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Reflections on the 60th session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights

Last month, Commissioners and representatives of African member states, national human rights institutions and non-governmental organisations travelled to Niamey, Niger, to attend the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ (the Commission) 60th session. DefendDefenders led a delegation of human rights defenders (HRDs) from Burundi, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, South Sudan, and Uganda to engage with the Commission.

Representatives from African and international civil society, national human rights institutions and Commissioners gathered for an NGO Forum in the days leading up to the Commission’s Ordinary Session to share updates on the human rights situation across the continent and agree on issues that should be highlighted during the session. DefendDefenders hosted a number of panel discussions on growing issues the human rights community in Africa has to address, notably migration and internet freedom, in the context of the African Union’s decision to devote 2017 to “Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through investments in Youth”.

The explosion of a worldwide refugee crisis in recent years has rocked the human rights agenda across the globe, and has had a profound impact on relations between Europe and Africa. As governments in Europe work to stem the flow of migrants and refugees making the perilous journey to their shores, civil society should focus on strategies to move beyond the immediate response to the crisis and toward long-term, sustainable solutions to the root cause of population movements. During the panel discussion, panellists discussed the future implications of mass migration movements for the enjoyment of social, economic, and cultural rights, as young and talented people move away from the continent, with Hon. Commissioner Maya Fadel pointing out that “losing our youth is the greatest risk we face.”

In our increasingly digital world, human rights activists find that the internet has both empowered them and made them more vulnerable. Despite resolutions by the ACHPR and the UN Human Rights Council affirming that the same rights people enjoy offline should be enjoyed online, recent years have seen States place increasing restrictions on internet freedom through legislation or shut-downs, such as Tanzania’s 2015 Cyber Crimes Act that has been used to prosecute various critical bloggers, or the social media blackout during Uganda’s 2016 Presidential elections. During DefendDefenders’ second panel, Sheila Keetharuth, the UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, spoke alongside online activists to explore coping strategies developed when facing restrictive measures, the potential of the internet as a means to safeguard freedom of expression, and as a powerful tool for advocacy and information exchange in countries where opportunities where the right to freedom of expression is curtailed. We were encouraged to see the Commissioners bringing up this subject during Uganda’s first African Peer review, asking about the February 2016 internet black-out.

During the NGO Forum, the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network (PAHRDN) launched its annual “State of the African HRD” report (available in English and French), outlining major trends affecting civil society, that are similarly reflected in DefendDefenders’ bi-annual submission to the ACHPR. Recognising the need for HRDs to equip themselves with tools to ensure their physical and digital safety, DefendDefenders used the opportunity to launch a new security manual for HRDs, containing key lessons learned over a decade of protecting HRDs.

During the 60th Ordinary Session of the Commission, DefendDefenders’ advocacy efforts focused on ensuring accountability for grave crimes and human rights violations committed in protracted and pervasive crises in the sub-region. In Eritrea, despite a 2016 UN report accusing the government of committing crimes against humanity and the Commission itself finding Eritrea in violation of the African Charter, no significant steps have been taken towards establishing an accountability mechanism. During a side-event on the margins of the Commission hosted by DefendDefenders, UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea Sheila Keetharuth elaborated on the COI’s findings and, together with Ruth Kifle, and Eritrean human rights defender in exile, and Florent Geel, Africa Director of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH),  explored different avenues for accountability, including by triggering universal jurisdiction, while also highlighting the importance and responsibility of regional mechanisms in addressing the alleged violations.

The continuing deterioration of the security and human rights situation in South Sudan, particularly since fighting broke out in Juba in July 2016, and on-going fighting in Western and Central Equatoria, Upper Nile and Western Bar el Ghazal regions are extremely concerning, and efforts by the African Union to establish a Hybrid Court on South Sudan, a key part of the August 2015 peace agreement, have stalled. At a time where the peace agreement is ignored by all parties to the conflict, the Commission should play a prominent role in supporting the transitional justice process in South Sudan, should urge the African Union, the East African Community and the Intergovernmental Development Agency (IGAD) to take significant steps towards or publicly support the establishment of the Hybrid Court and send a strong signal that the culture of impunity that has taken hold of the country will no longer be tolerated.

Through a number of oral statements, DefendDefenders raised key issues affecting HRDs in the East and Horn of Africa. We were encouraged to see that some of the concerns we raised were captured in Resolution 376 (LX), which calls upon States to adopt legislative measures recognising the status and protecting the rights of HRDs. The text makes specific reference to HRDs working on particularly sensitive subjects, such extractive industries and minority issues, who often face increased risks due to their work and have been a focus of our organisation for the past decade. DefendDefenders also continued to build the capacity of our key national partners this year, with the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders – Kenya becoming the 500th organisation to be granted observer status at the ACHPR and delivering a statement updating the Commission on the human rights situation in Kenya.

