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DefendDefenders’ and AfricanDefenders’ Statements at ACHPR73

AfricanDefenders and DefendDefenders take this opportunity to Celebrate the 35 years of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and have reflected on  its impact on the realisation of fundamental rights and freedom Africa.  We acknowledge the notable strides to advance and protect human and peoples’ rights. Its special mechanisms have enabled it to respond to human rights violations on the continent.

The Commission has been successful in discharging its mandate, despite the challenge in asserting its autonomy and independence. Its work is frustrated by the continuous interference from the political organs of the African Union under the guise of protecting state sovereignty and integrity. As a result, states are reluctant to comply and implement its resolutions and recommendations. This limits its effectiveness.

However, with regards to democracy, rule of law and human rights in the sub region, over the past six months, there have been increased reports of undue restrictions to civic space and human rights violations. Conflict and authoritarianism remain key drivers of shrinking civic space. In Ethiopia, the ceasefire failed to hold, as conflict renewed in the Tigray region in August, further undermining the country’s stability. The recent announcement of peace talks is yet to be followed, by concrete steps based on the recognition that there will not be a military solution to the conflict. Djibouti and Eritrea remained closed, repressive states. Peaceful protests in the region have been on the rise and have been met with excessive and, in some cases, lethal force in Sudan, South SudanSomalilandKenya, and Uganda. The rights of defenders working on sexual orientation gender identity and expression have also come under repeated attack in KenyaTanzania, and Uganda. 

While we witnessed peaceful transitions of power in Kenya and Somalia, following elections, there was an increasing trend of disinformation and misinformation campaigns in Kenya, which aimed at exacerbating existing political and inter-communal tensions in the country. However, Somalia continues to face humanitarian challenges and insecurity. More than seven million people have been affected by the severe humanitarian crisis brought on by the drought, which includes acute malnutrition, child mortality, food shortages, and mass displacement. Terrorist group Al-Shabab continues to conduct indiscriminate and targeted attacks on civilians.  Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists with members of the press working in a hostile environment that is intolerant of critical voices.

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DefendDefenders and AfricanDefenders join the rest of the African community to celebrate the 35 years of growth and milestone achievements of the African Commission. For this reason, we have supported 27 human rights defenders from across the continent to join this celebration and engage with the Commission.

This celebration takes place as, in contrast, we continue to record a spike in violence, repression against human rights defenders, and armed conflicts that obstruct the achievement of justice and accountability.Despite impressive efforts to strengthen the Commission’s framework for the past 35 years, it is disturbing to see the lack of political will by states to implement the Commission’s recommendations and the total disregard of their obligations under the African Charter. We remember vividly in a few examples; Egypt ignored a call by this august house to suspend the execution of 26 detainees and Eritrea ignored the ruling of the Commission calling for the release and compensation of the journalists arrested in September 2001 that remain detained incommunicado.

Just a day before the opening of this session, in Chad, protests were met with bloody repression. The government reported at least “fifty deaths and more than 300 injured.” The Commission should call for a prompt, impartial, and effective investigation into the loss of life. Additionally, there have been ignored conflicts in Cameroon, Nigeria and Central Africa Republic that the Commission should monitor and take action on.

By end of 2021, the UNHCR reported that the East and Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region hosted 4.9 million refugees and asylum seekers, as well as 12 million internally displaced people. This demonstrates the complexity of the region due to political instability, drought, flooding, food shortages, insecurity, and localized violence and conflicts.Regrettably, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia remain the biggest epicentres of conflicts on the continent. We call on the Commission to condemn ongoing violations and abuses, governments’ repression and obstruction to justice and the transitional justice process in Sudan and South Sudan.

