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DefendDefenders’ oral statements at HRC45

Oral statements delivered by DefendDefenders at the 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC45, 14 September-7 October 2020)  


Item 10: Enhanced interactive dialogue on the report of the Independent Expert on the Sudan (2 October 2020)

Madam President, 

DefendDefenders thanks the Independent Expert for his work over the last six years. We wel­come draft resolution L.40, which highlights the positive steps undertaken by the Tran­sitional Government to improve human rights in Sudan. As the draft resolution acknow­ledges, it is the “exemplary, non-violent and inspiring popular uprising” of the Sudanese people that led to a fundamental change in the political and human rights situation. 

Ahead of this session, a group of 25 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including many from Sudan, called on the Council to extend both its support to, and scrutiny of, the country. In a letter, they highlighted progress and ongoing challenges and stressed that Sudan’s politi­cal transition remains fragile, with the country facing a multi-faceted crisis with economic, so­cial, hu­man rights, humanitarian, and health dimensions. We extend our condolences to the Suda­nese people for the lives lost to floods and disease. 

Increasing violence against civilians, especially in Darfur, must be addressed urgently. Signi­fi­cant steps must be taken to address this and other systemic human rights is­sues, including lack of justice and accountability for the egre­gious violations com­mitted under the 30-year Al-Bashir dictatorship and by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), whose commander, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti,” sits on the Sovereign Council. 

The opening of an OHCHR country office is a milestone. However, after the Independent Ex­pert’s mandate is discontinued, and as Sudan attempts to strengthen gains of its revolution and prevent setbacks, the Council has a role to play. It is its responsibility to support systemic re­forms, extend technical assistance and capacity-building, and ensure monitoring, reporting, and public debates on Sudan. 

To allow Sudan to benefit from both expert and political support, to continue sending positive si­­gnals to the international community, and to continue building confidence, the government should continue to engage constructively and work toward ambitious resolutions. The country should remain on the Council’s agenda until at least the end of the transition period, in 2022-2023, with regular OHCHR reporting and public debates in an enhanced format. 

Thank you. 


Item 10: Interactive dialogue with the Independent Expert on Somalia (2 October 2020) 

Thank you, Madam President. 

Madam Dyfan: we welcome you and wish you all the best in your new role. Somalia needs the on­going support of the Independent Expert. We stress the importance of your proposed tran­sition plan and encourage a detailed benchmarking effort on the seven priority areas iden­tified, as well as enhanced public advocacy on women’s and girls’ rights, civic space, and jus­tice and ac­coun­tability. 

We agree with the analysis of positive developments and ongoing challenges, as well as emer­ging ones, such as COVID-19 and natural disaster, outlined in your report. We wel­come the high level of cooperation of the Somali authorities with the UN system and their cons­tructive enga­ge­ment regarding Council resolutions. This is the right signal to the international community. 

We would like to highlight a number of issues that require the Council’s attention. First, human rights defenders (HRDs), journalists, and other independent actors face risks and threats, some of them deadly, deri­ving both from the security situation and from deliberate attacks on civic space. We urge authorities to stop using vague and overly broad provisions of the Criminal Code to stifle independent repor­ting. Instead, we stress that the public commit­ment of Presi­dent Moha­med Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmaajo” to reform outdated criminal law provisions and to end the administration’s use of cri­mi­nal law against journalists should be fulfilled. We urge a review of the Media Law Amend­ment Bill. 

Second, regarding the cross-cutting issue of access to justice, we highlight the findings of our De­cem­ber 2019 report, “Navigating Justice.” Lawyers play a vital role in ensuring that citi­zens can claim their rights and access redress, especially as they navigate formal and infor­mal/tra­di­tio­nal legal systems. Here too, an open civic space that guarantees respect for the rights to free opi­nion, expression, peaceful assembly and association is key. Somali authorities must con­duct thorough investigations into all allegations of human rights violations. 

Lastly, we follow up on the open letter our Executive Director sent at the end of 2019: we en­cou­rage Somalia to reflect on its voting re­cord and reconsider choices, including on country-spe­cific resolutions and on thematic issues, starting with amendments to Council resolutions on wo­men’s and girls’ rights. 

Thank you. 


Item 5: Interactive dialogue on the report of the Secretary-General on reprisals (1 October 2020) (statement delivered in French

Madam President, Madam Assistant Secretary-General, 

We thank you for your presentation and the light the Secretary-General’s report sheds on both individual cases and patterns of intimidation and reprisals. In a number of countries, punishing those who cooperate or seek to cooperate with the UN human rights system is a deliberate policy designed to silence human rights defenders. As the report indicates, “repeated incidents can signal pat­terns” of reprisals. Two African countries are found in that list of shame: Burundi and Egypt

We also deplore the fact that South Sudan is mentioned in the report for illegal acts committed by the Na­tional Security Service (NSS) and military intelligence. 

Madam President, 

We wish to draw the Council’s attention to an unresolved case. In Djibouti, Kadar Abdi Ibrahim has been subjected to ongoing reprisals for his participation in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) pre-sessions on his country, in April 2018 in Geneva. Two days after returning home, Mr. Abdi Ibrahim was briefly detained and had his passport confiscated by agents of Dji­bouti’s Infor­mation and Security Service (SDS), who raided his home. 

Two and a half years on, despite having taken action with the Prosecutor, the Ombudsman, and the National Human Rights Commission, his passport re­mains in the hands of the SDS – accor­ding to state interlocutors, it is even held by the Presidency. Mr. Abdi Ibrahim has been un­able to leave the country since. Djibouti’s continued presence in the report highlights one of the Horn of Africa’s human rights and civic space crises. 

We urge authorities of Djibouti and the abovementioned countries to cease all acts of inti­mi­dation and reprisals against human rights defenders and civil society actors who seek to coope­rate with the UN human rights system. 

Thank you. 


Item 6: UPR outcome of Kenya (28 September 2020) (video statement) 

Madam President, 

The Defenders Coalition and DefendDefenders welcome the acceptance by the Government of Kenya of a large number of UPR recommendations. Kenya’s January 2020 review was a mile­stone for human rights advancement. It was also a consultative process with various stake­hol­ders. We salute the fact that the Kenyan Government displayed political will to engage on human rights challenges, including past and ongoing violations. There have been notable ins­tances where the human rights environment has improved since the second review. We warm­ly welcome Kenya’s engagement with civil society, at the national, regional, and inter­na­tio­nal levels. 

We welcome Kenya’s acceptance of recommendations on:

  • Ensuring proper, transparent, and effective investigations in cases where human rights defe­n­ders (HRDs) have been harmed, and specifically to adopt a law protecting HRDs in accor­dan­ce with international standards. We recommend that Kenya implements this recom­men­­da­tion by domesticating the model HRD protection policy and making public pro­noun­ce­ments supporting the work of HRDs;
  • Upholding the rights to freedom of expression and association, including of media orga­ni­sa­tions and HRDs, in accordance with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which Kenya is party to. We recommend that Kenya also considers the role of whistleblowers in promoting respect for human rights. We ask that the Gov­ern­ment enacts the Whistleblowers Protection Bill 2018, reviews the Associations Bill 2018, and en­sures that laws governing the operations of NGOs are in line with the right to free expression. We welcome the acceptance of recommendation 142.157;
  • Creating a safe and enabling environment in which HRDs and civil society can operate free from hindrance and insecurity, including through the full operationalisation of the Public Benefit Organisation Act 2013. We welcome the acceptance of recommendations 142.45, 142.56, 142.162, and 142.164; and
  • Revising and enacting the draft Data Protection Bill, particularly to create a data protection framework in line with international standards on the right to privacy. Whereas we wel­co­me acceptance of this recommendation and note that the Act was enacted, the imple­men­tation of the guidelines is lengthy and there have been cases of privacy rights vio­la­tions since January 2020, which need a recourse.  


We regret that Kenya did not go a step further in its replies to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punish­ment (OP-CAT). It is not too late, as the UPR is an ongoing process. We encourage the Govern­ment to reconsider its position on all “noted” recommendations. 

Thank you. 


Item 4: General Debate (25 September 2020) (French version) 

Madam President, 

Once again, DefendDefenders and AfricanDefenders (the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network) draw the Council’s atten­tion to the ongoing widespread and systemic human rights violations in Cameroon. Since 2016, the Anglopho­ne region’s long-standing grievances over political and economic dis­crimination have been met with a bloody state repression that has resulted in over 3,000 deaths, mass displacement, and numerous violations, including arbitrary de­ten­tions. Armed separatists have also committed despicable abuses. 

President Biya unilaterally announced the first regional elections to take place in December, in a move towards decentralisation. However, many opposition parties belie­ve that a deep reform of the current electoral law is a prerequisite for free, fair and transparent elections. The Council should make accountability for grave human rights violations and abuses a priority of its stra­te­gy, signalling its commitment to justice in Cameroon. It should set benchmarks and stand ready to establish an independent investigation into Cameroon’s human rights situation. 

In Egypt, the 15-year sentence against CIHRS Director Bahey eldin Hassan sets a dangerous pre­cedent, as counter-terrorism provisions might be used against more human rights de­fen­ders (HRDs) and other non-violent government critics, to smear and discredit them. The Council should end its shameful collective silence on Egypt’s egregious rights re­cord, which includes tor­ture, enforced disappearances, and mass arbitrary detention. It should demand the release of arbitrarily detained citizens, including HRDs, activists, jour­nalists and other non-violent dis­sen­ters, including women users of Tiktok detained on spu­rious “morality” charges. 

In Zimbabwe, we are concerned about reports of increasing arbitrary arrests, including of op­po­sition party members, journalists, HRDs, and student leaders, and about the arrest, abduc­tion, torture and sexual assault of women. Regional bodies and mechanisms, as well as this Council, must de­mand an immediate end to these gross human rights violations. 

Thank you for your attention. 


Item 4: Enhanced interactive dialogue with the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (23 September 2020) (video statement) 

Madam President, dear Commissioners, 

DefendDefenders and its local partner, the South Sudan Human Rights Defenders Network (“the Network”), are deeply concerned over the increased pressure faced by independent hu­man rights and peacebuilding actors in the country. 

