58th Ordinary Session of the Africa Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights
Banjul, Islamic Republic of the Gambia
Item 9: Statement on the Activity Report of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa
Statement by the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project
read by Patience Mpani
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 Special Rapporteur for her report and the Commission for this opportunity to highlight the situation of human rights defenders from the East and Horn of Africa.
As we celebrate 2016 as the African year of human rights with a particular focus on the rights of women, we should not forget the crucial role of human rights defenders in promoting and protecting the rights of all, including women. Human rights defenders face a range of restrictions, particularly legal restrictions, and violations as they seek to uphold the rights enshrined in the African Charter. Women human rights defenders face specific threats due to their work, including smear campaigns, attacks on their families, and gender-based violence.
Governments in the sub-region continue to use legal restrictions to criminalise the work of human rights defenders. In Kenya, the 2013 Communications Act introduced a new offence of “improper use of a licensed communications system”, which has since been repeatedly used to impede the work of journalists and human rights defenders. On 19 January 2016, Edwin Reuben Ilah, a Kenyan blogger was arrested and charged with “improper use of a licensed communications system” for posting images of Kenyan soldiers killed in an Al Shabaab attack in Somalia.
NGO laws with ambiguous clauses are being passed and at times used to enable judicial proceedings against civil society under the guise of “threatening national security”. In Uganda, there are concerns that the newly passed NGO Act in January 2016 may be used to target civil society through clauses which could potentially restrict the operating environment of NGOs by outlawing activities interpreted as being prejudicial to the security, dignity and interest of Ugandans. In Sudan, the Organisation of Humanitarian and Voluntary Work Act has been used to shut down and restrict the work of NGOs.
In Burundi, the majority of human rights defenders have been forced to flee the country and those that remain are subjected to intimidation, threats and physical attacks. At least ten NGOs have been forced to shut down their offices after their accounts were frozen. The leaders of many of these organisations have been the subject of international arrest warrants, accused of taking part in the attempted coup, and have long since fled the country. Marie Claudette Kwizera of Ligue Iteka remains missing since she was abducted on 10 December 2015. In Ethiopia, the government’s crackdown on the protests in Oromia region has led to the deaths of at least 150 protesters and to thousands being arbitrarily arrested and detained.
Journalists working to cover human rights abuses are increasingly being targeted. In Rwanda, independent voices continue to be stifled, particularly with the 2017 Rwandan elections around the corner. John William Ntwali, an investigative reporter and editor for the Ireme news website is facing trumped up charges for his work as a journalist. In November 2015, the Rwandan Media Commission blocked the Ireme news website. In Somalia, journalists are targeted by both the Government and Al Shabaab extremist group. The December 2015 media law contains several provisions that infringe on media freedoms. Article 25 of the Media Law empowers the courts to order a confidential source be revealed, a provision which has been included in several other media laws in the sub-region. In addition, independent media in Burundi has effectively been silenced while in South Sudan, at least 6 journalists and human rights defenders have been arbitrarily detained and tortured by National Security Services and Military Intelligence in response to their work on the implementation of the August 2015 peace agreement.
In light of these updates and observations, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project recommends to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to:
- Call for an end to all practices notably legal restrictions which threaten fundamental rights contained in the African Charter which are vital for the work of human rights defenders;
- Call on all parties to stop violence in Burundi, urge authorities to allow independent radios and human rights organisations to resume operations freely;
- Call on the government of Ethiopia to cease the violent crackdown on the Oromo protests and authorise independent investigations into the human rights violations committed by the security forces;
- Call on all member states to ensure protection of human rights defenders, and to enact domestic laws guaranteeing the promotion and protection of the work of human rights defenders; and
- Ensure that access and participation to African Union organs for civil society organisations and human rights defenders is enabled to raise awareness of the human rights violations taking place in their countries.