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Reflections on the 61st session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights

In October, DefendDefenders travelled to the Gambia, accompanied by human rights defenders (HRDs) from Burundi, Tanzania, and Uganda to attend the 61st Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR or the Commission). On the occasion of its 30th anniversary, DefendDefenders commended the progressive, and often ground-breaking resolutions and decisions by the Commission, which have guided and supported our efforts to further enhance the safety of HRDs, and the impact of their work.

The 61st Session also marked the end of term for the Honourable Commissioners Pansy Tlakula (Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information), Reine Alapini Gansou (Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa), and Med Kaggwa (The Special Rapporteur on Prisons, Conditions of Detention and Policing in Africa). DefendDefenders expresses its gratitude for their unwavering commitment to the promotion of human rights, and looks forward to working with the newly appointed Bureau of the African Commission and the new Commissioners Hatem Essaiem, Maria Teresa Manuela, and Rémy Ngoy Lumbu who will also serve as the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa.

However, as we celebrated this momentous occasion, the human rights situation in the East and Horn of Africa remains extremely dire. DefendDefenders expressed its concern that two governments in the sub-region, Burundi and Eritrea, now stand accused of crimes against humanity by UN Commissions of Inquiry and have to be considered priorities by the ACHPR. Working conditions for South Sudanese HRDs have become all but impossible, as a culture of impunity continues to fuel the violence that has displaced over four million people from their homes. In Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, new restrictions, particularly through legal means, on the rights to freedoms of association, expression, and peaceful assembly increasingly curtail the space for civil society.

On the margins of the session, DefendDefenders launched “Don’t Shoot the Messenger!: Journalists as Human Rights Defenders in the East and Horn of Africa”, its latest report, which examines the important role of journalists in defending human rights in the East and Horn of Africa. The report was presented to Hon. Pansy Tlakula, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, during a side event celebrating the 15-year anniversary of the adoption of the Guidelines on Freedom of Expression.

During the side event, DefendDefenders’ Communications Officer highlighted the challenges presented in the implementation of the guidelines, and the need to apply them in the context of the digital revolution that has taken place since their adoption.

On the margins of NGO Forum and the Public Session of the ACHPR DefendDefenders hosted a safety clinic for HRDs, based on the strategies in our Stand Up! security manual.

With the adoption of the Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly during its 60th Ordinary Session, the Commission set an ambitious benchmark for African States to creating an enabling environment for citizen participation in governance issues. However, the enjoyment of these freedoms remains severely limited throughout the sub-region, and has been further restricted most notably in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. During a second side-event hosted by DefendDefenders, HRDs from these countries explored options for civil society to use advocacy and strategic litigation as tools to engage States to implement the Guidelines or operationalise provisions already incorporated in existing legislation.

DefendDefenders also participated in a third side event, providing an update on the human rights situation in Sudan, and the particular challenges faced by HRDs, who continue to be targeted by authorities with impunity.

The Commission provides a unique opportunity for civil society to engage with key stakeholders and strengthens solidarity among the African human rights community. It is with great sadness that we learned of the passing of Jean Baptiste Nsabimana, who died while returning home from Banjul, where he actively participated in the proceedings of the NGO Forum and the side events at the margin of the session.

As Executive Director of Ligue Iteka, Burundi’s oldest human rights organisation, he had been working tirelessly to call attention to the grave and protracted crisis in his country. His loss will be felt throughout the East and Horn of Africa.