On Friday, March 19, a group of citizens from a small nation in West Africa, Equatorial Guinea, spoke out about a range of human rights and corruption issues affecting their country’s people, challenging the niceties of diplomacy and the polite conclusions typically traded in Geneva.
During the UN Human Rights Council’s session that day, most delegates listened silently as Equatorial Guinea’s representatives told the room of their government’s “clear” showing of “an unequivocal commitment” to human rights. A handful congratulated the country for its demonstrated cooperation and “commitment” to the protection and promotion of these values.
Of the hundreds of state representatives in the room, only the United States made a critical comment—noting that the Guinean government continues to deny basic rights to its citizens and provides no space for civil society to exist or function.
From the official exchange and promises of implementation, one might have come away with the impression that Equatorial Guinea is serious about protecting the human rights of its citizens.
But Friday, a host of NGOs didn’t let the doors close until the Council had heard from the people of Equatorial Guinea themselves. All together, nine organizations called the government out on its ongoing corruption and human rights violations: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Open Society Justice Initiative, Rencontre Africaine pour la Defense des Droits de l'Homme, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Human Rights First, the International Commission of Jurists, Conectas Dieritos Humanos, and the Center for Economic and Social Rights. Of these, the latter four gave their time to Equatoguineans currently living in the country and in exile, allowing these citizens to speak directly to the Council.
Collectively, the NGOs only had 18 minutes of floor time—but the two minutes each speaker was allotted served as powerful, if limited, opportunities to bring forward local voices and challenge the idea that all is well in Equatorial Guinea.
It is one thing to hear a government representative tell an audience it consulted with civil society, and quite another to hear first-person testimonials from Equatoguineans themselves—doctors, professors, lawyers, and human rights advocates—using strong words to speak uncensored about the human rights struggles they regularly face on the ground. From them, the Council heard about restrictions on people’s rights to organize, about the country’s flawed justice system, and about the grinding poverty most citizens of Equatorial Guinea face, despite the millions in oil revenues flowing into the state’s coffers.
Human rights defenders risk their own security to travel outside of the country, especially to come to the UN and make public statements critical of their government. But even when courageous advocates do step up to the plate, they face major obstacles in gaining a platform to speak with limited resources.
The Open Society Justice Initiative worked with EG Justice, the Center for Economic and Social Rights, and several other groups to ensure that advocates from within Equatorial Guinea presented their side of the story at the UN. This was a particularly important opportunity, as Equatorial Guinea won’t come under the Council’s official review for another four years.
There is much progress to be made in involving civil society in the Universal Periodic Review. Yet, there was a palpable sense of empowerment when the NGOs—in particular those represented by speakers from within the country—took the floor and told representatives of countries around the world about the harassment, oppression, and neglect Equatoguineans face in real terms.
It is a shame that it takes a global network of NGOs to bring advocates to Switzerland just for them to have a chance to address their own government. Nevertheless, the inclusion of their voices in this process is a small but critical step towards achieving actual accountability, the establishment of rule of law, and the protection of human rights.
What happens next is uncertain, but governments represented in the main salon of the UN Human Rights Council cannot say they didn’t know the truth.