Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
6 - 12 April 2000
Issue No. 476
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Civil alternatives

By Mariz Tadros

Europe should apologise to Africa for its colonial heritage, declared 16 European and Arab-African human rights organisations in an appeal addressed to the Africa-Europe summit. "The time has come for Europe to make a public apology to Africans for the injustices and tremendous pain it had inflicted on the peoples of Africa," said a declaration by the groups. "These injustices continue to impede the human development of the continent."

The declaration was sent to Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, whose country currently holds the chair of the European Union, Algerian President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, current chairman of the Organisation of African Unity, and President Hosni Mubarak.

The declaration urged debt relief for Africa, arguing that "foreign aid to African countries is but a merely symbolic compensation for the historical sufferings of the African peoples during the colonial era."

Yet this determined sidestepping of the colonial heritage, the declaration contended, was not simply to be laid at the door of the European powers, but was also "the responsibility of Africa, where many leaders continue to govern their peoples using measures based on the same colonial ideology, which depicts African peoples as incapable of self-rule." Maintaining an evenhanded approach, the declaration criticised human rights violations in Africa, but did not spare Europe, citing "the discrimination, maltreatment, and xenophobia" faced there by immigrants.

It is estimated that there are 15 million immigrants living in the member-states of the European Union. Examples of racism are countless -- cases such as the death of a Congolese woman after she was deported from Belgium, the death of a Nigerian after he was deported from Germany, the continuing tradition of police brutality in France and anti-Moroccan racism in the south of Spain (El Ejjido).

"We think it is extremely worrying that Europe, which is known for its high human rights standards, is in a process of lowering these vis-à-vis Third World nationals by means of visa restrictions, limiting the possibilities of family re-unification, and thinking of how to reduce social security allocations," Marc Schade-Poulsen, executive director of the Copenhagen-based Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN), told Al-Ahram Weekly. "In several countries, police use brutality against foreigners, and a growing racism is influencing government policies negatively."

The EMHRN, a signatory of the declaration, was established in 1997 to promote the human rights principles included in the Barcelona Declaration. It acts as an umbrella for about 50 member organisations and individuals from over 20 countries.

"In the declaration we ask governments, among other things, to ratify the International Convention on the Rights of Immigrants and their Families. Ratification thereof by European governments would be a clear signal that human rights protection covers all people in all situations," said Schade-Poulsen.

It is not just those parties concerned for the welfare of African immigrants abroad that want the issue placed on the agenda of the Africa-Europe summit, noted Schade-Poulsen. "On a more negative note, most European governments are interested in regulating immigrants' access to Europe and, consequently, in taking this issue up on an inter-governmental level."

The declaration, said Schade-Poulsen, also urges the EU to drop tariff barriers to African exports and to set fair prices for African products.

One conspicuous feature of the declaration is that it did not carry the signature of any group from sub-Saharan Africa. But this, Schade-Poulsen suggested, was a question of time and resources, not a sign of division.

There was no NGO lobbying presence at the Africa-Europe summit in Cairo because plans for a parallel NGO forum collapsed due to official resistance, according to Baheiddin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. "The authorities had objected to the organisation of any conferences, meetings or workshops in Cairo about the Africa-Europe summit, especially while it was in session." The reason? "They told us that the arrival of more visitors would lead to overcrowding in hotels and traffic congestion."

It is rumoured, however, that the Organisation of African Unity strongly objected to the NGO forum being held in Cairo in parallel to the Africa-Europe summit.

The NGO forum was therefore shifted to Lisbon, Portugal, where it was attended by 80 participants from 34 countries and international NGOs. The Lisbon Declaration's attack on globalisation, structural adjustment policies, debt bondage and the activities of transnational corporations (TNCs) -- all factors which have led to the impoverishment of African peoples -- was scathing. It called for a more "humane" globalisation, the enforcement of a Code of Conduct for TNCs to be accompanied by legally enforceable controls on their activities, the allocation of more funds for health and education and an end to the maltreatment of Africans in Europe.

A major theme of the declaration was the incoherence of European policy vis-à-vis Africa and the unequal partnership characterising relations between the two continents. For example, it noted that current agreements, such as the EU-South African Agreement, are likely to lead to the weakening and fragmentation of existing regional structures. "The issue raises the question of the coherence of EU policies on trade and in relation to its policies on development," said the declaration.

Although the document recognises the importance of empowering African peoples to take charge of their own development, it is not free from Eurocentric statements with racist connotations. For example, it notes that "fatalism" or "African pessimism" militate against finding appropriate domestic solutions to the problem of poverty alleviation.

Foreign aid has been increasingly directed towards NGOs in Africa, in lieu of states, whose role as service-providers is being curbed. Some analysts note that as NGOs increasingly take on the role of the state, they implement a Western model of development that is not in the best interest of the African peoples. As a result, critics have suggested that NGOs are turning into tools of globalisation. At the same time, African governments do not welcome the role played by human rights organisations in recording and publicising human rights abuses.

The human rights organisations, however, disagree. "We defend the universality of human rights and we oppose the ultra-liberal, non-controllable market globalisation," said Driss El-Yazami, deputy director of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights. He explained that while there are universal human rights which must be respected by all and guaranteed for all people, globalisation should be rejected on the grounds that it is an essentially economic process that reinforces the domination of a minority of humanity over the majority of people.

Schade-Poulsen suggests that the work of consumer, environmentalist and women's groups in Europe shows that popular and broad-based movements can have an important impact on government policies. "I think the same can be said about the human rights movement. Today NGOs are responding to globalisation by broadening their base through the establishment of trans-regional networks and solidarity movements. I believe that these movements will have their word to say about promoting global fair trade," he concluded.

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