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Obstacles to implementing the rights of minorities and early effective conflict prevention

22 June 2021

Presentation at the United Nations Africa and Middle East Regional Forum on conflict prevention and the protection of the human rights of minorities

3rd thematic session, 16 June 2021

Obstacles to implementing the rights of minorities and early effective conflict prevention

Your Excellence the special Rapporteur on Minority issues, the Honourable Ministers, distinguished panellists and Participants,

My name is Geofrey Sabiiti and I am the Africa Conflict Prevention and Peace Building Coordinator at Minority Rights Group International.

My discussion focuses on the need for effective early conflict prevention mechanisms, but also the difficulty in establishing mechanisms that are truly effective, I will follow three steps:

  • First, I will highlight some of the drivers behind conflicts affecting minorities in Africa, as these drivers must be addressed for the conflicts to be prevented;
  • Secondly, I will identify a few factors of escalation of violence. These factors also need to be addressed to avoid disputes transform into violent conflicts and to mitigate the human consequences of these conflicts;
  • Lastly, I will offer a few recommendations to address the aforementioned challenges.

But let me start by few words of context:

Minorities in Africa live in extreme marginalization, they face discrimination, exclusion from development processes and the areas where they live are often targeted for natural resource exploitation without fee, prior and informed consent leading to violation of their land rights, displacement and poor living conditions.

Ethnic minority and indigenous peoples often live-in regions that are affected by extreme weather conditions. For example, prolonged droughts are responsible for perennial conflicts over grazing rights and water access among the pastoralist’s communities in East Africa.

Ethnic minority also live-in areas prone to persisting conflicts due to tensions between ethnic groups. For instance, the Batwa, Borana, Gabra, Bambuti and other ethnic minorities in Eastern DRC. Decades of conflict have not spared them from being targeted because of their identity.

Now, against this backdrop, two or three key factors of conflict can be identified:

  1. Resource competition is a key conflict risk factor. It lies in supremacy battle between the major ethnic groups hence affecting the minority communities around them. Competition over Natural Resources, frequent drought and Climate change. Drought remains one of major conflict driver in the region. While climate change is an issue globally, the impact and consequences are even more acute in the Africa region, particularly in Karamoja in Uganda Isiolo, Marsabit in Kenya and the North-western Escarpment of the Ethiopian Rift Valley.
  2. Unresolved and deep-seated ethnic rivalries is another important factor. one ethnic group strategizing on how to frustrate the life of the other ethnic group. For example, the Borana and Gabra in Kenya, Basongora and Bakonzo in Uganda.
  3. It must also be mentioned that ethnic hatred is largely escalated by a number of factors. On the one hand, politicians who use bad politics of divide and rule; on the other hand, parents, family and other members of societies who maintain and pass down tribal sentiments and hatred through generations. This hatred is often overstated to the extent that controversy involving two people of different ethnicities pits an entire ethnic group against the other – for instance, the Turkana and Pokots in Kenya.

These factors must be addressed.

Now, a number of factors are not necessarily drivers of conflict, but they play a role in the escalation of conflicts into violent bloodshed and the worsening of situation of tension. Let me mention three of them:

  • A first challenge is the Presence of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) in the hands of the public best described as “arms supermarket” and this is due to availability of all types of Arms that finds its way to the ready market among minority communities and later to other proximate dominant communities. In Marsabit Kenya and Karamoja Uganda every group is said to have acquired arms for self-defence against other ethnic groups. The first incidence of arms in civilian hands in Isiolo is dated back to mid-1960s during the Shifta war that had its epicentre in Isiolo.
  • A second challenge is the fact that sustained human rights violations in a prolonged conflict setting can also serve as a driving factor that deepens divisions and animosity among parties to a conflict.

Now, let me turn to the particular obstacles that stand in the way of effective early warning and early prevention mechanisms.

  1. The first one is the nature and chain of the conflict:  It is imperative to note that some of the conflicts in the region especially among the minority communities are dynamic in nature. Some conflicts just emerge and are only identified at escalation level. These could range from ethnic, family conflicts that just emerge from insignificant incidents like animal’s destroying crops and they are killed and the other parties retaliate with force immediately. It should also be noted that such incidental acts in most cases spread widely in the minority communities and end up seeking sympathy from the rest of the community member who end up victimizing the other party.
  2. The second obstacle is the poor capacity of police and other security organs to protect the minority communities. Police’s inability to respond comes from the challenges of the terrain and sometimes the command that is mostly slow and indecisive in planning counter attack. Sometimes police are found partisan, taking sides depending on which community have more influence in the government and this builds hostility which erupts into conflict.
  3. The third obstacle is the time taken between the warning and the response; The time lag between when the warning is made the time to respond by the authorities is another obstacle. Oftentimes, issues are reported and the leaders either ignore or do not respond and, in some cases, the delay to take action and a conflict escalates. This is due to lack of capacity among the responding mechanism, viewing the warning as mere alarmists among others.

Mister/Madam Chair, distinguished participants,

In light of this, I would like to offer four key recommendations:

  1. First, we should adopt a holistic approach to peacebuilding that includes the economic empowerment of minorities: The current obstacles require an all-round approach that will address the economic, social and political wellbeing of the people. These are the same communities that are dominated by poverty, limited access to basic social services like water, education and health. Such a situation has kept the minority communities illiterate, poor and marginalised a reason why most of them are always disgruntled.
  2. Secondly, we should institute a regional disarmament, small arms and weapons control and conflict resolution process that involves the participation of Northern and -Eastern neighbours, particularly Kenya and Sudan.
  3. African Commission on Human and Peoples ‘Rights need to conduct a mission to these countries to deepen dialogue with the government on various human rights issues affecting Minority and indigenous peoples in the country.
  4. Lastly, the governments must urgently address ethnic driven conflicts in the region through effective and genuine mediation and apply other methods that reinforce peaceful co-existence and resolution of conflicts. This should include government prioritization of addressing perennial drivers of these conflicts; land ownership, cultural and linguistic rights challenges, political participation and equally shared social economic opportunities by the communities prone to conflicts.

Let me end by saying that Inclusion of women and Youth in peace agenda is very important. Women and Youth are central in ethnic conflict prevention and peace building and if you are to have a meaningful mediations and dialogue you need to involve women and Youth from minority and indigenous communities.

Watch Geofrey Sabiiti’s intervention:

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