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DefendDefenders’ oral statements at HRC52

Oral statements delivered during the 52nd session of the UN Human Rights Council (27 February-4 April 2023)

Mr. President, Mr. High Commissioner, 

We salute the work of the OHCHR office in Sudan, designated Ex­pert, geographic desk, and support team. 

16 months after the military coup of 25 October 2021, Sudan’s human rights situation remains grim. Human rights defenders, journalists, protesters, and all those who express dissent or demand full civilian rule re­main tar­geted. 

We reiterate:

  • The central importance of Sudanese citizens’ right to protest. No de­mo­cratic Sudan will be possible with­out an open civic space. In this regard, we are concerned by new measures imposed by the Humanitarian Aid Commission against NGOs and urge the High Commissioner, the designated Expert, and the Special Rapporteur on freedoms of peaceful assembly and association to push back against the stifling of Sudanese civil society.
  • The need for investigations, prosecutions, and redress. Judicial institutions must ensure accountability at the com­mand res­pon­sibility level, including for serious violations committed in relation to the coup and the popu­lar Revolution of 2018-2019. Impunity so far remains almost complete.

Mr. President, 

We welcome the signature of a Framework Agreement between civilian leaders and the military. We stress, however, that Sudan needs continued international scrutiny. 

The Council should ensure that public debates on Sudan’s human rights situation con­tinue to be held, as over 50 NGOs urged

Thank you. 

 

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Mr. President, Mr. Special Rapporteur, Mr. High Commissioner, 

We welcome the Human Rights Council’s steadfast attention to the human rights situation in Eritrea and the rationalisation of Eritrea debates at the Council’s March sessions. In a letter, civil society called for this move as well as for stronger action on Eritrea. The “enhanced” nature of today’s debate reflects the gravity of the situation. 

Violations Eritrean authorities commit at home and abroad are two sides of the same coin. The total closure of the democratic and civic space enables these violations to continue with impunity. 

Mr. President, 

The Eritrean government is now in its fifth year of Council membership. The gap between its human rights record and Council membership standards is as broad as ever. For instance, in terms of cooperation with Council mechanisms, Eritrea remains among the very few countries that have never received any visit by a special procedure. The government’s attempts to discontinue Council scru­tiny, however, have failed. 

Ahead of the Council’s 53rd session, in June 2023, we urge states to further extend the Special Rap­porteur’s man­­date. We highlight the need to move beyond merely procedural resolutions, to clearly describe and con­demn the violations committed, and to ensure follow-up to the recommendations of previous mechanisms and mandate-holders, including the Commission of Inquiry and the Special Rapporteur and his benchmarks for pro­gress. 

Mr. Special Rapporteur:
What accountability avenues exist for crimes under international law committed by Eritrean forces in Tigray? 

Thank you for your attention. 

 

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Mr. President, Commissioners, 

We welcome your report, including its description of the environment South Sudanese civil society is facing. 

In South Sudan, violence and impunity remain pervasive and uncertainty over the Constitution-making and elec­toral process is high. As justice is elusive for victims and survivors of the conflict, the continuation of the Commission’s mandate is the best means to safeguard pros­pects for future accountability, including through the Hybrid Court. 

Once again, this year, close to 100 organisations urge the Human Rights Council to extend the Commission’s mandate. They highlight that its work remains vital as the conditions that prompted the Council to establish it, in 2016, have not significantly changed to warrant less scru­tiny. 

Parties to the Revitalised Peace Agreement have agreed to extend the transitional period by 24 months, which is now due to end in February 2025. This is one of the reasons why civil society calls for a two-year mandate extension. 

Mr. President, 

As the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) has re-prioritised addressing South Sudan’s human rights situation, through a resolution adopted in November 2022, this Council should make clear that investigations, collection and preservation of evidence, reporting, and advancement of justice and account­ability remain critical. 

Commissioners:
How can we make sure that the three transitional justice mechanisms envisioned by Chapter V of the revi­ta­lised agreement are established, operationalised, and mutually reinforcing? 

Thank you for your attention. 

 

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Mr. President, 

DefendDefenders’ core mandate is the protection of and support to human rights defenders (HRDs) in the East and Horn of Africa sub-region. 

Our last report, “Pushing Boundaries,” shows how the growth of youth movements and the critical role played by youth HRDs in the sub-region make them targets for attacks by state and non-state actors. The report iden­tifies trends of youth mobilisation, including protests, digital activism, and artivism (acti­vism through art). 

Youth HRDs form both organised and informal movements that seek to bring about societal change and op­pose injustice. We found that the scale of repression is proportional to whether issues youth HRDs are involved in are contentious. Youth movements focusing on gender equality, the environment, and development are re­la­tively freer to operate than those fighting for civil and political rights. 

We encourage the High Commissioner to monitor these trends and to continue to enhance the work of his Office regarding civic space. 

Mr. President, 

We salute the opening of the civic space in Tanzania, further exemplified by President Samia Suluhu Hassan’s commitment to host the 77th session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). We emphasise the need to engage with Maasai communities affected by government projects in the Lolion­do/ Ngorongoro area. 

Thank you for your attention. 

