In its bi-annual report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), DefendDefenders highlights the most pressing human rights issues in the East and Horn of Africa sub-region for the period May 2020-November 2020, focusing on issues pertaining to civic space.
This submission focuses in particular on citizens’ enjoyment of their rights to freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly, and association. The submission includes trends and developments for each of our mandate countries. Additionally, this submission features a series of recommendations to the Commission formulated with a view to improving human rights protection and promotion in the 11 countries concerned.
Despite the ongoing challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, DefendDefenders remains committed to engaging the Commission on advancing human rights in the sub-region. We remain hopeful that a solution will be found to curb its spread, eradicate it, and prevent its recurrence. In the meantime, the Commission should urge states to ensure that restrictions in place to control the spread of COVID-19 are temporary, necessary to protect public health, proportionate, non-discriminatory, and do not arbitrarily restrict human rights.
Over the past six months, governments in the sub region continued to restrict legitimate expressions of civilian dissent, including peaceful demonstrations and gatherings. As highlighted below, the restrictions were heightened either during the electoral periods, or while fighting the pandemic. Opposition members, independent civil society organisations and the media bore the brunt of governments’ reactions.
This submission was prepared with the assistance of reports and information sent to DefendDefenders, the secretariat of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (EHAHRD-Net), by our members and partners throughout the sub-region.
In Burundi, the sudden passing of former President Pierre Nkurunziza, and the swearing in of a new President, Évariste Ndayishimiye, in June 2020, presented hope that the country would change course, put an end to the gravest forms of violence, human rights violations and impunity, and re-engage with the international community. Instead, we are witnessing the continuation of the same trends, with worrying statements and the appointment of persons accused of grave crimes to government positions. Considering this, the UN Human Rights Council extended the mandate of its Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on the country.
Djibouti and Eritrea remain the most closed states in the sub-region, both ranking amongst the world’s worst violators of press freedom. The rights to free expression, association and peaceful assembly continue to be severely restricted, making it virtually impossible for independent human rights organisations or individual human rights defenders (HRDs) to operate in the country. Additionally, HRDs face increased risks of reprisals for engaging with regional and international human rights mechanisms. Despite diplomatic progress in the Horn of Africa, including the 2018 rapprochement between Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia, the human rights situation remains dire. For instance, indefinite national service is still applied in Eritrea, at the expense of realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Ethiopia is in a political deadlock with the national elections extended until 2021. The Parliament approved extension of Prime Minister’s Abiy Ahmed’s mandate despite concerns from the opposition. The country is plagued by ongoing intercommunal and ethnically charged tension over land and livelihoods, exacerbated by the high-handed response of the security forces to address the tensions. The Anti-Terrorism Proclamation remains in force and continues to be used to prosecute critical voices. At the time of writing, federal forces had launched an offensive against the Tigray region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which poses a threat to the stability of the sub-region and may give rise to humanitarian challenges, displacement, and human rights violations.
Kenya continues to grapple with extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and other grave violations, often committed by security forces in the name of combating terrorism, or against the youth from disadvantaged slum areas. COVID 19 exacerbated police brutality under the guise of curbing the spread of corona virus. For instance, Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU) has documented 25 cases of deaths in police custody since January 2020.
The democratic and civic space in Rwanda has been increasingly restricted, with severe restrictions on the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, assembly, and association, in place. Rwanda consistently ranks among the worst countries in terms of press freedom. Reporting that is critical of President Paul Kagame’s leadership, or on any issue related to the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi, may lead to prosecution and detention. The government dismisses any concern raised by foreign actors, including international and African non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which they continue to stigmatise and vilify.
The security situation in Somalia remains fragile and human rights situation as concerning. Al Shabab continues to control territory and to commit grave human rights abuses with several attacks against civilians in this period. Sexual and gender-based violence directed towards women and girls is a major concern. Somalia is not only a dangerous place for journalists but for women as well.
Fighting continues in parts of South Sudan and former warring parties remain operational as transitional security arrangements deadlines set out in the Revitalised Peace Agreement for Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS) remain unimplemented. The UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CoHR) continues to document and report patterns of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), grave human rights violations, and international crimes, including deliberate targeting and starvation of civilians, as well as widespread impunity. National-level political actors have fuelled localised violence and conflict over livelihoods, with ethnic overtones, including by providing arms. Corruption, embezzlement, and misappropriation of public funds persist as major impediments to economic development as well as justice and reparations.
