DefendDefenders’ and AfricanDefenders’ Statements at ACHPR71

As the continent grapples with a post covid 19 period, democracy, rule of law and realisation of human rights continue to be tested in the East and Horn of Africa. The region continues to witness a downward trend with increased reports of violations of the rights to freedoms of opinion and expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Despite risks and threats, human rights defenders continue their work to promote and protect human rights.

Burundi’s civic and democratic space remains severely restricted. While President Evariste Ndayishimiye made a few attempts to release pressure over civil society and Burundian citizens in general, including by releasing prisoners in January 2022, some HRDs arrested in the aftermath of the 2015 political crisis remain in jail. The government continues to exert its control and curtail the rights to freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. Reports of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest, torture, and enforced disappearances of opposition members and government persist. Impunity remains widespread, including for violations and abuses related to the 2015 political crisis.

Djibouti and Eritrea remain the most repressive governments in the sub-region. 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 HRDs to operate in the country.

The Ethiopian conflict has wreaked havoc on millions of people in Tigray and the neighbouring regions of Afar and Amhara, as well as in Benishangul Gumuz and Oromia, which continue to experience intercommunal conflict and localised violence. Gross and systematic violations and abuses, including attacks against civilians, sexual violence, arbitrary arrests, and ethnic cleansing, continue to occur. Ethiopian citizens’ enjoyment of their freedom of expression has further declined during the reporting period. Ethiopian authorities declared a nationwide state of emergency on 4 November, giving the government broad powers that increase the risk of arbitrary arrest and detention of at-risk communities. Several journalists have been harassed, intimidated, or arrested. The government has made a few positive steps recently, including declaring a ceasefire to allow relief to reach afflicted citizens and releasing several political opposition members from prison. The state of emergency was lifted in early 2022. Recently, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has pointed to talks with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), increasing prospects for peace.

Kenya is set to hold general elections in August 2022. The pre-election period is characterised by grave violations, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture often committed by security forces. Gender-based violence, primarily against women and girls, continues, and the LGBTQI community continues to be targeted. To date, Kenyan authorities have used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to restrict freedom of peaceful assembly. In the reporting period, the Magistrate Court in Mombasa found six activists guilty of illegally gathering and failing to maintain physical distances in a public place.

Rwanda continues to stifle its civic space and target those it perceives as critics. Arbitrary arrests, torture, threats, and unfair trials remain commonplace for political opponents, critics, journalists, and bloggers. Several critics continued to be targeted in this reporting period, including Paul Rusesabagina. The civic space environment does not allow for criticism, and as a result, citizens, journalists, media, and civil society self-censor.

In Somalia, the presidential election originally scheduled to take place in late 2020 is postponed until an agreement is reached. The lower house elections, initially scheduled for November to December 2021, have been postponed, and the deadline continues to be further extended. During the reporting period, the right to freedom of opinion and expression remained limited, with both state and non-state actors targeting journalists. Several journalists were harassed, abused, and arbitrarily arrested. In Somaliland, authorities increased the censorship of journalists and the media.

In South Sudan, concerns have been raised over the ongoing conflict and the possibility of resumption of the armed conflict at national level. Gross human rights violations and abuses of international humanitarian law continue, including rape, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), and increased attacks on humanitarian workers and convoys. An increase in violence in Upper Nile State and other parts of the country threatens the 2018 peace agreement (R-ARCSS). On 22 March 2022, the main opposition force, Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army in Opposition (SPLM/A-IO), suspended its participation in the security mechanisms tasked with overseeing the imple­men­tation of the R-ARCSS. SPLM/ A-IO claimed the suspension was based on the security mechanism’s ineffectiveness in implementing the peace agreement. On 31 March 2022, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that extended the mandate of its Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CHRSS). Civic space is increasingly restricted as the government continues to crack down on journalists and government critics.

Sudan’s humanitarian, security, and economic situation has been deteriorating since the coup on 25 October 2021. Security forces continue to violently suppress protests and target protestors. The country has been immersed in a political and social crisis since the beginning of January, following the resignation of Abdallah Hamdok as prime minister of the transitional period. The country remains without a functioning government. Several protestors are held without charges and are refused access to their lawyers and families. Moreover, the value of Sudan’s currency is depreciating. Consequently, the prices of bread, fuel, electricity, health care and public transport have all skyrocketed. UN Special Representative Volker Perthes warned that while the protests began as an “anti-coup protest,” they developed an additional socio-economic character. Additionally, intercommunal violence in Darfur has intensified.