DefendDefenders’ recent report, “Targeted but Not Deterred,” identified clear patterns of re­pres­sion of South Sudanese human rights defenders (HRDs) and civil society actors, including journalists. The re­port documents how civic space in the country has shrunk, despite con­ti­nu­ous efforts from the Network and the South Sudan Human Rights Commission to facilitate dia­logue between civil society organisations and government officials and provide understanding on the nature of HRD work. Violations, many of which are committed by the National Security Service (NSS), are facilitated by general insecurity and a pervasive cul­ture of intimidation, abuse of power, and impunity. 

In particular:

  • On 16 June 2020, a civil society activist was arrested and detained by NSS without access to a lawyer and without charge during nine days, due to his participation in a coalition cam­paign demanding financial accountability and transparency;
  • On 14 September, a journalist was found guilty of defamation and sentenced to one year of imprisonment for an article in which he raised corruption accusations against the Minis­ter of Finance;
  • After the filing of a complaint before the East African Court accusing South Sudan and two oil companies of environmental pollution, the involved lawyer and several witnesses were arrested, threatened, and had to flee the country. 


We therefore call on the government of South Sudan to: (i) immediately cease the harassment of HRDs, journalists, and other civil society actors; (ii) release activists being detained for enga­ging in legitimate, peaceful activities relating to human rights; (iii) ensure independent and ef­fec­tive investigations into attacks against HRDs. 

Thank you. 


Item 4: Interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi (23 September 2020) (statement delivered in French

Madam President, dear Commissioners, 

Four years after the creation of the Commission of Inquiry (CoI), investigations, monito­ring, re­porting, and public debates on Burundi are still direly needed. Ahead of this session, more than 40 NGOs called on the Council to extend the Commission’s mandate, as it pro­­vides the best opportunity to prompt meaningful human rights progress in the country. 

The letter outlines the grave violations and abuses committed in Burundi since 2015 in a context of near-complete impunity. Despite calls on the new President, Évariste Ndayishimiye, to de­mon­strate his openness to reconciliation by releasing all detained human rights defenders (HRDs), Germain Rukuki, Nestor Nibitanga, and Iwacu reporters Egide Harerimana, Christine Kamikazi, Terence Mpozenzi and Agnès Ndirubusa, remain in detention. 

In Burundi, violations continue. Outside the country, Burundian refugees, including women re­fu­gees, exiled HRDs and women HRDs, particularly those who have been subjected to sexual vio­­lence before fleeing, face ongoing challenges, including pressure to return home in con­di­tions that are not safe, dignified, and in some cases, voluntary. They first need to rebuild their lives in order to prepare their future whether they return home or chose to integrate in their host country. 

The civil society letter also outlines a path forward for Burundi and its people. As the country is in a period of potential transition, there are signs of promise as well as of significant concern. Tangible progress is yet to be registered regarding priority areas for action, including the fight against poverty, the fight against impunity, reform of the judicial system, the re-opening of the democratic and civic space, and cooperation with UN and African human rights mechanisms. 

We urge the Burundian authorities to re­initiate dialogue with the international community and to make measurable progress on key human rights indicators. 

Thank you for your attention. 


Item 2: General Debate (15 September 2020) 

Madam President, Madam High Commissioner, 

We thank you for your update. We will raise a number of country situations during dedicated in­ter­­ac­tive dialogues and ge­ne­ral debates. 

We thank your Office for continuing to provide vital analysis and recommendations on pro­mo­ting and protecting human rights and civic space while combatting the Covid-19 pandemic. “We are all in this together” and we need a human rights-based approach to the crisis and its impact, including on the most vulnerable. 

Unfortunately, in the East and Horn of Africa, a number of governments are targeting those debating issues related to the pandemic, its impact, or broader state-citizen relationships. The need to combat disinformation and misinformation does not allow authorities to stifle indepen­dent and critical voices and unduly restrict freedom of opinion and expression. 

As elections approach in several countries, governments must know that they are being wat­ched. Internet shutdowns and other human rights-incompatible measures must be put to an end. 

We urge Ethiopian authorities to live up to the promises of the reform process launched in 2018 and allow journalists and civil society actors to conduct their activities free from hindrance. The fact that the election held in Tigray on 9 September 2020 was deemed un­cons­titutional should not have led to the blocking of journalists seeking to report on it. 

In Tanzania, the deliberate stifling of civil society voices continues ahead of the 28 October presidential election. We urge authorities to unfreeze the bank accounts of the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC), release arbitrarily detained human rights defenders, and cea­se interfering with independent actors’ legitimate activities. We urge member and ob­se­rver states of this Council to pay close attention to deve­lop­ments in the country and stand ready to respond in a gradual manner. 

Lastly, concerns are also mounting in Uganda, as violence has been observed in relation to party primaries to choose candidates for district and parliamentary seats. We urge all political actors in the country to re-commit to a peaceful and inclusive political process at all levels. 

Thank you for your attention. 



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.