Sudan’s transitional government faced many challenges within the reporting period including countering the spread of COVID-19, high inflation, and mass displacement caused by extreme flooding, forcing the government to declare a state of emergency in September 2020. Positively, in mid-July 2020, the transitional government announced several reforms including banning female genital mutilation (FGM), decriminalising apostasy, and ending the requirement for women to get travel permits. Sudan’s removal from the United States’ States sponsors of terrorism list, a process that has now been launched, may open up avenues for economic development, investment, and Sudan’s full reintegration into the international community. Accountability for violations of international humanitarian law and human rights violations and abuses committed over 30 years of dictatorship remains elusive, although Sudan recently hosted talks with a delegation of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
In Tanzania, the re-election of President John Magufuli comes against a backdrop of a series of repressive laws and extra-legal measures used by the government to restrict the space for independent actors, including civil society and the media. Several political opposition members have been subjected to attacks against their physical integrity. Fear and self-censorship are on the rise as media houses have seen their license suspended or revoked, HRDs have been arrested and detained, lawyers have been disbarred, and human rights NGOs have been targeted. Post-election repression has been denounced by international actors, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
As Uganda gears up for its general elections in 2021, there is a spike in targeted attacks against HRDs including journalists and opposition members. Additionally, electoral violence is on the rise and was witnessed during the recently concluded party primaries for the National Resistance Movement (NRM). 2,000 incidents of electoral violence were reported across various police stations in the country. Ugandan citizens’ rights to freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association are increasingly under pressure.
Considering the updates and trends observed in this report, DefendDefenders makes the following recommendations to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights:
Call on member states to adhere to their commitments to protect, respect and fulfil the fundamental human rights and freedoms guaranteed by the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights;
Call on member states to strictly adhere to their human rights obligations while combating the COVID-19 pandemic, including by ensuring that any measures restricting human rights are temporary, lawful, necessary to protect public health, non-discriminatory, and proportionate;
Call on member states to adopt specific legislative measures to recognise the status of human rights defenders, accord them necessary protection, and provide a conducive working environment as per resolution 376 (LX) 2017 adopted during the 60th ordinary session in Niamey, Niger;
Call on member states to cease the harassment of human rights defenders including those working on accountability, governance, women’s rights, and sexual orientation and gender identity, and recognise that the rights enshrined in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights are universal;
Call on member states to take specific measures to protect women human rights defenders in light of multiple and intersecting risks and threats, including violence and discrimination;
Urge all states in the sub region that are scheduled to hold elections to ensure that the elections take place in a safe and enabling environment that allows for free and fair expression of citizens’ will, and to create and maintain an environment in which human rights defenders and civil society can operate free from intimidation and reprisals;
Call on states to implement Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa adopted by the Commission during its 60th ordinary session, ensuring that they fulfil their obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights;
Encourage member states that have not done so to make and deposit the declaration under article 34(6) of the Protocol of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights accepting the Court’s competence to receive cases from individuals and non-governmental organisations;
Urge states that have withdrawn the declaration under article 34(6) of the Protocol of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights to reconsider their decision;
Urge Tanzania to heed the messages delivered by national, African, and international actors and to respect civil liberties before the country enters a full-fledged human rights crisis, with potentially grave domestic and regional consequences;
Urge the Government of South Sudan to establish and operationalise the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, the Commission on Truth, Reconciliation and Healing, and the Compensation and Reparation Authority; to ensure transparent accountability for crimes committed during the conflict; and
Urge the Government of Sudan to ensure the National Investigative Committee conducts its work, in an open, transparent, and impartial manner with a view of ensuring justice for the 3 June massacre; and
Urge the Federal government of Ethiopia and all other Ethiopian parties to find a peaceful solution to ongoing disagreements and work towards sustainable arrangements in the framework of Ethiopia’s Constitution and with a view to safeguarding the lives, livelihoods, and human rights of all Ethiopian citizens.