Since the swearing in of President Samia Suluhu Hassan, in March 2021, Tanzania has taken positive measures to improve its civic space. The government issued new publishing licenses to four newspapers banned during the late President John Magufuli’s rule. Additionally, it announced its intention to amend the restrictive Media Services Act (2016). President Samia Suluhu met with Tundu Lissu, the exiled opposition figure residing in Belgium. Authorities also freed opposition leader Freeman Mbowe and his co-accused after the Director of Public Prosecutions submitted a motion to dismiss the terrorist accusations against them. Despite the positive measures taken, the situation remains tense for media freedom. In the first two months of 2022, eight journalists were arrested.

The human rights situation in Uganda deteriorated in the reporting period. Restrictions on critics and opposition leaders have increased. Security forces arbitrarily detained, abducted, and tortured critics and political opponents. In December 2021, author Kakwenza Rukia was kidnapped and tortured whilst held incommunicado. Further, the rights to freedoms of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly, and association are increasingly under pressure. The authorities targeted and arrested several journalists and raided two media houses. The main opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, was under house arrest ahead of his scheduled campaign for the by-elections in December. To date, close to 30 of the 54 NGOs suspended arbitrarily by the NGO Bureau continue to be under indefinite suspension. Chapter Four Uganda challenged the arbitrary actions of the NGO Bureau; courts are yet to rule on the matter. HRDs and journalists face arrest, harassment, intimidation, and assault in reprisal for their work.

Recommendations

Considering the updates and trends observed, DefendDefenders makes the following recommendations for action by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights:

  • Urge all member States to ensure the protection of human rights defenders, notably by observing the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights;
  • Call on all member States to adopt specific legislative measures to recognise and protect the status of HRDs, and provide a working environment conducive for civil society, as per Res. 376 (LX) 2017 adopted by the Commission during its 60th Ordinary Session Niamey, Niger;
  • Urge member States to cease the harassment and arbitrary detention of HRDs, including those working on LGBT rights;
  • Call on States to abide by the Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly adopted by the Commission during its 60th ordinary session;
  • Call on all member States who have not done so to deposit the declaration under article 34 (6) of the protocol of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights to allow individuals and NGOs to directly submit their cases to the Court;
  • Call on the Federal Government of Ethiopia through independent and impartial bodies to investigate allegations of human rights violations thoroughly and effectively and to hold those responsible accountable, and urge the government to cooperate with African and international mechanisms, including the African Commission-established Commission of Inquiry on Tigray and the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia established by the UN Human Rights Council;
  • Adopt a resolution that strongly condemns the military coup in Sudan and calls for restoration of the civilian-led Transitional Government and urges respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms including the right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly; and
  • Adopt a resolution urging, among other things, the government of South Sudan to immediately establish and operationalise the Hybrid Court for South Sudan and other transitional justice institutions as per Chapter V of the Revitalised Peace Agreement (R-ARCSS), and to ensure accountability for crimes committed since 2013, and to put an immediate end to harassment, intimidation, and repression, including by the National Security Service, of independent human rights actors and those reporting on human rights in the country.

 

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Honourable Chairperson,

Honourable Commissioners,

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen,

African Defenders and DefendDefenders welcome this panel discussion and seek to reiterate the importance of a regional instrument to recognise and guarantee the rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs) in Africa. Very few states in Africa explicitly provide for constitutional protection on grounds of disability, and many are yet to adopt legislation on disability. As a result, the plight, and the rights of PWDs are negated and neglected.

The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Africa Protocol builds on the rights enshrined in the UN Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It addresses the specific challenges PWDs face in Africa, including traditional beliefs, harmful practices, and customs, as well as the roles of caregivers and the community.

In 2021, DefendDefenders concluded a research mission in Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan exploring the challenges faced by human rights defenders (HRDs) with disabilities living in conflict situations. Our research findings show that all three countries lack national legislation on disability, and that PWDs face insurmountable challenges ranging from attitudinal, environmental, and institutional which are heightened during conflict or crises. The identified challenges are cross cutting and a reflection of the situation or PWDs across the continent.

