Author: Eduardo Kapapelo
Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria
One of the main objectives of international and regional law is to ensure the widest scope of human rights and welfare. It has been reasoned that when the physical and mental health of individuals is promoted and safeguarded societies have a better chance of establishing peaceful societies in the aftermath of violent conflict.
Some of the earliest literature has identified that a significant proportion of military casualties are psychological. Such literature which has focused heavily from the perspective of soldiers who have had to fight and ultimately kill on the battlefield to a large extent neglected to adopt a wider scope – to include the civilian population who often receives the brunt of such violence in war-time.
Today, the literature in law and politics has clearly highlighted the devastating effects of war and conflict on a countries socio-economic and political system, psychology and its vital toolkit on the other hand is often omitted within such analysis – especially as policy-makers work towards re-establishing social norms based on the rule of law and human rights.
Today, and while the field of psychology has evolved and made great strides in understanding the human mind, policy-makers, especially those within post-conflict states, fail to fully adopt psychological view-points within the toolkit of state building and reconstruction. From highly documented conflicts such as Vietnam, World War II and countless others which brought to light the effects of ‘shellshock’ and PTSD, we know the varying and unpredictable effects that prolonged conflict can have on the psyche of individuals – especially as such individuals are then expected to interact as full and ‘functional’ members of society, both at the social, economic, political and inter-personal level.
In Angola, generations of its citizens were born in pockets of battlefields throughout the country and raised in such battlefields which in turn shaped their understanding of life – a state of nature which could only be described, and Hobbes would lament as being, ‘nasty, brutish’ – and for many, ‘short’. A generation of Angolan men and women were forged by a trauma that would influence every aspect of their lives.
Yet, and though such trauma is not unique to Angola, today similar traumas have been and continue to be forged in the streets of Sudan, Syria, Yemen and countless others. In faraway battlefields other generations continue to be socialised through violence and fear, through dominance and exclusion.
Conflict and violence in many war torn countries should then be the basis through which state structures respond to social needs and wants. While the human rights normative framework provides that states adopt broad range of legal policies to ensure the re-establishment and enforcement of the rule of law so as to dig itself from the ruins, the importance of robust and widespread psychological mechanisms is vital if a society is to fully heal and with it render the legal basis viable.
In contexts where the barking of Kalashnikovs and violent screams became routine and entrenched in people’s psyches, and in extreme cases served as lullaby’s for many, how can we expect the law alone to address human rights violations in post-conflict states which in light of their history may surely be rooted in something deeper? Can we really speak of adherence to ‘rule of law’ and ‘international normative standards’ when violence was the basis through which many were socialised?
In discussions of human rights, we often speak of dealing with root causes of conflicts – however, we often forget that in addition to structural and legal aspects of political systems, the psychological aspect, the trauma inflicted on individuals can arguably serve as the ultimate basis from which human rights violations stem from and continue to be perpetuated because it is the traumatised individual that inherits and functions within the institutions of the state. As such and within post-conflict states, psychology should play a vital role in meaningfully dealing with political transitions and its importance is vital if such transitions are to be meaningful and lasting.
Article 77 (1) of the Angolan constitution establishes that ‘the state shall promote and guarantee the measures needed to ensure the universal right to medical and health care, as well as the right to child care and maternity care, illness, disability, old age and in situations in which they are unable to work, in accordance with the law’.
Most importantly, and taking into account Angolan history article 84 (1) focuses specifically on the rights of ex combatants and veterans of the nation, stating that, ‘combatants of the national independence struggle, the country’s veterans, those disabled during the course of military or paramilitary service and the minor children and surviving spouses of combatants killed in action, shall enjoy a special status and the protection of the state and society, under the terms of the constitutional law’.