While reflecting on climate changes and the protection of the environment, we deplore some direct threats by African governments against HRDs working on issues of climate justice. In this regard we hope the COP 27 that will take place on our continent, specifically in Egypt, will build on successes and pave the way for future ambition to effectively tackle the global challenge on climate change. However, we would like to emphasize that there is no climate justice without an open civic space.We therefore, urge the Egyptian authorities to immediately lift restrictions imposed on numerous NGOs, release unjustly detained human rights defenders and ensure that activists attending COP27 are not obstructed by prohibitive administrative processes or other undue restrictions of their rights.

The resurgence of Coup d’états in Africa has contributed to weakening the democratic order and the rule of law by escalating conflicts, and worsening chronic vulnerabilities. Countries like Chad, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Sudan are still under the authority of unelected military juntas, while Tunisia is on its way back to dictatorship, threatening to reverse gains of the Revolution. Others, like Swaziland [Eswatini] and Zimbabwe continue to repress and suppress human rights defenders, and curtail fundamental freedoms with impunity.On a positive note, this year has seen successful elections and changes of government in Angola, Somalia and Kenya. Despite pre-election tensions characterized by sporadic violence in some, the elections in these countries have been largely peaceful, with results accepted by all parties.

We call on Member States to adhere to their commitments to protect, promote, respect, and fulfil the fundamental human rights and freedoms guaranteed by the African Charter and as preached in the African Union Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want.

I thank you for your attention.

Hassan Shire,

Executive Director DefendDefenders and Chairperson, AfricanDefenders.

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AfricanDefenders and DefendDefenders welcome the report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of women and congratulate the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights on its 35th anniversary. The African Commission must be commended for its contribution towards the domestic legislation of the provisions of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights as well as its active participation in the adoption of the Maputo Protocol.

However, Honourable Chairperson, despite the actions and guidance of this Commission, women and girls on the continent remain extremely vulnerable to violence. Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) have reported a rise in gender-based violence (GBV) on the continent mainly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread conflict. Efforts 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.

Honourable Chairperson, To date, 3 female members of the Abahlali baseMjondolo, a grassroots movement advocating for the rights of informal settlement dwellers, have been killed in South Africa. Nokuthula Mabaso, a leader of the eKhenana Commune of Abahlali baseMjondolo, was shot and killed outside of her home in front of her children. In August 2021, Babita Deokaran, a whistleblower in the Gauteng Department of Health, was shot multiple times outside her home in Winchester Hills, Johannesburg as she returned from dropping her children at school.

This killing is believed to be a targeted hit as she was a key witness in the Special Investigating Unit’s probe into fraudulent COVID-19 PPE contracts, a matter that sought to expose the corruption of high officials.

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. Isabel Makitoko, was verbally and physically attacked in Angola for covering a rally by the opposition party ahead of the August 2022 general elections. In January 2022, following months of harassment and unlawful detainment, Samira Sabou was charged with defamation and diffusing information to disrupt public order for sharing a report on drugs trafficking in Niger.

The general insecurity in states experiencing conflict such as Ethiopia, Cameroon, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, mostly affects women and girls as sexual violence is often used as a weapon of war.

Additionally, the instability caused by the unconstitutional changes in government in countries like Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, Chad, Mali, and Sudan, exposes women and girls to aggravated risks to their physical and mental wellbeing. WHRDs working in these contexts are unable to accurately monitor and report these violations and deliver assistance due to the volatility in these regions.

Honourable Chairperson, Agenda 2063 recognises ICT as a vital component for the development of the continent, and that access to the internet should be considered a right. Despite the low percentage of women having the ability to regularly access the internet, a significant number of those that do, continuously suffer online GBV. The killing of prominent Libyan political activist and lawyer, Hanan al-Barassi, for posting a video on Facebook in which she made allegations of corruption against the Libyan Arab Armed Forces, is a sad reminder of the potential of online threats and harassment culminating into physical violations. Most, if not all human rights instruments do not specifically address the issue of cyber violence which is increasingly becoming a problem. The lives of many women and girls, especially WHRDs, remains at risk if the issue of cyber violence is not regulated.

Honourable Chairperson,  We call on state parties to respect their obligation under the African Charter and fight impunity

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Honourable Chairperson,

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.

As this Commission marks 35 years in existence, we call upon States, businesses, and the Commission to take bold steps to ensure that environmental HRDs operate in an environment which is safe and enabling, and free from fear and reprisals.

Environmental human rights defenders (HRDs) often serve as the first defence against violations that stem from climate change, endangered ecosystems, and threats against biodiversity and traditional livelihoods in Africa.

Despite the important role they play, the threats against them continue to intensify with some resulting into killings. In 2021, Front Line Defenders documented the murder of 211 land and environmental HRDs globally. This number accounts for 59% of the HRDs killed, making environmental HRDs and HRDs working on business and human rights one of the most dangerous categories to be in.

As of August 2022, we recorded the murder of three environmental HRDs in South Africa. They were from the largest grassroots

movement, Abahlali BaseMjondolo. Since the group was established, 24 HRDs were killed.
There has been no accountability or redress in previous notable cases of murder, such as the killing of Mama Fikile Ntshangase in South Africa or Joanna Stansbury in Kenya.

In Tanzania, the Maasai Community living in Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Loliondo were met with brutal repression and arbitrary arrests after protesting against what Amnesty International described as “unlawful forced evictions” because of the lack of dialogue with the Maasai Communities affected.

Honourable Chairperson,

The use of Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) suits continue to be a tool of repression deployed by Multi-National Corporations to silence environmental HRDs. We welcome the ground-breaking judgment by the Western Cape High Court in February 2021, which acknowledged the trend of weaponizing SLAPP suits to silence activists.

We urge the South African Government and other states to build upon this positive step by adopting legislations that protects environmental HRDs from the weaponisation of the judiciary to silence them and hinder their important work.

Honourable Chairperson,

DefendDefenders and AfricanDefenders stand ready to work with the Working Group to ensure that this goal is realised.

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Honorable Chairperson, Ladies and gentlemen,

It is heart-breaking that as we celebrate 35 years of the African Commission and 24 Years of the UN Declaration on human rights defenders, we have documented just for the past 6 months 216 cases of violations against HRDs with impunity.

Many human rights defenders have been forced to exile, jailed and some have paid the ultimate price, like a land protection human rights defender Ayanda Ngila, a member of the grassroots movement Abahlali baseMjondolo in south Africa who was shot dead near Durban, South Africa, on 8 March 2022.

We witness the persistence of violations of basic freedoms, attacks on civic space, and reprisals against HRDs and this in contradiction with the credo of the Africa we Want.

This means that instead of addressing the warnings and the grievances and concerns HRDs express, they are met with judicial oppression. Governments have always used the judiciary as a tool of repression and arm to silence HRDs.

Hon. Chairperson,

In March 2022, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a landmark resolution on HRDs, focusing on HRDs operating on conflict and post-conflict situations. We welcome that 11 out of 13 African members of the Council voted “Yes” on the resolution. Only two (Eritrea and Sudan) abstained.

We encourage all states to walk the talk and protect HRDs in all circumstances.

In this regard, we note with high regard the statement delivered by the delegation of The Gambia during the adoption process.1 I Quote The Gambian representative: “Given the fact that we have just come out of 22 years of tyranny, and knowing exactly what that does, it is important that we do register our support for all human rights defenders across the world.”

We would like to re-echo your report on your visit with us to Cabo Verde and would like to appreciate the great collaboration and outstanding support expressed to us by the government of Cabo Verde in Hosting the Ubuntu Hub City Initiative.

I thank you, Honorable Chairperson.

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Human Rights Defender of the month: Apollo Mukasa

Apollo Mukasa’s journey into activism is deeply rooted in his commitment to advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs). As the Executive Director of Uganda National Action on Physical Disability (UNAPD), Apollo is a driving force behind initiatives aimed at combating discrimination among PWDs. UNAPD was established in 1998 as a platform for voicing concerns of persons with physical disabilities to realise a barrier free environment where they can enjoy their rights to the fullest.