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Sub-regional Update on the Situation of Democracy and Human Rights in Africa

Statement delivered by the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, at the Forum on the Participation of NGOs in the 55th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Luanda, Angola

Thursday 24th April 2014

Statement delivered by John Foley

Before I start the update from the East and Horn of Africa, I would like us to honour one of the most courageous, determined and effective human rights defenders from our sub-region – Mr. Osman Hummaida – who passed away last week. Mr Hummaida advocated tirelessly for human rights in Sudan and was well known to many of the participants of this Forum. Forced into exile, Mr Hummaida founded the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies. The Centre’s success and strength in documenting and reporting ongoing human rights violations in Sudan and continuing to advocate for justice is a living testament to his vision and determination.

Let us observe a moment of silence.

The past six months has been marked in most countries in the East and Horn of Africa sub-region by renewed government clampdowns on fundamental human rights, and the targeting through various means of human rights defenders (HRDs) working on the front lines of human rights protection. In many countries regressive legislation was passed, curtailing citizens’ rights to free expression and peaceful assembly. Increasingly, administrative and bureaucratic obstacles were used by governments to disrupt the work of human rights defenders and journalists.

In Burundi, the space for human rights defenders and for civil society more generally continued to narrow sharply. In December 2013 a new law was adopted introducing severe limits to the right to peaceful assembly. On a number of occasions since the law came into force, civil society organisations have been refused permission or had permission revoked to hold demonstrations. On 8th March 2014, violence broke out at a rally between the police and members of the political party, Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD). Following the rally, twenty-one MSD members were charged, tried, and subsequently sentenced to life in prison. A further twenty-six protesters were sent to jail for between five and 10 years.

Of considerable concern, this period was marked by a dramatic escalation in political violence, mainly linked to the ruling party youth wing, known as Imbonerakure.

In Djibouti, human rights defenders, and particularly journalists, continued to be targeted for harassment, intimidation and arrest on the basis of their work. On 23rd January 2014, police arrested Mr. Zakaria Abdillahi Ali, a prominent lawyer, human rights defender and President of the Djiboutian League of Human Rights.

EHAHRDP remains deeply concerned about continuing serious human rights violations in Eritrea, and the government’s failure to engage with regional and international human rights mechanisms, in particular its refusal to invite the UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea to visit the country. We continue to call on the Commission to take decisive action to protect Eritrean citizens from further human rights abuses, and to follow up on its decisions on Eritrea which continue to be unimplemented.

In Rwanda, the unlawful takeover in 2013 of one of the last remaining independent human rights organisations was yet to be resolved by domestic courts during this period, with hearings in the case repeatedly delayed. Human rights defenders continued to operate in an environment of fear and self censorship.

In Sudan, state authorities continued to direct indiscriminate aerial bombings of populated civilian areas. Security agents used excessive force to suppress popular protests in 2013 and 2014. Human rights defenders continued to be overtly targeted for arrest and detention.

Uganda, the widely condemned Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014 came into force. The law violates many of the guarantees of equality and non-discrimination enshrined both in the country’s constitution and in its many commitments under regional and international human rights law.

One of the gravest developments within the sub-region in the past six months has been South Sudan’s rapid descent into a state of civil war in December 2013. Many thousands of civilians have since been killed, and many hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes, caught in the midst of fighting between pro and anti-government forces. In spite of early hope that a January ceasefire between the warring parties might hold, there are continuing reports of widespread violations of international humanitarian law across many parts of the country. Last week, hundreds of civilians were killed on the basis of their ethnicity or nationality in a shocking attack when the SPLA in Opposition forces captured Bentiu town on 15 and 16 April 2014. Hundreds more were wounded and thousands displaced following the violence. Scores more were killed or injured when a mob of armed civilians attacked the UNMISS base in Bor on 17 April.

Numerous human rights defenders have been forced to flee the country as a result of the conflict, creating a troubling vacuum for independent human rights monitoring and reporting. The African Union Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan represents a vital window of opportunity to delivery accountability, but will require widespread and coordinated political, logistical, and technical support in order to effectively fulfil its mandate.

In all countries in the sub-region, EHAHRDP has reported on the harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and journalists, and increasing attempts by state and non-state actors to undermine and disrupt the activities of civil society. These attacks take many forms: from the frequent murder of journalists in Somalia, to the passing of regressive and unconstitutional legislation in Uganda. Consistently throughout, human rights defenders continue to place themselves on the front line of human rights protection in the region, often at intolerable risks to their own safety.

The East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project offers the following recommendations for action by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights:

  • Call on member States to ensure the protection of human rights defenders, notably by observing the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other human rights treaties to which most of these countries are signatory;
  • Call for an end to all practices, notably legal restrictions, which threaten fundamental rights contained in the Charter which are vital for the work of human rights defenders, in particular the freedom of expression, the freedoms of assembly and association;
  • Carry out a Commission of Inquiry into violations of the Charter and international humanitarian law in the regions of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile in Sudan;
  • Affirm its support of the mandate of the African Union Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan, pledge all available resources to assist the Commission of Inquiry to fulfil its mandate, and commit to work with other African Union mechanisms including the AU Peace and Security Council to ensure that the Commission of Inquiry is able to conduct meaningful investigations into, and help to deliver accountability for, the many egregious human rights violations that have been committed in South Sudan since December 2013;
  • Take all necessary measures to follow up on decisions taken by the Commission on communications that remain unimplemented, so that victims’ may receive a remedy for the violations of their rights as contained in the Charter, especially requests for provisional measures;
  • Recognise that the rights contained in the African Charter apply to all people without discrimination on any grounds, including sexual orientation and gender identity;
  • Promote international criminal investigations into serious human rights violations committed in the region, where domestic remedies have failed;
  • Encourage full engagement with the ACHPR by States in the sub-region, especially those in transition or conflict periods, such as Somalia and South Sudan, including by urging states to invite visits from the Commission and to submit periodic reports;
  • Call on member States to deposit the declaration under article 34 (6) of the protocol of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights to allow individuals and NGOs to directly submit their cases to the court.


Human Rights Defender of the month: Apollo Mukasa

Apollo Mukasa’s journey into activism is deeply rooted in his commitment to advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs). As the Executive Director of Uganda National Action on Physical Disability (UNAPD), Apollo is a driving force behind initiatives aimed at combating discrimination among PWDs. UNAPD was established in 1998 as a platform for voicing concerns of persons with physical disabilities to realise a barrier free environment where they can enjoy their rights to the fullest.