Our findings also reveal the dilemma of women and girls with disabilities who face intersectional discrimination, marginalisation, and stigma due to their disability and gender. They are further at an increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence, including early and forced marriages. Defenders consulted for the research reported that women and girls face additional social, cultural, economic, and political challenges compared to their male counterparts.

Additionally, many of the barriers PWDs face are due to discriminatory laws, policies, and social practices. Persons with disabilities struggle for visibility, recognition, and protection. These challenges must be addressed at various levels through policy development and programming, national and regional collaboration on disability and upholding of disability rights under the African regional system.

We urge all African states to sign and ratify the disability protocol which offers significant potential to promote and protect the human rights of persons with disabilities. At national level, states must adopt national laws recognising and protecting HRDs including defenders with disabilities; ensure improved accessibility to social services, and reasonable accommodation; facilitate and allow increased political participation of PWDs in governance of the respective countries including more representation in parliament.

I thank you.

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AfricanDefenders and DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project) welcome the activity report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and access to information.

Realisation of the right to freedom on opinion and expression continues to be an uphill struggle in a sub-region riddled with conflict and zero tolerance to dissent. According to Reporters’ Without Borders’ 2021 Press Freedom Index, countries in the East and Horn of Africa perform poorly in relation to press freedom, with Ethiopia ranking highest at the 101st position out of 180 countries, and Eritrea lowest at the 180th position.

However, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Ethiopia ranked among the worst jailers of journalists in 2021 in Sub Saharan Africa after Eritrea. During the state of emergency declared on 2 November 2021, 14 journalists were arrested. In Burundi, civil society organisations PARCEM and OLUCOME were prohibited from holding a press conference, while Djibouti remains closed with severe restrictions on the right to free expression.

In Rwanda, the authorities crackdown on social media activists especially those who use YouTube to express dissent. Dieudonne Niyosenga was sentenced to seven years imprisonment. In Somalia, journalists remain between a rock and a hard place, targeted by both state and non-state actors. In South Sudan, the National Security Services are the biggest perpetrators of violations against free expression. Eight journalists were arrested in February at the Parliament’s premises while covering a press conference. In Sudan journalists are under extreme pressure since the anti-coup protest in October 2021 with several journalists subjected to surveillance, harassment, and abuse. In Uganda authorities use torture, inhuman, and cruel treatment as a weapon to silence dissent. Human Rights Network for Journalists reported 17 cases of abuse and violations against covering by-elections in Kayunga district.

Positively, Tanzania’s President Suluhu committed to amending the Media Services Act (2016) which has been used to target media practitioners. Four newspapers previously banned were issued with operating licenses. However, civic space can be reclaimed further as journalists continue to be arrested.

We urge African states to respect the right to freedom of opinion and expression, which is the cornerstone of any democratic state. Additionally, states should implement the guidelines set out in the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa.

I thank you.

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Honourable Chairperson,

Honourable Commissioners,

State Delegates represented,

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen,

As a representative of AfricanDefenders and DefendDefenders, I would like to confirm that our organisation was able to work in line with the Addis Ababa Roadmap, bringing both the ACHPR Special Mechanisms and the UN Special Procedures together. We find it an important mechanism for cross-pollinating expertise, advocacy engagement and solidarity. 

As we mark the 10-year anniversary of the Roadmap, we would like to suggest a clearer coordination mechanism of the Roadmap to continuously take stock of progress on its implementation. This could take the form of an annual online convening between African and UN special procedures, state representatives, national human rights institutions and civil society to reflect on past achievements and challenges and improve ways of further collaboration. 

Additionally, in the context of shrinking civic space on the African continent, the Addis Ababa Roadmap ought to contribute to early warning/early response by providing inputs to the UN or AU Peace and Security Council on relevant issues by offering their views and perspectives. 

Finally, in line with the Memorandum of Understanding between OHCHR and the ACHPR, we find it a tremendous opportunity for further cooperation and collaboration between the ACHPR Special Mechanisms and the UN Special Procedures. 

I thank you.

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Honorable Chairpersons,
Distinguished Commissioners,
State Delegates represented,

Ladies and gentlemen!

We welcome the report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of women and congratulate Commissioner Janet Ramatoulie Sallah-Njieas on her recent appointment as the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa. We reiterate that in countries that are currently facing conflict on the continent, women face serious challenges. Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) working in this context face unique challenges amidst their efforts to protect the rights of women. We would like to also bring to light the risks WHRDs who exercise their right to protest face.

