Luke Holland is a researcher and communications officer with the Center for Economic and Social Rights.
Despite rates of economic growth that leave many wealthier countries in the shade, the majority of Equatorial Guinea’s population continues to live in poverty. The government of Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who seized power over three decades ago in a coup détat, maintains a vice-like grip on power while suppressing the activities of human rights and pro-democracy activists who seek to create a better future for both themselves and their compatriots.
With this stark reality in mind, CESR is collaborating with local rights defenders to help address such injustices. On Monday 12 and Tuesday 13 September we joined forces with EG Justice and several Equatoguinean NGOs to stage a capacity-building workshop in Madrid. The event was designed to provide activists from Equatorial Guinea with the knowledge and understanding they need to make better use of international human rights structures.
The two-day event, which was held behind closed doors due to the often-times brutal repression of social justice campaigners in Equatorial Guinea, focused on the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism. When the Equatoguinean government last appeared before the UPR in 2010, it agreed to implement more than 80 recommendations covering a broad range of economic and social provisions. Civil society organizations participating in the workshop learned about the potential usefulness of the UPR to propel change back home, and discussed the concrete indicators which can be used to evaluate their government’s compliance with the recommendations. Throughout, those in attendance shared their experiences of trying to protect human rights amidst the significant constraints in their homeland.
Supporting local efforts to promote economic and social rights is made all the more important by the Obiang regime’s apparent indifference to the wellbeing of most citizens. One might expect a country that has enjoyed spectacular levels of economic growth in recent years, largely thanks to the discovery of oil and gas reserves in the 1990s, to show corresponding improvements in basic social indicators. While GDP per capita climbed from US $7,600 in 2000 to US $35,000 in 2008, child mortality has actually increased, however.
Now ranked as the wealthiest country in Sub-Saharan African, the almost total lack of transparency and staggering levels of corruption have led to the country’s extensive resources being squandered by a tiny elite. Both the news media and anti-corruption NGOs such Global Witness have documented the lavish lifestyles enjoyed by the president and his inner circle. Indeed, the profligate spending of Obiang’s playboy son Teodorin has become notorious well beyond the borders of his own country, leading to a series of investigations in the US Senate, alongside police inquiries a legal case in France.
This undignified contrast between Equatorial Guinea’s ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ is manifested in health and education statistics that show it lagging far behind many of its poorer African neighbours. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Equatorial Guinea ratified in 1987, obliges States Parties to devote the maximum available resources to the realization of economic and social rights, and to prevent retrogression in the provision thereof. With the country’s overflowing coffers being channeled into the building of luxury mansions and man-made private beaches, while budgetary allocations for basic social services remain among the lowest in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is clear that the Obiang regime is ignoring its obligations under human rights law.
If Equatorial Guinea’s resource wealth is to translate into meaningful improvements in the lives of normal people, the determination and commitment of local civil society will be crucial. Effective monitoring and evaluation of UPR commitments, along with the preparation of detailed reports for consideration at the country’s next review in 2014, require the active participation of Equatoguinean rights groups.
When the workshop drew to a close on Tuesday afternoon, the participants agreed the event had been a success and that further capacity-building efforts should be arranged so as to ensure broader and more effective participation in the UPR process. It is CESR’s hope that its continuing support may play some small role in helping local activists overcome the obstacles they face in creating a more just Equatorial Guinea.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of CESR.