by Terrence McCulley
The United States Department of State released its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012 on Friday, April 19. In the more than 30 years since these reports were first mandated by the U.S. Congress, they have become essential for governments, intergovernmental organisations, scholars, journalists, activists, and others as a reliable measure of human rights conditions around the world. The reports offer an opportunity to commend progress and, when necessary, highlight areas for improvement.
Respect for human rights is not a western construct or a uniquely American ideal; it is the keystone for peace and stability everywhere. As noted by Secretary Kerry recently, “(H)istory shows us that countries whose policies respect and reflect these rights are far more likely to be more peaceful and more prosperous, far more effective at tapping the talents of their people, far more capable of being innovative and moving rapidly and innovatively in the marketplace, and they are better long-term partners.”
Nigeria has a committed partner and friend in the United States. As with any friendship, we celebrate your steps forward and speak up when setbacks occur.
In my three years as U.S. Ambassador to this great country, I have witnessed progress in the realm of human rights – the most free and fair elections in your nation’s history in 2011; committed efforts at reconciliation in the North; the signing of the Freedom of Information Act; and welcome efforts by the House of Representatives to manage issues of security and corruption, including its recent ordering of an investigation into rising cases of extra-judicial killings by the police. But despite these positive actions, Nigeria continues to confront serious human rights challenges, including a culture of impunity where perpetrators are often not held accountable for their actions.
The appalling violence occurring on a daily basis affects Nigerians at all levels of society. We deplore the heartless attacks by the extremists, known broadly as Boko Haram, who victimize innocent civilians. Any persons or groups who use violence must be held accountable. This includes holding security forces to account when they commit unlawful acts. We remain deeply concerned about reports of extra-judicial killings, illegal detention, and destruction of property by security forces. Such acts create a deadly cycle of mistrust, harming the very citizens the security forces pledge to protect. We urge the Government of Nigeria to investigate reports of excessive use of force by security forces, and to take the necessary legal actions against those responsible.
The Nigerian government has announced a number of campaigns against corruption, and has strengthened the country’s anti-corruption institutions – both positive steps that the U.S. Government applauds. Nigeria needs to do more, however, to address and conquer this issue. Corruption in Nigeria diverts financial resources from building roads, hospitals, schools, and otherwise investing in infrastructure that would serve businesses, attract foreign investment, and create jobs.
Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are also fundamental human rights, key to functioning democracies. A vibrant free press is critical to illuminating public discussion on issues key to Nigeria’s democracy, including security and corruption. The silencing of journalists, political critics, and others, whether via arrest and detention, threats, or other forms of intimidation, has no place in a democratic society. Respect for the rule of law is paramount and must start with the government itself.
Nigerians must come together to combat these ills, to impress upon their democratically elected government that the principles of democracy and human rights must be sacrosanct. The challenges facing Nigeria are not limited to North or South, Christian or Muslim, Igbo, Hausa-Fulani or Yoruba. These are matters that affect all Nigerians, matters that require urgent attention. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said during his seminal “I Have a Dream” speech, all men and women, at all levels of society, must seize upon “the fierce urgency of now.”
In protecting the rights and liberties of all Nigerians, the Nigerian Government must be resolute in its commitment to ensuring security without compromising human rights. And these rights must be extended to all, regardless of class, creed, ethnicity, gender, political views, tribal affiliation, or sexual orientation. The U.S. hopes that our Nigerian partners will honour their citizens by building and sustaining strong and transparent institutions that deliver essential services to the nation and setting a standard by which all federal, state, and local government entities hold themselves publicly accountable.
By enshrining these rights, Nigeria will be poised to achieve its potential and, most importantly, to give its citizens the peace, stability, and prosperity that they deserve. The key now is to look internally, to take significant action to address critical human rights issues. And through this process, the United States will remain Nigeria’s partner and friend.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by US ambassador to Nigeria, Terrence McCulley