Opening Remarks on the 48th Ordinary Session of the African Commission

On the occasion of the 48th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, Banjul, The Gambia

Presented by:

Hassan Shire Sheikh
Chairperson
The East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Network
(EHAHRDP/Net)

Mme Chairperson,
EHAHRD-Net welcomes the opportunity offered by the 48th session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) to once again highlight some of the current human rights issues in the East and Horn of Africa region. The human rights situation in the sub region has over the last six months continued to be intricately linked to the electoral period in the countries it covers.

Attacks on civil and political rights in Rwanda, at times violent in nature, were rife in the electoral period. The main targets of these attacks were members of the political opposition, former supporters/ members of the ruling party and human rights defenders – most particularly journalists. Attacks on human rights defenders in the last six months have included new criminal charges against private media journalists, the assassination of the acting editor of the popular Umuvugizi newspaper, Mr Jean-Leonard Rugambage, an assassination which has not been sufficiently and independently investigated, and a smear campaign against one of the leading human rights organisations, LDGL. These developments have gone hand in hand with targeted acts of intimidation and harassment of
opposition party members – including criminal charges, repeated police interrogations, restrictions on freedom of movement and association.

The human rights situation in Somalia has shown no improvements since last reporting. Somali civilians continue to bear the brunt of the armed conflict. Indiscriminate and targeted attacks persist. The majority of abuses reported have been attributed to non-state armed groups, including al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam, yet there are regular reports that TFG security forces and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) militarily respond to attacks without taking all feasible precautions to avoid loss of life and injury to civilians. Impunity prevails. Press freedom in Somalia is severally restricted in part due to the general security situation but also due to targeted attacks on the media most notably at the hands of the insurgents. In the last few months several radio stations in Mogadishu have been ransacked and/or taken-over by the insurgent groups, including the popular Radio Shabelle. South and Central Somalia remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist.

Concerning developments in Uganda, where elections are scheduled for February 2011, must also be highlighted. Restrictions on freedom of expression and association in Uganda have increased. The authorities have made use of a range of formal and informal means to curtail freedom of expression including criminal charges, intimidation and threats and in some instances physical violence. Legislative measures are also being used to restrict the legitimate work of human rights defenders and political opponents these include: a draft media bill, the draft Anti-Homosexuality Bill and finally the draft Public Order Management Bill. Provisions in these three drafts are in clear contravention of Uganda’s commitments under the African Charter. Concerning developments following the July 2010 bombings in Kampala must also be highlighted. In September Kenyan human rights lawyer, Mbugua Mureithi, and human rights activist, Al-Amin Kimathi who had come to attend the 2nd hearing in the case of the July 11th bombings were arbitrarily detained. Mr. Mbugua was later released from police custody while Mr. Kimathi was held incommunicado for six days before being charged with terrorism and murder.

The situation of civil and political rights in Ethiopia remains dire. The ruling EPRDF party was reelected in a landslide victory in May; however, the severe restrictions on civil and political rights imposed in the run-up to the elections and before undermined the credibility of the polls. The preelectoral period saw further restrictions on political rights- notably through cases of intimidation of voters as well as through direct attacks on the political opposition. Birtukan Mideksa, the respected and popular head of the Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) Party, remained in detention throughout the election period, and was released the day of Prime Minister Meles’ inauguration. The restrictive legal framework put in place by the authorities since 2009 continues to indirectly and directly prevent all forms of independent human rights work and reporting. The broad and haphazard implementation of the Charities and Societies Proclamation has severely impeded human rights activities.

Finally, a relatively open space for civil and political action in Burundi has come under threat, notably in the run up to, during and following the electoral process. Human Rights Defenders involved in high profile judicial investigations, notably the Justice for Ernest Manirumva Campaign, and independent media bodies and journalists have been the main targets of these restrictions. Since July 2010 these attacks have become more systematic and widespread. Restrictions against defenders have included legal and judicial harassment, arbitrary detention and trial, verbal harassment and surveillance. On July 17 2010, for example, Jean Claude Kavumbagu, editor of the online news service Net Press was arrested on treason charges. The legality of the charges as well as the justification of Kavumbagu’s lengthy pre-trial detention are questionable. Since the elections, staff at the Radio Publique Africaine, perceived by the authorities as serving the opposition, have faced judicial harassment, arbitrary detention and also received death threats. Activists have not been spared such challenges. In October, widely respected activist, Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa was publicly threatened in a press conference by the police spokesperson as a result of his denunciation of extrajudicial killings of National Liberation Forces (FNL) members.

EHAHRD-Net would like to finally express its regret over the decision of the Commission to reject the observer status application of the Coalition of African Lesbians.

Very little positive developments in terms of civil and political rights can therefore be identified in the sub-region in the last six months. With this situation in mind EHAHRDP would therefore once again call on the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights to:

  • Make the fight against impunity a key focus of the ACHPR and its special mechanisms and recommend that this fight be prioritized by all mechanisms and instruments of the African Union;
  • Take a proactive role in ensuring the implementation of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Good Governance in light of the key influence that elections continue to have on the human rights situation in the continent;
  • Establish a more permanent international human rights monitoring and reporting on the ground for countries like Somalia and Sudan;
  • Promote the establishment of international criminal investigations into the human rights violations being committed in countries where an impartial national investigation is unlikely to take place- notably in Somalia and Sudan;
  • Publicly condemn the continuing harassment and discrimination of LGBTI persons, and take the lead in ensuring the inclusion of LGBTI rights and persons into AU work notably by granting Observer Status to LGBTI organizations at the Commission;
  • Call for an end to all practices, notably legal restrictions, which threaten the fundamental rights, in particular the freedom of expression, and legitimate work of HRDs;
  • Continue monitoring the situation facing human rights defenders (HRDs) throughout the East and Horn of Africa;
  • Call on African Union member States to offer standing invitations to the ACHPR´s special mechanisms, notably the Special Rapporteur on HRDs.

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