Human Rights" to state that "the conscious rape of women is not only to dehumanize but to eliminate, punish, control, instill fear and dissuade them from taking part in any form of political participation."

Government delegates at the UN Human Rights Council were worried by the events in Guinea, not only because the shootings were an obvious violation of human rights but also because the regional implications are disturbing.  In all West Africa, there are underlying problems of high levels of unemployment and poor governance causing extreme frustration. The delegates were even more worried when Captain-President Camara said in an interview with Radio France International that the army was "out of control, undisciplined and without an operational chain of command." But what to do?

There is a US expression "to pass the buck" meaning to pass a problem and the resulting decisions on to someone else.  More elegantly, it is referred to in European Union circles as "the principle of subsidiarity"  – having decisions made at the level closest to the problem as possible. Thus the UN Council passed the issue over to the African Union, which issued a statement deploring the violence and passed the issue on to the 16-member regional body – the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). 

The President of Nigeria which currently holds the rotating chairmanship of ECOWAS, Umaru Yar’Adua, appointed Blaise Compaoré, the President of Burkina Faso, as the mediator.  Since Compaoré came to power in a coup in 1987, killing his former "best friend", the then president Thomas Sankara, Compaoré knows all about coups and political violence. Compaoré flew to Conakry and called for a later meeting in Ouagadougou.  Thus perhaps "the buck stops" with Compaoré, who, if not an outstanding champion of human rights, is a crafty military-politician who may work something out.  Future events merit close watching.

Rene Wadlow, Representative to the UN, Geneva, Association of World Citizens.