 

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Mr. President, Commissioners, 

We welcome the peace agreement signed on 2 November 2022, in Pretoria, between the Federal Government of Ethio­pia and the Tigray People’s Libe­ra­tion Front (TPLF), whereby parties agreed to a permanent cessation of hostilities to end the Tigray War. We also welcome the systematic and coordinated disar­mament process. We call for the full restoration of services and unhindered humanitarian access to people in need. 

We stress, however, that accountability for the gross human rights violations and abuses committed in relation to the conflict, which has claimed over half a million lives, cannot be swept under the carpet. Territorial dis­pu­tes and ethnic cleansing and other violations, some of which may amount to crimes under international law, have not been adequately addressed. We also express our deep concern over tensions and violence in other regions, including in Oromia. 

Ethiopia needs a roadmap to ensure accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by all parties. The Joint Investigation Team comprising the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), domestic investigations, and international efforts are not mutually exclusive but complementary. 

In this regard, the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE), which will present a comprehensive report at the Council’s 54th session, plays an important role. It is all the more important to keep hearing from the Commission since in the whole country, restrictions on the rights to freedom of expres­sion and movement, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and harassment of and threats against human rights defenders (HRDs) and journalists, both online and offline and particularly targeting women HRDs, remain signi­ficant impediments to the civic and democratic space. 

Independent actors who seek to conduct human rights investigations and release reports thereon continue to face undue restrictions. The culture of impunity for human rights violations in general, and for violations com­mitted against HRDs in particular, remains a rampant problem. 

Mr. President, 

The Council should keep all options on the table to ensure follow-up. Irrespective of the specific parameters of this follow-up, and of the body or mechanism that will ensure follow-up, continued monitoring and repor­ting is a must for a situation that remains one of the most serious on the African continent. 

Thank you for your attention. 

 

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Mr. President,

On 21 January 2023, human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko was gunned down at point-blank range, in front of his wife and children at his home in Mbabane, Eswatini. This atrocious, cowardly, and cold-blooded act came a few hours after King Mswati III had issued “stern war­nings” to those calling for democratic reforms in the country, and that his hired mercenaries would deal with them. 

At the time of his death, Maseko was a senior member of Lawyers for Human Rights Swaziland and chairperson of the Multi-Stakeholder Forum, a convergence of stakeholders calling for constitutional reforms in Eswatini. A true Pan-Africanist and a staunch believer in the rule of law and constitutionalism, Maseko used his profes­­sional legal skills to advocate for democratic reforms. 

While the government of Eswatini issued a statement condemning the murder and pledging to investigate, DefendDefenders and AfricanDefenders join SouthernDefenders and others in asserting that only an indepen­dent investigation can en­sure that those responsible for the assassination of Maseko and many others brutally injured and killed are brought to justice and their fami­lies compensated. 

Two months after Maseko’s assassination, no investigation has taken place. As a civil society petition high­lighted, “the government of Eswatini has taken no action to show any commitment to bringing Thulani’s mur­der to light. Instead, it has become entangled in contradictions in its tactics of intimidation and threats against defenders of democracy and human rights.” 

We therefore join partners in calling on SADC, the African Union, and the international community to hold the leadership of King Mswati III accountable for the violence meted out against the people of Eswatini merely for advocating for their fundamental human rights, including to political participation. 

We call on the Eswatini government to, among others, immediately allow for an internationally supported, tho­rough, independent, and expeditious investigation into the killing of Thulani Maseko. 

Thank you for your attention.

 

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Mr. President, High Commissioner, 

In a letter, 95 civil society organisations called for the renewal of the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CHRSS). We highlighted that “[a]ny technical assistance or capacity building requested by South Sudan can be, and already is, offered as part of the annual resolution extending the CH­R­SS’s man­date.” We also highlighted that “a purely technical assistance and capacity-building focus […] would be unsui­table to tackle South Sudan’s […] serious human rights challenges and would risk further emboldening those who perpetrate the most serious crimes.” 

While we welcome the provision of advisory services to states as a tool to improve human rights compliance, we stress the following:

  • The factors that prompted the Council to establish the CHRSS, in 2016, have not significantly changed to warrant less scrutiny.
  • South Sudan’s ratification of key international and African human rights instruments is welcome but must be followed by implementation.
  • As this Council meets, political tensions are rising, pointing to a risk of relapse into full-scale conflict. Elections are due to take place in late 2024, but nothing is ready. There is no permanent Constitution, no electoral law, no electoral commission, and no census. Violence in Upper Nile can be considered pre-election violence.
  • Civic space is under extreme pressure. We remain deeply worried about reprisals against inde­pendent actors, censorship, arbitrary arrests, disappearances, tor­ture, extrajudicial killings, and wide­spread sexual violence.

Mr. President, 

The Deputy Mayor of Juba threatened to use live ammunition against anyone protesting inflation. We ask: is addressing this, and the many threats autho­rities use to instil fear and prevent South Sudanese citizens from exercising their rights, a matter of technical assistance? Or is it a matter of political will

Reversing these trends will start not with the provision of more technical assistance but with signals from the highest political level, making clear that such beha­viour is unjustifiable and that perpetrators will be punished. We have not seen any of these signals. 

Thank you. 

 

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