World News
America not immune to human rights violations


I Was among the 21 persons, working to promote the enjoyment of human rights across the world, that were invited by the United States Department of State to participate in a two-week International Visitors Leadership Programme, IVLP,  titled US Foreign Policy and Human Rights.

IVLP is the premier exchange programme of the US Department of State and the May 2014 edition brought together human rights defenders and journalists from twenty one countries across Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and South America.

I have been to the United States many times before the IVLP, but this was a unique opportunity to access institutions, government officials and places I would not ordinarily have been admitted into. It was also an opportunity to share experiences and ideas with people doing similar work in other parts of the world.

The programme started at Montpelier, a 2,650-acre former plantation of James Madison, which was also home to about six generations of slaves, from 1723 to 1844. Taking an extensive tour of this famous plantation, I was pained and frustrated.

I kept imagining the torture, inhuman and degrading treatment suffered by black Africans during the infamous era of slave trade. From their capture and tortuous journey to Europe and America to the hard labour on the plantations, the victims of slave trade went through harrowing and dehumanizing experiences.

Demand for reparations by the descendants of the victims is still a subject of debate, even though victims of World War II were compensated and Germany had paid about $60 billion to survivors of the Holocaust. In any case, we were told there was no evidence that torture was carried out at the plantation of James Madison, which is located in Orange County, Virginia, United States.

James Madison you would remember was the father of the United States of America’s constitution and the country’s fourth President. He inherited the legacy of slave ownership even though it contradicted his ideas of liberty and “comfortable preservation of humanity.”

He was said to be ‘deeply conflicted’ over the institution of slavery but did not free any slaves even in his will. He insisted that emancipation of slaves must be “gradual, equitable and satisfactory to the individuals immediately concerned and consistent with the existing and durable prejudices of the nation.”

While touring Montpelier, Dr. David Marion, a Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs and Prof. Michael Myerson from University of Baltimore School of Law, took us through the philosophical foundations of the United States constitution, reputed to be the shortest in the world, as a background to the general understanding of the American values and principles of individual rights and freedoms, within the framework of popular democracy, rule of law and federalism.

The Constitution of the United States, we were told principally aims at safeguarding the liberties of the entire nation and that the purpose of government is to protect the rights and concerns of Americans, who are always considered as citizens of the Federation and residents of their respective states.

There is a big lesson here for Nigeria, where state of origin (indigeneship) confers rights and privileges that are not legally and clearly defined, giving rise to denial of access to public schools, land allocation, appointments and other economic opportunities to so called non indigenes or settlers. This has been a major source of conflict in Jos, Kaduna, Abia and many other parts of the country.

Non governmental organisations
From Montpellier, we moved to Washington DC, where we visited government agencies, including the Department of State, Department of Justice, The Capitol and the offices of some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like Amnesty International & Heritage Foundation.

It was interesting to experience clear separation of powers between the Executive and the Legislature in Washington, with effective checks and balances and a vibrant civil society working with relevant institutions to address issues of serious concern to the people.

This for me underscores the importance of strong democratic institutions in promoting good governance that caters for the rights and concerns of the people. The legislature in Nigeria needs to imbibe this attitude by being more pragmatic and people oriented and not serve as a rubber stamp to the executive arm of government.

Discussions with the NGOs in Washington indicated clear focus in the United States on individual liberties and concerns with human rights issues that advance their national interests.

Mr. Steve Groves of Heritage Foundation was particularly assertive of this neo conservative view that expresses moderate interests in global affairs and promotes strong national defense. This view may not be the dominant view of an average American, but is significant enough to influence the non-ratification of many international treaties by successive US governments, including major international conventions relating to children, women, torture and persons with disabilities.

The United States, Somalia and South Sudan for example are the only countries that have not ratified the International Convention on the Rights of the Child,ICRC. The US also signed the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, ICC on December 31, 2000, but unsigned it on June 6, 2002.

It should be noted however that the United States signs and upholds the principles behind many of these treaties, but fail to ratify them or ratify with reservations, partly because of the difficulty in obtaining 2/3 majority endorsement at the US Senate, which is a requirement for ratification of international treaties by the country. There are also concerns about the implication of ratifying international treaties on domestic laws, which many Americans argue are adequate in addressing issues of concern to average Americans.

