Recently, human right activists, constitutional lawyers and all other stakeholders in the human right community marked this year’s International Human Rights Day, which comes up every December 10. OLAKUNLE OLASANMI (Abuja) and OLUGBENGA SOYELE (Lagos) write that there is unanimity of opinion that the country’s human right score-card leaves much to be desired while there is need to align with the provisions of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
Human rights are the inalienable rights that are without presumption or cost, a privilege to all human beings. It is therefore, unacceptable for human rights to be abused or denied for any reason except when it is lawful.
However, study shows that a lot of people do not even know their rights, consequently they do not know when their rights are being abused and how to fight for their rights to avoid further abuse. It is for these reasons that the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the first global expression to protect the rights of everyone worldwide.
This year’s Human Rights Day celebration is devoted to the launch of a year-long campaign for the 50th anniversary of the two International Covenants on Human Rights: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights , which were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 16 December 1966.
The two Covenants, together with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, form the International Bill of Human Rights, setting out the civil, political, cultural, economic, and social rights that are the birth right of all human beings.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Kate Gilmore, this year’s theme: “Our Rights. Our Freedoms. Always” is aimed at promoting and raising awareness of the two Covenants on their 50th anniversary. The year-long campaign revolves around the theme of rights and freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
The 2017 Human Right Days celebration is expected to be dominated by two international human rights abuses currently generating outcries and condemnations all over the world. These are the rampant and systemic human rights violations against the Muslim minorities in Burma, in particular the 1.2 million ethnic Rohingya, and the ongoing slave trade in Libya, where thousands of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees from Africa and the Middle East are being subjected to forced labour, torture, sexual abuse and extortion by armed groups and guards at migrant detention facilities in some part of the North African country.
In Nigeria, the day is expected to be celebrated through conferences, meetings, exhibitions, cultural events, debates and many more programs where issues of human rights will be discussed by governmental, civil and nongovernmental associations.
Nigeria’s human rights records since independent has not been enviable largely due to incessant military incursion into governance. All the military regimes were involved in gross human rights violations because one of their first acts in power is to suspend the constitution thereby automatically extinguishing the rights of Nigerians.
They promulgate decrees, forbidding expression of opinions, jailing of human rights activists and journalists under Decree 2, proscribing of labour unions and other organizations that advocate for activities they adjudge hostile to their continued stay in power.
However, since May 1999, there has been some improvement with respect to rights and liberties of Nigerians by the civilian authorities. Although there is still room for improvement, many had attributed the improvements to the restoration of the constitution and the rule of law.
The 1999 Constitution makes provision for the enforcement of the rights of every Nigerian citizen. The fundamental human rights in Nigeria are entrenched in chapter IV section 32 of the constitution.
The Section provides for: right to life, right to freedom of movement, right to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of sex, race, tribe, creed or political opinion or association, right to fair and equal hearing and right to private and family life.
Others are: right to freedom of expression and the press, right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, right to peaceful assembly or association, right to personal liberty, right to vote and be voted for in any given election and right to education.
Although every government since the return to democracy in 1999 has expressed total commitment to the enthronement and enforcement of the fundamental rights of all Nigerians the reality on ground is radically different. Most of the issues they promise to focus on have remained largely unaddressed.
There are large and small scale human rights violations especially by the armed forces including the police. In its 2017 reports, Amnesty International said: “The Nigerian security forces, led by the military, embarked on a chilling campaign of extrajudicial executions and violence resulting in the deaths of many innocent Nigerians.
The acts of extortion, embezzlement, and other practices like, arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention, threats and acts of violence, physical and sexual assault, torture, and even extrajudicial killings by the Nigeria’s police have greatly undermine the fundamental human rights of Nigerians in many ways.
Many of these human rights violations were never acknowledged or addressed by the government for example, Odi in Bayelsa State and Zaki Biam in Benue State where many were crushed and flattened by the Nigeria military on reprisal missions.
Daily, social crimes like kidnappings have taken frightening dimensions leading to the death of thousands of Nigerians. On many occasions, armed Fulani herdsmens have unleashed devastating violence and arson on farming communities all across Nigeria but the Nigerian government has so far failed to bring these vicious circle of deaths to an end and to punish the criminals.