Statements at the African Commission

Public Session, 9 May 2017
Item 4: Human Rights Situation in Africa

Delivered by Mr. Hassan Shire.

Madame Chairperson, distinguished Commissioners, State Delegates, representatives of NHRIs and NGOs.

Madame Chairperson, DefendDefenders would like to congratulate the African Commission on its 30 years of existence, which is a remarkable milestone. In order to keep this up, we would like to invite the secretariat of the African Commission to improve communication with victims or representative of victims on cases pending before the African Commission.

I would like to thank the Commission for this opportunity to raise some of the key human rights issues from the East and Horn of Africa in the past six months.

The citizens of South Sudan continue to be victims of rampant human rights violations, possibly amounting to crimes against humanity. Over the past ten months, the government has led coordinated attacks on civilians along ethnic lines, and as the threat of famine grows, humanitarian workers have been attacked and killed while trying to deliver aid to civilians trapped in conflict areas.

In Eritrea, a UN Commission of Inquiry accused the government of crimes against humanity and yet, no significant steps have been taken to bring the government to account as it continues to flout its obligations under the African Charter.

In Burundi, we are particularly concerned by accounts of enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence emanating from the country and as of late April 2017, nearly half a million Burundians have fled the country.

Since the State of Emergency was declared in Ethiopia in October last year, local groups report tens of thousands of arbitrary detentions and the government continues to ignore calls for an independent, international and impartial investigation into allegations of the use of excessive and unnecessary lethal force by security to disperse and suppress peaceful protests.

The new Government of Somalia is confronted with a widespread humanitarian crisis as famine looms across the East and Horn of Africa, and widespread violations against independent media and civil society continue to escalate in complete impunity.

In Rwanda, members of the opposition, civil society, and the media continue to be exposed to threats, intimidation and enforced disappearances, and we are particularly concerned that these may escalate ahead of the 2018 presidential election.

In Uganda, violent clashes between the military and royal guards in Kasese, police detained the opposition leader without charge reportedly led to over 100 deaths and have yet to be thoroughly and transparently investigated.

In Kenya civic space has become increasingly restricted ahead of the August 2017 general elections, and in Tanzania the government has continued to restrict freedom of assembly, particularly regarding gatherings planned by the opposition and the media.

In light of these updates and observations, we recommend to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to:

  • Call on the African Union Commission to ensure the establishment of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, to prioritise the prompt establishment of the investigative branch of the HCSS, and call on the Government of South Sudan, which recently ratified the African Charter to cooperate fully with this process;
  • Refer Eritrea to the African Union Executive Council for the consistent failure to comply with the decisions and recommendations of the African Commission; and urge the African Union to implement the recommendations of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea;
  • Carry out a Commission of Inquiry into serious violations of the Charter and international humanitarian law in the regions of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile in Sudan, and call on the government of Sudan to instruct forces under State control to immediately end all deliberate and indiscriminate attacks against civilians;
  • Renew calls for the Ethiopian government to allow access to an international, independent and impartial investigation into protests taking place since November 2015;
  • Renew its call on the Government of Burundi to allow the Commission access for a follow up mission, as per Res. 357(LIX) on Burundi.

Public Session, 12 May 2017
Activity report of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa


Honourable Chairperson, distinguished Commissioners, State Delegates, representatives of NHRIs and NGOs.

While we were encouraged by the adoption of various resolutions, specifically the Resolution on the Right to Freedom of Information and Expression on the Internet in Africa at the 59th Ordinary session, and appreciate the Commission raising this issue on several occasions during this session, we are dismayed to see that the right to freedom of expression continues to be violated both online and offline.

In Uganda, authorities recently detained a prominent social media critic Stella Nyanzi after she expressed her opinion on President Museveni’s alleged failure to uphold a number of campaign promises. A journalist who reported on the arrest was subsequently kidnapped, beaten, and had her hair shaved off by unknown assailants, and the media has encountered serious obstacles when covering Mrs. Nyanzi’s trial.

In Ethiopia, a leading independent publication Addis Standard was forced to suspend circulation of physical copies indefinitely after vendors grew concerned that the simple act selling the newspaper would be seen as an infraction under the current State of Emergency. Although we welcome the release several detained journalists and bloggers in recent weeks, others such as Elias Gebru continue to be held without charge for expressing their opinions. Internet access has yet to be fully restored throughout the country following last October’s 2-month shutdown of 3G services in several parts of the country.

In South Sudan, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearances, and torture of journalists have become too common a strategy to stop journalists from publishing articles expressing critical opinions, or revealing human rights violations committed by the government. On 1 May 2017, the Media Authority suspended the activities of Al-Jazeera in Juba.

