55th Ordinary Session of the Africa Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights
Item 4: Human Rights Situation in Africa
Statement by the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project
Delivered by John Foley
Madame Chairperson, distinguished Commissioners, State Delegates, representatives of NHRIs and NGOs; all protocols respectfully observed.
On behalf of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, I would like to thank the Commission for this opportunity to raise some of the key human rights issues from the East and Horn of Africa in the past six months, which have been marked in most countries in the sub-region by renewed government clampdowns on fundamental human rights, and the targeting through various means of human rights defenders working on the front lines of human rights protection. In many countries regressive legislation was passed, curtailing citizens’ rights to free expression, freedom of association, and freedom of peaceful assembly. Increasingly, administrative and bureaucratic obstacles were used by governments to disrupt the work of human rights defenders and journalists.
In Burundi, a new law was adopted in December 2013 severely limiting the right to peaceful assembly. This period was also marked by a dramatic escalation in political violence. Earlier in April theNational Assembly passed a controversial law establishing a truth and reconciliation commission, whose provisions will allow the President of the Republic to pick the Commission’s constituent members, creating the possibility for impunity for members of the ruling party.
In Djibouti, human rights defenders, and particularly journalists, as well members of opposition political parties continued to be targeted for harassment, intimidation and arrest on the basis of their work.
Despite continuing serious human rights violations in Eritrea, the government has failed to engage meaningfully with regional and international human rights mechanisms, not allowing the UN Special Rapporteur to visit the country or implementing the decisions of this Commission.
Ethiopia continues to be one of the most challenging countries in the sub-region for human rights defenders. Shortly before the opening of this session on Friday 25th April, 6 Ethiopian bloggers from the ‘Zone 9’ collective, together with three other independent journalists, and numerous opposition party members were arrested and detained in Addis Ababa, in the largest coordinated clampdown on freedom of expression in Ethiopia in several years. The arrests are part of a broader, ongoing crackdown on independent voices within, and outside, the country. A number of journalists and human rights defenders who have exposed human rights violations or discussed sensitive issues have been arrested and detained under vague provisions in the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation.
Madame Chairperson, at its 51st ordinary session, the Commission expressed grave alarm at the arrests and prosecutions of journalists and political opposition members, charged with terrorism and other offences including treason, for exercising their peaceful and legitimate rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association; and called on the Government of Ethiopia to remove restrictions on freedom of expression that do not conform to international human rights law. We call on the Commission to condemn, in the strongest terms, these recent arrests, and take decisive action to reinforce and uphold Ethiopia’s obligations under Article 9, 10 and 11 of the African Charter.
In Kenya, regressive new laws regulating the media were passed, posing a major threat to freedom of expression and the ability of journalists to operate freely. There was a notable rise in attempts to stigmatise civil society organizations and human rights defenders, often through politically motivated public campaigns in the media.
In Rwanda, the unlawful takeover in 2013 of one of the last remaining independent human rights organisations was yet to be resolved by domestic courts during this period, with hearings in the case repeatedly delayed. Human rights defenders continued to operate in an environment of fear and self censorship.
In Somalia, the escalation in the armed conflict between pro-government forces, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the Islamist armed group al-Shabab, in southern and central Somalia has continued to contribute to an overall pattern of gross human rights violations in Somalia.
In Sudan, state authorities continued to direct indiscriminate aerial bombings of populated civilian areas. Security agents used excessive force to suppress popular protests in 2013 and 2014. Human rights defenders continued to be overtly targeted for arrest and detention.
In Uganda, the widely condemned Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014 came into force. The law violates many of the guarantees of equality and non-discrimination enshrined both in the country’s constitution and in its many commitments under regional and international human rights law.
South Sudan’s rapid descent into a state of civil war since December 2013 is of grave concern. Many thousands of civilians have since been killed, and many hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes, caught in the midst of fighting between pro and anti-government forces. Despite a cessation of hostilities agreement, widespread violations of international humanitarian law continue across many parts of the country. Numerous human rights defenders have been forced to flee the country as a result of the conflict, creating a troubling vacuum for independent human rights monitoring and reporting. The African Union Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan represents a vital window of opportunity to delivery accountability, but will require widespread and coordinated political, logistical, and technical support in order to effectively fulfil its mandate.
In light of the updates and observations contained in this report, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project offers the following recommendations for action by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights:
- Call on member States to ensure the protection of human rights defenders, notably by observing the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other human rights treaties to which most of these countries are signatory;
- Carry out a Commission of Inquiry into violations of the Charter and international humanitarian law in the regions of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile in Sudan;
- Affirm its support of the mandate of the African Union Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan, pledge all available resources to assist the Commission of Inquiry to fulfil its mandate, and commit to work with other African Union mechanisms including the AU Peace and Security Council to ensure that the Commission of Inquiry is able to conduct meaningful investigations into, and help to deliver accountability for, the many egregious human rights violations that have been committed in South Sudan since December 2013;
- Take all necessary measures to follow up on decisions taken by the Commission on communications that remain unimplemented, so that victims’ may receive a remedy for the violations of their rights as contained in the Charter, especially requests for provisional measures;
- Encourage full engagement with the ACHPR by States in the sub-region, especially those in transition or conflict periods, such as Somalia and South Sudan, including by urging states to invite visits from the Commission and to submit periodic reports.
I thank you Madame Chairperson