Honourable Chairperson,
Women and girls remain extremely vulnerable to the impact of ongoing conflicts in, among other countries, Ethiopia, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sexual violence, including rape, sexual slavery, and female genital mutilation (FGM), is being used as a weapon of war, and can constitute crimes against humanity and the crime of torture.

General insecurity, paired with restrictions on access to information and freedom of movement, makes it difficult for the WHRDs working in these regions to not only monitor and document violations, but also provide emergency assistance to minimise the long-term physical and psychological effects on the victims and survivors. Efforts by WHRDs to seek justice and reparations for the victims are often
fruitless as many of the perpetrators enjoy impunity, which contributes to the repetition of these crimes.

The human rights situation in Sudan also continues to deteriorate following the military coup of 25 October 2021. We have documented death, injury, and arbitrary arrests as a result of the excessive use of violence by the Sudanese army and state security officers against peaceful protesters and those demanding civilian rule or a return to the transitional process. WHRDs involved in peaceful protests have also been subjected to sexual assault during arrest or while being held. Despite efforts by the Commission to address these violations, specifically in accordance with ACHPR Res. 510 (LXIX)2021, the situation is not improving. In January and February 2022, four WHRDs were arrested on fabricated grounds. The conditions in the detention centers expose them to further risks of sexual assault and torture.

Elsewhere, restrictions on freedom of expression result in increased violations against female journalists, especially in the form of harassment, smear campaigns, censorship, physical assault, and arbitrary arrests. We have documented nine violations against female journalists in Niger, Tunisia, Eswatini, Egypt, and Uganda since January 2022. In some of these cases, the journalists are targeted for documenting peaceful protests and hence viewed as allies of protest movements.

Honourable Chairperson,
These threats against WHRDs not only affect the WHRDs in their individual capacity but also often extend to their families and communities they live and work in. Since November 2021, Sahrawi WHRD Sultana Khaya and her family were attacked in their home by Moroccan security forces twice. The WHRD, her sister, and her elderly mother were sexually and physically assaulted in the attacks.

Honourable Chairperson,
It is imperative that state parties adopt legislative, policy, and administrative measures to ensure the protection of women and girls on the continent and eradicate all forms of violence against them. We call on this Commission to:
• Take necessary measures to monitor the effective implementation of the Maputo Protocol and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women on national level;
• Urge State Parties to implement Res. 492 (LXIX)2021 on Violence against Women duringArmed Conflicts in Africa; and
• Urge State Parties to implement Res. 474 (EXT.OS/ XXXI) 2021 on prohibition of excessive use of force by law enforcement officers.

I thank you

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Hon. Chairperson,

Hon. Commissioners

Member States represented to this Ordinary Session

Ladies and Gentlemen

As human rights defenders we strive for the protection of rights and fundamental freedom. We speak truth to power to illustrate the failures of some governments or state authorities to fulfil their obligation in protecting the human and people’s rights.

However, in most cases, their denunciations and for accountability or call to end impunity are seen and met with confrontation, repression, physical attacks, and sometime reprisal for engaging with the African Commission special mechanisms. The various resolutions passed by this August house is sufficient evidence of the scope of attack against HRDs.

The current trend across the African continent is the manipulation of the judicial system as weapon of repression to suppress and silence HRDs.

The misuse of the legal system open doors to anarchism to assert their authority over the democratic process, limit civil society participation and undermining the rule of law in a democracy, as consequence, we note breakdown of democracy and rule of law

The judicial persecution of HRDs have as consequence an increased exposure to physical attack leading often to forms of repression such as threats, intimidation, surveillance, and physical violence.

Allegations often aim to stigmatise HRDs in the public imagination as ‘troublemakers’, ‘criminals’, or ‘terrorists’, and such labels create the perception that HRDs “hinder the development of society and deserve persecution” and to be dealt with as criminals. This has led to acts of aggression and even assassination of HRDs.

Furthermore, the strategy of criminalisation aims to tarnish the reputation of the HRD and their organisation, thereby seeking to negate any support they may receive.

In doing so, those actors are seeking to undermine the legitimacy and credibility of NGOs or jeopardise access to important political spaces; as well as weakening the human rights movement, trigger psychological distress and family breakdown for the family and cripple the financial and administrative operations of NGOs through malicious allegations.

Such practices have led HRDs to flee their country, some time render them in a state of vulnerability.