In Sudan, a spate of arrests occurred in November and December 2016 at the same time as a civil disobedience campaign, and National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) reportedly seized newspapers from different media houses, a total of 27 times within a month, in efforts to block public discourse regarding the civil disobedience campaign and concomitant arrests.

Since John Magufuli was sworn in as President, there has been a renewed attack on independent media in Tanzania, as media houses are shut down and activists prosecuted under the sweeping Anti-Cyber Crimes Act for refusing to reveal sources. The President himself warned the media and told them, I quote: “Media owners, let me tell you: Be careful. Watch it, if you think you have that kind of freedom — not to that extent.” End quote

Madame Chairperson, governments should appreciate that a free, independent, and critical media is essential for good governance, accountability, and the realisation of the rights enshrined in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

We therefore call upon the African Commission to reaffirm its unyielding support of the freedoms enshrined in Article 19 of the African Charter, and urge all member States to create a safe and enabling working environment for journalists in accordance with national and international laws, as well as the Commissions’ directives.

Public Session, 15 May 2017
Report of the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders

Honourable Chairperson, distinguished Commissioners, State Delegates, representatives of NHRIs and NGOs.

On behalf of DefendDefenders, I would like to thank the Commissioner for her activity report and for this opportunity to raise some of the key challenges facing human rights defenders in the East and Horn of Africa.

Despite numerous resolutions and recommendations to states made by the Commission, today, few human rights defenders are able to carry out their work safely, independently, and dialogue with government authorities is often inaccessible to human rights defenders wishing to raise issues related to governance, accountability, and the fight against impunity.

I wish to bring to your attention specific challenges facing organisations or campaigns at an institutional level in the East and Horn of Africa.

Since October last year, 10 Burundian NGOs working on human rights issues have either been banned or suspended by the Minister of Home Affairs. These organisations have played a key role in documenting and exposing gross human rights abuses and violations, and most of their leaders have been forced into exile due to threats to their lives.

More recently, on 16 January 2017, the Court of Appeal of Bujumbura decided to disbar or suspend four human rights lawyers and members of the Burundi Bar Association, as an apparent form of reprisal after they collaborated with the UN Committee Against Torture’s 58th special session, where Burundi was reviewed.

In Uganda, for some time, NGOs have faced a series of office break-ins without any conclusive investigations by the Uganda Police Force (UPF), or the apprehension of any suspects. Since the beginning of this year, the offices of Legal Aid Service Providers Network (LASPNET) and of the Observer newspaper were broken into. In total, nearly 30 NGO and media offices were burgled over the last four years.

In November 2016, a civil disobedience campaign was launched against the Sudanese government’s announcement of subsidy cuts to fuel and electricity alongside an increase of 20% of government workers’ salaries.

From November to December 2016, NISS detained three human rights defenders: Hafiz Idris, Dr. Mudawi Ibrahim Adam, and Ms. Tasneem Ahmed Taha Alzaki. Whilst Ms. Alzaki was released in April 2017, Dr. Mudawi and Mr. Idris remain detained. It was reported by Front Line Defenders on 12 May that Dr. Mudawi was charged on 11 May with undermining the constitutional system and waging war against the state – both charges carry the death penalty. The General Prosecutor’s order to release Dr. Mudawi on bail was also retracted.

Madame Chairperson,

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights should reiterates its past resolutions and decisions and:

  • Call on the Sudanese government to cease prosecution of human rights defenders on spurious grounds, and immediately release or ensure due process for detained HRDs;
  • Call on the Burundian government to reinstate the suspended NGOs and refrain from reprisals in order to allow NGOs to document issues affecting the citizens of their country, including human rights violations;
  • Call on the Ugandan authorities to conduct prompt, thorough, and transparent investigations into office break-ins;
  • Call on all member States to ensure the protection of human rights defenders, notably by adopting national laws for the protection of human rights defenders like the Government of Cote d’Ivoire; and
  • Encourage States to fulfil their regional obligation under article 62 of the African Charter and fully cooperate with the African Commission.

Resolutions and outcomes

ACHPR/Res. 368 (LX) 2017 calls upon States to adopt appropriate measures to give effect to the Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights while Countering Terrorism in Africa. Through the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders the Commission will develop a strategy and work plan for effective implementation.

ACHPR/Res. 376 (LX) 2017 calls upon States to adopt specific legislative measures to recognise the status of HRDS, protect the rights of their colleagues and family members, and provide a conducive working environment for civil society.

The Commission adopted new Guidelines, developed with input from a Study Group that included DefendDefenders and PAHRDN, offering standards and recommendation to States to ensure that they fulfil their obligations under the African Charter by fully protecting the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly.