| Weronika Cygan |
In 1960, when as many as 17 countries in Africa gained independence, everyone believed that ending colonialism would restore dignity to its inhabitants and allow them to use the full potential of local communities. The Year of Africa has raised hopes, but despite many years of efforts to achieve international recognition and respect for rights, Africans still face systemic discrimination, which is also visible in international law.
“In my research, I analyse the African approach to the issue of human rights violations and damage to the natural environment” says Ikechukwu Ugwu, PhD student at the Faculty of Law and Administration of the University of Silesia. The young scientist from Nigeria focuses on public international law, which still does not allow equal treatment of the inhabitants of the second largest continent on Earth.
Indigenous peoples outside the law
As part of the Preludium pre-doctoral grants financed by the National Science Centre, the lawyer is implementing a project “Business activities of European corporations in Africa: a new approach to protecting the rights of indigenous peoples and the natural environment from the perspective of international law”. It turns out that the current definition of indigenous peoples does not take into account African communities, who lived in their lands long before Europeans arrived there.
“According to international law, in order to define a community as indigenous peoples, two conditions must be met: their land must have been previously invaded by an outsider, and they must have been colonised” explains Ikechukwu Ugwu “However, when we take a look at the situation in Africa, most people who identify as members of indigenous peoples do not live with the Europeans who have colonised them. Their situation is different from that faced by indigenous peoples of, e.g. New Zealand, Australia or the USA.”
The lawyer explains that within the African Union (AU), which brings together 55 countries, a sociological and psychological approach to defining indigenous peoples is gaining support. Instead of a strict definition, a certain characterisation is proposed – it takes into account aspects such as the damage a given community suffers as a result of environmental pollution, deprivation of natural resources, or discrimination by the government.
The Ogoni Martyr
After Ken Saro-Wiwa began to speak out about Shell’s abuses, he became a point of interest for the Nigerian government, as it owned significant shares in the oil company and was not satisfied with the fact that one of their citizens was drawing attention to environmental pollution and human rights violations by the company’s representatives. In 1995, the activist, along with several other people from his community, was sentenced to death by hanging. Despite protests from international public opinion, the Nigerian authorities executed the sentence.
“The case of Ken Saro-Wiwa is still under discussion. He himself was descended from the Ogoni people, who identify as indigenous people. After his death, the case moved to the U.S. Supreme Court under the Alien Tort Statute, which allowed a non-American to bring a case for international human rights violations to court” says Ikechukwu Ugwu.
The doctoral student explains, however, that this system has not been effective, because the US Supreme Court decided that all the alleged abuses were reported outside the country, and thus, there is no basis for the case to be conducted in the United States.
The trial regarding violations of the rights of the Ogoni people was finally transferred to the Netherlands, where it has been ongoing since 2016. Citizens demand compensation from Shell and the Nigerian government for all their losses. Unfortunately, they face numerous obstacles – the current authorities still have strong ties with the company, which makes it difficult to seek justice.
The above-mentioned case in Nigeria is an example of a tragic combination of the demoralisation of local authorities and the lack of sufficient control over international corporations which, in Africa, are not supervised at all. The former is (or potentially could be) influenced by citizens, while the latter is the result of global trends.
“In international law, Africans are not treated equally. Nowadays, much is spoken about climate change and the need to reduce CO2 emissions. However, instead of taking these steps, Western corporations are moving their facilities from Europe to American and African lands” emphasises the PhD student from the Faculty of Law and Administration.
This topic was raised at the United Nations Conference, COP28, held in December 2023 in Dubai. The topics discussed included the issue of the responsibility of the richest, and emitting the most CO2 countries, for the damage suffered by citizens of the countries most exposed to the effects of anthropogenic climate change. A large part of them is located in Africa, where in recent years the effects of drought and flash floods caused by the ongoing climate changes have become more and more severe (among others, in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia). It is worth emphasising that on a global scale, Africa has the lowest contribution to CO2 emissions, although it is the second largest continent on Earth. China and the United States remain the biggest emitters.
The influence of a powerful country
Forms of discrimination against African countries may take many forms, although they are sometimes portrayed as an expression of concern, for example, for the citizens of a given country. Strong countries, such as the USA or France, sometimes resort to blackmail, as their financial support depends on certain conditions that the partner must fulfil. People raised in Western culture perceive such actions as justified, because they are most often motivated by concern for human rights, but for Africans they are an unpleasant reminder of colonialism.
An example is Uganda, where President Yoweri Museveni has tightened the law against the LGBTQ community – laws introduced in 2023 impose death penalty in cases of “aggravated homosexuality”.
“Of course, this law discriminates against the LGBTQ+ community, but the measures that the USA and other Western countries have taken to force Uganda to change its laws are a reminder of colonialism. Threatening Uganda to withdraw aid is bullish. At the same time, African leaders should refrain from enacting laws that are harmful to any minorities, including LGBTQ, indigenous people or political oppositionists” says Ikechukwu Ugwu, MA.
The lawyer explains that attachment to culture and religion in Africa is still very strong, and neither of these aspects should be underestimated. If a foreigner tries to lecture the citizens of a given country about their own way of life, it is hardly surprising that they become irritated. “It is like saying straight out: »You have no idea what you’re doing«”
Sovereignty NOT above everything
The world is still subordinated to the system established after the end of World War II. However, in today’s reality it needs to be refreshed and adapted to the current situation. Since its establishment, the UN Security Council has not included a single African or South American country in its membership. While the populations of China or Europe are constantly decreasing (the demographic crisis is one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century for these regions), the population of Africa is growing rapidly, and this translates into the growing aspirations of its citizens demanding better representation in international authorities.
The African Union’s resistance to many decisions of the International Criminal Court in the Hague (ICC) is clearly visible as well. According to Africans, these decisions violate their sovereignty, even if they rightly demand punishment for criminals responsible for the suffering of thousands of people.
“When in 2015 the ICC called on the South African authorities to arrest Sudanese President, Umar al-Bashir for the crime of genocide, the then South African President Jacob Zuma refused” – says Ikechukwu Ugwu, MA. The lawyer explains that the aim of such resistance by African Union members is to maintain control over their own politics. However, he adds that the fight for subjectivity should not take place at the expense of human rights or the environment.
“African leaders should become more responsible. They shouldn’t wait for someone from outside to solve their problems. I conduct my research to spread the awareness about this topic, and contribute to this change” – sums up the scientist.
Ikechukwu Ugwu, PhD student | Photo by Małgorzata Dymowska