The menace of disobeying court orders by the executive and legislative branches at all levels is still the order of the day. The judiciary is still underfunded, delay of court proceedings has not being fully addressed, the issue of access to justice for the poor remain a big problem as many people believe that justice in Nigeria is for the highest bidder and the prison system in the country is one of the worst in the world.
Although some reforms have been introduced to address the menace of delay in court proceedings, issues of lawyers writing letters for adjournment of cases, inability of judges and magistrates to deliver judgments on time, failure of the police or prison authorities to produce accused persons in court for trial, the rule that once a magistrate or judge is transferred and a new one takes over a case so it starts ‘de novo’, still persist.
In 2016, while addressing a special session of the European Union parliament in Strasbourg, France, President Muhammadu Buhari said his administration was doing its utmost best to protect the fundamental human rights of persons in the ongoing counter-terrorism operations against Boko Haram insurgents.
The President also said that his government shared the European Union’s commitment to peace and security, respect for human rights, democracy and good governance as well as equality and tolerance as ways of developing prosperous and strong societies.
He said, “on our part, we have updated our Rules Of Engagement in fighting terrorism and pay very close attention during operations to the treatment of captured terrorists, civilians caught up in the conflict and in general, safeguarding property.
“Our aim is to use minimum force necessary in our fight against terrorists,” the President said.
However, it seems that not everybody is satisfied with the human rights records of the current government.
In a recent letter written to the president, Human Rights lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN) noted that contrary to his pledge to ensure that all citizens are protected under the law, the State Security Service otherwise called the Department of State Security (DSS) has engaged in the indiscriminate arrest and detention of many citizens and foreigners living in Nigeria.
Falana, therefore, called on President Buhari to direct the DSS to either release all the citizens and foreigners being held in illegal custody or arraign them in the appropriate courts in line with the avowed commitment of his administration to respect the fundamental rights of the Nigerian people under the Rule of Law.
In its statement on the International Human Rights Day celebration, a civil society group, Human Rights Lawyers Association (HURILAWS) said as the world celebrates the international bill of rights and advancements in human rights “we ought to reflect on the conditions of victims of rights abuse in war torn areas in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. We should be mindful of existing threats to human rights globally.
The group also stated, “In Nigeria, we are concerned especially about the activities of the military in the Boko Haram ravaged areas of the North East; the living conditions of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in camps scattered around the country and revelations on abuse of monies appropriated for the welfare and equipment of our country men serving in the military.
It is hoped that the nomination of a new head for the Nigeria Human Right Commission by the President on December 5, 2017 and the ongoing efforts to reposition institutions like, the Legal Aid Council, the Office of the Public Defender, the Nigeria Consumers Protection Agency and others would help to strengthen and improve the country’s human rights records in the coming years.
A Lagos-based lawyer, Yahaya Umoh, blamed the government for the violations rights of Nigerians.
According to him, Nigerians are not even guaranteed rights to life, noting something urgent needs to be done to correct so many things that have gone wrong.
“Even, the government that is supposed to protect the rights of its citizens violates them. Unlike in the past, we now experience senseless killings across the country and all the government does is to condemn the killing and life goes on. Honestly, we need to do much more to protect the rights of citizens in the country”, Umoh said.
Another lawyer, Soma Awukuma, agreed with the views expressed by Umoh. In his own argument, hd submitted that the rights of Nigerians are constantly being violated by its government that is supposed to protect them.
“The 1999 Constitution gives specific period a person can be detained but what you see today is that a person will be detained far beyond the number of days specified by the law without a valid court order and yet nothing will be done to remedy the situation”.
“Even freedom of expression that is provided for in the constitution has now been termed hate speech if you say things that are unpalatable to the ears of the government, so where is the fundamental human rights of Nigerians’, he said.
George Izomo, did not also spare the government as he said the Nigerian government has failed it’s people in the area of human rights. He said, “Nigerians are being killed all over the world and nothing is being done to halt the killings. It is unfortunate that we don’t have a responsive government that can be very proactive when issues of rights abuses occur in and out of the country”.