Working together against terrorism and for human rights in Africa

We continue to watch, in horror and outrage, the tragedy of the more than 200 young Nigerian girls, kidnapped from school by a fanatical extremist group. Until recently, the awareness of this and other similar acts of violence was confined to the area of the threat and the surrounding countries, including my own. But now, the world has joined those of us who have long fought to protect these young women and begun to speak power to evil to condemn these atrocities that could eventually put in jeopardy the lives and safety of millions across Africa and elsewhere.

As Minister of Human Rights of Burkina Faso, a nation of nearly 17 million situated in the very region of the African continent where worldwide attention has been focused, I understand and am charged with confronting the challenges of not only speaking power to this evil, but educating and equipping my fellow citizens to do the same.

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Over the last decade, the government of Burkina Faso has totally transformed the way we approach and institutionalize human rights protections in our country, including, in 2012, establishing the ministry that I am honored to lead and the creation of a national human rights promotion policy in 2013.  In partnership with a vibrant civil society, we have committed ourselves to the principle that human rights protection and promotion is just as vital to our survival and prosperity as the economic and democratic reforms that we are diligently pursuing.

Taking these bold steps to create and cultivate a culture of peace and tolerance in our country required redefining human rights – from a simple definition of individuals’ physical safety to a multi-dimensional concept that addresses the economic, political, educational and cultural needs of our citizens. First, we realized that our citizens must understand and be fully aware of the rights and responsibilities afforded them. Behaviors – good and bad – are learned and so we start at the very beginning by integrating human rights education and awareness activities into primary school curricula. These efforts also include promoting literacy at all levels, young and old, so that all citizens can access the resources they need to protect themselves and their families. 

We also recognize that fighting terrorism, crime and promoting security is essential because security is a human right. If our citizens do not feel safe, then they are hindered in pursuing their lives and providing for their families. Whether this threat to our safety comes from extremist groups like Boko Haram, perpetrators of domestic violence, practitioners of female genital mutilation and cutting or those who mistreat and abuse persons with disabilities or the elderly, we have to take a stand. We are accomplishing this by working with our regional and international partners, including the US, to promote security and resolve conflicts by serving as a mediator across the continent, such as in Côte d’Ivoire and Mali, under the leadership of President Blaise Compaoré. We are also working to ensure that our national laws and programs are in harmony with our international agreements and commitments to save vulnerable groups from further marginalization.

We are continually strengthening the rule of law in Burkina Faso – a bedrock of citizens’ confidence in government. We all must be assured that institutions and protections exist not only on paper – and not just for an elite few – and that justice can be pursued and won in a swift, transparent and equitable fashion without fear of reprisal in rural as well as urban areas.   

But we cannot overcome these challenges alone. Burkina Faso has been a leader in cooperation with our partners to establish Ministerial level partnerships to share best practices for the initiatives we have undertaken. This week I have traveled to the US to meet with Members of Congress, the Administration, think tanks and NGOs to discuss how we can multiply the ways we work together to improve the lives of those in Burkina Faso – and across the entire continent – as well as protect US interests in the region. As Secretary of State, John Kerry, stated at the end of last year, The United States and Burkina Faso share a commitment to promoting democracy, economic development, and regional stability. We are especially proud of our work together to boost agricultural productivity, improve girlsaccess to education, strengthen maternal and child health services, and increase food security.

Already, the US and Burkina Faso are undertaking initiatives that have demonstrated early successes. Through the Millennium Challenge Corporation and USAID partnerships, the US and Burkina Faso created the Burkinabé Response to Improve Girls’ Chances to Succeed (BRIGHT) Project and its successor, BRIGHT II, to help educate young girls, particularly in often poorer rural areas which will benefit nearly 272,000 students, parents and community leaders over the next two decades.  While the long-term success of these programs will mean an incalculable impact on the lives of millions, the early numbers tell an amazing story. Through this Burkina Faso – U.S. partnership, since 2005, more than 250 preschool and primary schools and classrooms have been built in our country’s poorest areas, primary school completion rates have doubled for boys and girls to 53% and 57% respectively, and support was provided to students’ families in the form of food subsidies and the construction of safe drinking water facilities. What is even more remarkable, is that this all happened in rural communities where girls were least likely to attend schools and where economic conditions often forced young boys to leave school at an early age to go to work and provide for their families. 

As we look to the future, President Obama’s African Leaders Summit –the first of its kind, taking place in Washington, DC in August – has the potential to be a major step forward to strengthen our partnerships and highlight that the political, security, economic and cultural bonds that we share across the Atlantic are more important now than ever before. We applaud this initiative and will do our best to help ensure its success.

Burkina Faso is ready and willing to be an increasingly vocal and active partner with the international community, particularly the U.S., to instill a permanent and effective human rights framework and culture all over the world, starting at home. I assure you that just as trouble is and will continue to spread across our region if not contained, our successes have the potential to know no boundaries and its effects will spill over our borders and beyond.

Nigna/Somda is minister of Human Rights and Civic Promotion for Burkina Faso.