Oral statements delivered by DefendDefenders at the 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC45, 14 September-7 October 2020)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Item 6: UPR outcome of Kenya (28 September 2020) (video statement)
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.
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.
- 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.
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.