Human Rights Watch and Co. have got this rights thing wrong

7 Jun

Is there a human right greater than the right to life? It would be a very brave person who would say, indeed there is. Such brave persons exist in the many human rights organisations that seem to promote other rights above this basic one. If they ever consider the right to life as a human right, they reserve it for a select few – politicians and journalists, both usually of the rabid variety. They do not extend that right to the majority of ordinary people who go about their daily business of earning a living without making a fuss about it.

Rwanda has been quietly working to make sure that more of its citizens enjoy this right, that they do not have to die from preventable diseases. Yet the country still comes under fire from rights organisations for allegedly violating the human rights of its citizens. There is a contradiction here.

Rwanda’s ministry of health recently reported impressive reduction in the incidence of killer diseases like malaria. Between 2005 and 2010, they reported a declining incidence of malaria of 70%. In the same period, prevalence of malaria declined to 2.1%.

These are impressive figures by any standards. More importantly, they indicate that more Rwandans get to enjoy the right of life, courtesy of their government.

You have not heard it all. Mortality of the most vulnerable group – children – has drastically reduced. According to the Demographic Health Survey, the percentage of children under five years dying from malaria decreased from 44.4% to 13% between 2005 and 2010. The target of the ministry of health is to bring down the fatality among children less than five years admitted with severe malaria to 0.1%.

You cannot quarrel with statistics; certainly when evidence on the ground bears them out. The quarrel would be even more futile if you consider that these figures are corroborated by respectable organisations like the World Health Organisations and health sector donor agencies like Global Fund.

How can a country with very few resources manage to do this? But equally important, why do the rights groups ignore this significant effort that ensures that more people have a right to life?

The rights groups are not in the habit of giving credit where it is due. Even when they do, it is with groans of grudge and heavy qualification that effectively negates the credit. Nor do they recognise success. All these are apparently existential taboos.

Rwanda’s partners in the health sector and Rwandans themselves attribute the success in decreasing fatality to strong political will and bold leadership of the country.

The fight against malaria is part of a broader strategy to eliminate such other diseases as TB and HIV’AIDS.  In the case of HIV infections, the ministry of health has added focus to the prevention of mother to child transmission as a means of ensuring that there will be an HIV-free generation. Indeed this paper reported that (TNT, 6TH June, 2011) the United Nations agency concerned with AIDS, UNAIDS, has named Rwanda among the few countries in the world to have registered success in reducing HIV infections and reached 80% access to treatment.

The strategy has succeeded because all these programmes are integrated into a health care system and not treated as stand-alone programmes. Both treatment and funding for the control of one disease have impact on the management of other health issues in the same health facility. It is an efficient way of using financial resources, facilities and personnel.

It has also worked because of accountability for the way donor funds for control of the major killer diseases have been used. It is for this reason that Global Fund signed another grant of US $22.9 million (13billion Rwf) with the government of Rwanda.

Rwanda has invested heavily in the health sector to increase citizens’ easy access to health facilities. More health centres have been built, equipped and staffed with trained personnel. Rural areas, usually forgotten in other places, have got new hospitals with state of the art facilities such as the one recently inaugurated in Butaro District in the north of the country.

Ambulances work. They are not used to ferry sacks of charcoal and foodstuffs for hospital administrators and their friends as I have seen happen in some countries in our region.

Then there are the free mobile telephone sets that have been given to grassroots health workers to alert other health workers to various emergencies so that they can be addressed quickly and save lives.

All these are meant for ordinary Rwandans who have little means on their own to afford the most basic health care services. They are the ones who are saved from certain death and therefore the ones whose right to life is guaranteed by government policies. Yet these are the same people whose rights Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and a host of other groups do not recognise as important. For these groups, all other people’s rights must be subordinated to those of the noisy political and professional classes, who, in any case, have the means to protect their rights.

Rwandans do their thing quietly, effectively, without fanfare. The right to life of the citizens is ensured. Contrast that with the way rights groups publicise their uninformed criticism of human rights observance in such countries as Rwanda. It is a major media event with all the world’s TV cameras trained on some sour-faced researcher unconvincingly citing the case of two individuals as proof of gross human rights violations. As she does so thousands of others are regaining their gift of life. That is the contradiction.


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