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ACHPR: Statement on Human Rights Defenders in Africa

55th Ordinary Session of the Africa Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights

Luanda, Angola

Public Session

Item 8: Activity Reports of Members of the Commission & Special Mechanisms

Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders

Statement by the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project

Madame Chairperson, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Honourable Commissioner Reine Alapini Gansou, distinguished Commissioners, State Delegates, representatives of NHRIs and NGOs; all protocols respectfully observed.

Madame Chairperson, human rights defenders are central to the human rights movement, in Africa and globally. We would like to pay particular thanks to Honourable Commissioner Gansou for her tireless and committed engagement with human rights defenders across Africa.

Across the sub-region, the past six months has seen renewed government clampdowns on civil society organisations, 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 introduced or discussed, limiting the space for human rights defenders and introducing unwarranted levels of state intrusion and oversight into civil society space and undermining the legitimate operating environment for human rights defenders. Human rights defenders in our sub-region have increasingly been subject to targeted administrative and bureaucratic obstacles by governments as a means to disrupt their work. In addition, we regret to report to the Commission that human rights defenders continue to suffer violent acts of assault, intimidation, arrest, detention, harassment and murder.

In Burundi, a controversial law regulating public assemblies was signed into law in December 2013, introducing civil and criminal penalties for organisers of public gatherings, and banning spontaneous assemblies. The new law has been used to stifle the rights to peaceful assembly of human rights defenders, including activities planned the Bujumbura Bar Association and the anti-corruption organisation OLUCOME.

Ethiopia continues to be one of the most restrictive and challenging countries in the sub-region for human rights defenders. The Charities and Societies Proclamation 2009 is one of the strictest laws regulating civil society anywhere in the world. Since the law’s enactment five years ago, human rights organisations and organisations working on other rights-based areas are only allowed to receive 10% of their funding from foreign sources. The remaining 90% must be raised domestically- a condition that is effectively impossible in Ethiopia, subsequently leading to the wholesale implosion of large swathes of civil society.

Also in Ethiopia, the sweepingly broad provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (2009) have been used in parallel with the Charities and Societies Proclamation to target- and, specifically, to jail- human rights defenders and advocates of free speech. As the Commission has already heard, on Friday 25th April, 6 Ethiopian bloggers from the ‘Zone 9’ collective, together with three other independent journalists, were arrested and detained in Addis Ababa, in the largest coordinated clampdown on civic space and freedom of expression in Ethiopia in several years. We call for their immediate and unconditional release.

In October 2013, the Kenyan government tabled a series of amendments to the Public Benefits Organisation Act, which if passed into law, would have increased state control over civil society and reduced foreign funding for civil society organizations to 15%. The amendments were withdrawn by parliament in December 2013, but should be seen as part of a pattern of efforts to exert control over, and limit the space for, civil society organisations and human rights defenders. Human rights defenders defending the rights of sexual minorities have faced obstacles in their work, as illustrated by the repeated and ongoing denial by the NGO Board to register organisations working on LGBTI rights.

Human rights defenders in Rwanda continue to operate under profound duress within a narrow and restrictive operating environment for civil society. NGOs and individual human rights defenders – particularly those engaged in human rights monitoring and advocacy – continue to face serious threats and challenges. International and regional human rights NGOs have released numerous public statements condemning the de facto government sanctioned takeover of the independent human rights organisation LIPRODHOR via transparently unlawful means. Court hearings challenging the takeover have been repeatedly postponed throughout the last six months, with the next hearing scheduled to take place in May.

In Sudan on 11 March, security forces opened fire at protesters during a peaceful demonstration at the University of Khartoum following a public forum organised by the Darfur Students Association. Seven students were seriously injured during the demonstration and one student died from gunshot wounds. Later in March, seven student activists were detained without access to their families or lawyers after Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Services made further arrests in connection with this demonstration. Connected to this demonstration, many human rights defenders have been arrested and detained incommunicado.

Finally, in Uganda, the space for civil society in Uganda has significantly narrowed due both to the harassment of human rights defenders, as well as the increasingly restrictive legal framework under which civil society operates. The Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014 contravenes several articles of the Ugandan Constitution, including on equality and non discrimination and right to privacy. The law also criminalizes the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality, whilst failing to provide a definition of that very term, and threatens to have a chilling effect on debate and human rights advocacy, contrary to freedoms of expression, thought, assembly and association and the right to civic participation.

The East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project recommends that the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights:

  • Call on member States to ensure the protection of human rights defenders
  • Call for an end to all practices, notably legal restrictions, which threaten fundamental rights contained in the Charter which are vital for the work of human rights defenders, in particular the freedom of expression, the freedoms of assembly and association;
  • Call for the release of all human rights defenders detained merely for doing their work;
  • Reaffirm its unequivocal condemnation of all acts of violence and reprisals against human rights defenders, including against those who cooperate with the African human rights system as codified in Resolution 196, and take all necessary steps to enact a formal reporting and investigating structure.