Issues of concern
From Washington DC, we broke into four smaller groups for the National Programme. Some of us went to Dayton, Ohio, others to Lincoln, Nebraska and Tulsa in Oklahoma and my own group went to Buffalo, New York. We called in at the New York State Directorate of Human Rights, Western New York Peace Centre and International Institute of the University at Buffalo.

Passing through a neighborhood in Buffalo that was visibly dilapidated, with so many people on the streets looking wretched and frustrated, I was surprised and disappointed. Of course all countries have developmental challenges, but I never expected the level of squalor and poverty I witnessed in that neighborhood.

I expected different kinds of challenges, because I thought that social and economic rights are taken for granted in America. Our driver who resides in Buffalo, a big town on the US border with Canada, told us that majority of the inhabitants of the area are immigrants struggling to survive.

He said the area is dangerous at night with high crime rate, because a lot of criminals like burglars, robbers, drug traffickers and addicts, murderers, etc, inhabit the area. At the New York Directorate of Human Rights, we were also told by the officials that most of the complaints are housing and employment-related.

From there, we moved to San Francisco, on the East Coast. We dropped in at Oakland Police Department, Castro District, University of San Francisco and some NGO offices. The visit to Oakland Police Department was a refreshing insight into how policing can be more effective when the community is fully involved.

We learnt that the community oriented policing strategy in Oakland led to the creation of a neighborhood crime prevention council in which 17 neighborhood service coordinating officers are hired by the local government to work with assigned police officers. Working closely and building ties with members of the community, Police in Oakland have reduced crime rates, lowered ethnic tensions and curtailed human rights abuses, especially under its current leadership.

Herein lies another lesson for Nigeria. Even though the Nigerian Police Force, NPF, has since adopted the concept of community policing, their strategy is dysfunctional and has not significantly impacted on crime rates in Nigeria. For Nigerian Police community policing to succeed, there must be a more intensive engagement with the communities in a clearly structured and coordinated manner as witnessed in Oakland.

San Francisco is generally regarded as the most lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) friendly city in the US. The Castro District is the centre of gay activities in the city and is visibly marked with flags, pictures, artworks and monuments depicting history of gay rights. This is in total contrast to Nigeria where religion and culture unite to resist gay marriages and public display of affection by gay couples, leading to a legislation banning such practices.

During an interactive session with Human Rights Watch in San Francisco, Ms. Clara Long, who researches immigration and border policy for the international NGO, informed us of several cases of arbitrary deportation of immigrants, including those who had US Green Cards, for minor offences without the opportunity for redress.

Powerful lobby groups
Review of immigration laws that allow this to happen she said are blocked by powerful lobby groups.

Going through all these, I could not but see a lot of similarities between America and Nigeria in terms of their natural and human resources, diverse cultures and willingness of the people to use available opportunities to improve their lots. As we debate the future of Nigeria, we need to appreciate our differences and recognize our diversity as an inherent strength rather than weakness. We must listen, learn and respect the views of one another and seek common ground on contentious issues for the peace, justice and development of our dear country.

At the end of the visit I came to the conclusion that no country is immune to human rights violation. The only difference is the frequency of occurrence of violations and the reliefs available to victims through the instrumentality of America’s strong and functional institutions. In the US more often than not, there are consequences for reported violations of human rights, unlike in many other countries where rights are violated with impunity.

Vibrant civil society
America is far from being a perfect society, not at all. But our visit has opened our eyes to the friendliness, openness and determination of the people to demand and defend their freedom, human rights and democracy. We also witnessed a vibrant civil society and functional government institutions and facilities working to address issues of concern to the people.

In the final analysis, I must say, it is of critical importance for all nations to develop strong institutions that will deliver basic rights and guarantee fundamental freedoms to citizens as well as create mechanisms that will provide effective remedies for deficit of service and human rights violations.
* Muhammad Ladan is the Director, Human Rights Education and Promotion Department with the National Human Rights Commission, NHRC.

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