While the Constitution takes note of disability – by making reference to ‘veterans’ and those injured in the fields of battle, it is restrictive and one can reason, looks at disability only within the context of its ‘physical’ manifestation. Angola’s conflict showed the world the effects that war has on the infrastructure of a country; it gave a visual representation as all wars do on the scars that conflict leaves on the human body. However, and perhaps what it often fails to show, are the invisible scars which are left on the human psyche and consciousness of its victims and how such scars directly impact the building of stable post-conflict societies where rights are protected and how such scars make it a near social impossibility to adequately protect human rights.
Indeed, and while there is certainly no excuse for any form of rights violations, it is noteworthy to reflect on the psychological impact that decades of war and conflict can have on both victims of war (civilians) and direct actors (soldiers). Violence towards others in the community has been widely documented from civilians and soldiers who have experienced war.
A study by Elbogen, Johnson, Wagner, Sullivan, Casey, Beckham and Taflt (2014) investigated the extent to which PTSD and other risk factors predict future violent behavior in military veterans. They concluded that violence towards others has been identified as a significant problem for a subset of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
If we know that PTSD symptoms are those which if not treated leads to aspects such as alcohol abuse and to a certain level, absence of empathy – it creates another very important layer in understanding social instability and human rights violation in contexts like Angola. The high levels of state violence in Angola has been documented since the end of the civil war. Such state violence can arguably be seen on a similar scale to domestic violence, seen through violence against women. In 2020 for example Angolan authorities registered 19 homicides of women between March and November and 11 cases of domestic violence per day, while in 2019 the Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women noted that women were victims of 83% of cases of domestic violence.
Walie (2012) has gone on to make a direct link between violence against women and the nearly three decade civil war in Angola, noting that, ‘the breakdown of the traditional family, socio-economic breakdown of families, cultural disorientation and axiological – misrepresentation of the value scale are a direct result of the armed conflict’. If the armed conflict in Angola was primarily responsibility for the destruction of values that served as the basis for coexistence of elements of Angolan families, it is not farfetched to argue that this also extends to the continued violations of human rights in Angola from the lens that the psychological, and the unseen trauma contribute to human rights violations.
Why then is ratifying the African Protocol on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (the African Disability Rights Protocol) so important for Angola? If we look at the centuries of Portuguese colonialism, the war of independence and the civil war, Angola has endured periods of extreme violence and human rights violations – and with it high levels of trauma, and if we factor in aspects of generational trauma – such trauma is then amplified with its effects difficult to fully quantify.
In addition, a high number of soldiers who fought in the civil war were absorbed into the Angolan national police and security services. This action together with Angola’s shameful post-war ‘forgive and forget policy’ and the telling of former combatants and civilians to simply go home, left a society not only traumatised but also created a human rights quagmire which might have devastating effects on individual rights and freedoms.
The importance of the African Disability Rights Protocol is not only in the scope of definition of persons with disabilities to include those with mental, psycho-social and intellectual disabilities, but also its potential to be transformative and be used by states to address current human rights violations by way of targeting the direct causes of such violations which at times go beyond the legal paradigm. In addition, one can also extrapolate from the Protocol, especially in light of post-conflict states, that those suffering from potentially “long” PTSD as a result of violence and war deserve help, assistance and care – and that human rights violations do not necessarily happen in a vacuum.
The African Disability Rights Protocol is important as it serves as a mechanism to deal with such psychiatric matters, together with allowing the state to create socio-cultural and political blueprint (adapted to its peculiarities) to address the psychological matters which might directly influence the level of human rights adherence in a society. Angola’s status as a post-conflict state makes the ratification of this Protocol not only imperative but would directly impact the adherence of human rights in the country – in light of its historical context and in doing so serve as a positive step towards creating a context in which human rights can be better received and applied based on internationally accepted human rights norms and standards.
About the Author:
Dr. Eduardo Kapapelo is a Programme Manager at the Centre for Human Rights and researcher in the field of political sciences, international law and human rights. He is working towards better understanding how governments can design institutions and mechanism for violence prevention. His expertise includes project design and management, policy analysis and implementation. He is currently researching new and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons systems and their relationship to human rights. Specific fields of interest include policy analysis, human rights and structured vulnerabilities and post conflict justice and reconciliation.
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