Once in exile, many HRDs become stranded in a cycle of poverty that causes HRDs to end their activism, as they struggle to survive without sustainable livelihoods or financial support for their human rights work. Threats persist from their home governments and many face pervasive security risks.

Exile can be a traumatising experience for many HRDs, and if authoritative governments continue to tighten their grip on fundamental freedoms, the flow of activists fleeing their home countries will only increase.

Through our protection work, we recognise the unique challenges facing HRDs in exile and their need for additional support, coordination, and advocacy to address this gap. Overtime we have observed a mass exodus of from various countries in Africa.

In the quest to address this situation DefendDefenders and Africandefenders have therefore established in 7 cities in Africa the Ubuntu Hub City Initiatives. established.

A holistic African based relocation and emergency support programme.The main objective of the Ubuntu Hub Cities initiative is to ensure the safety, physical and mental well-being of HRDs during their relocation period while allowing them to continue their work. They are Safe but not silent.

Through local partnerships, relocation also provides an opportunity for HRDs at risk to learn and share their experiences, so that they can have a positive impact on the host community and return home with greater capacity to protect and promote human rights.

I Thank you for you attention.

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Honourable Chairperson,
Honourable Commissioners,
State Delegates represented,
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen,

On behalf of DefendDefenders and AfricanDefenders, we welcome the report of the Chairperson of the Working Group on Extractive Industries, Environment and Human Rights Violations in Africa. Recent data shows that 59% of human rights defenders killed in 2021 across the world worked on land, environmental and indigenous rights.

While environmental human rights defenders act as a first line of defence against the destruction of biodiversity, endangered ecosystems, and traditional livelihoods, in Africa, attacks against environmental defenders are rife and occur often with complete impunity.
We condemn the many challenges faced by African environmental defenders, including vilification, harassment, threats, police brutality,
unfair trials, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and even worse – some pay the ultimate price for their activism.

Among recent cases, on 12 January 2022, six armed men entered violently in the home of Congolese environmental lawyer, Timothée
Mbuya, in Lubumbashi. He is also facing a defamation lawsuit after publishing a report alleging encroachment of a protected area by one of the DRC’s largest agribusiness players.

On 2 November 2021, twenty-eight residents from Marange area in Zimbabwe and their traditional leader, Headman Robert Chiadzwa, were arrested and charged with inciting public violence, for holding a peaceful protest to denounce Chinese diamond mining company Anjin’s failure to consult the community on human rights abuses linked to the business
activities.

On 17 October 2021, Algerian environmental activist Mohad Gasmi was sentenced to five years in prison for ‘praising terrorism’ on the basis of social media posts critical of the government, one of many examples of arbitrary terrorism prosecutions being used by governments to criminalise the work of human rights defenders across the continent.

Most cases of judicial harassment related to environmental protection documented by
the CIVICUS Monitor between 2018 and 2021 have taken place in countries where civic space is rated as obstructed or repressed.

Honorable Chairperson,
These attacks are yet again a testimony of the plight of African environmental human rights defenders who are faced with a wide array of risks as they fight for justice and accountability for the communities affected by mining, logging, and other extractive industries.

We call on this Commission to take bold actions to ensure the effective implementation of the recommendations laid out in the Working Group’s recent Background Study on the Operations of the Extractive Industries Sector in Africa and its Impacts on the Realisation of Human and Peoples’ Rights under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Specifically, we urge this Commission to continue to use the various mechanisms, including communications processes, review of State reports, missions, resolutions and the other mechanisms at its disposal to promote human rights in the extractive industries and address violations that occur.

Recalling the State Reporting Guidelines on the Contents of the Rights and Obligations under Articles 21 and 24 of the African Charter, we also urge this Commission to call on state parties to set up effective and systemic mechanisms to monitor, document, report, and address attacks on environmental defenders, ensuring accountability and non-repetition.

I thank you, Honorable Chairperson

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Human Rights Defender of the month: Alex Njenga John

Alex Njenga has always believed in egalitarianism both as a principle and as a tool for justice. As a result, he has always been suspicious of, and at times hostile to social prejudices that treat some people as “more equal than others,” – to use a line from George Orwell’s famed political fable, Animal Farm.

Some of the experiences that have shaped his social and political outlook have been personal. As an adolescent in Kenya’s Uasin Gishu County, Alex was stigmatised and denied healthcare after he identified himself as belonging to Kenya’s sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) community.

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