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Updates from February 2023

Hello Friends,

I hope you all have all had a wonderful February – the month of love!

As is practice, we continue to express love through our commitment to the safety and wellbeing of human rights defenders (HRDs). As the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC) opened for its 52nd regular session on 27 February, we joined over 150 human rights organisations from around the world to call upon the Council to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, which will be up for review. This year marks 25 years since the UN General Assembly adopted a declaration on human rights defenders, and it is important that the UN HRC reiterates their importance as critical agents in the enforcement of human rights.

Ahead of the session, we also joined over 90 South Sudan, African and International NGOs to call upon the Council to renew the mandate of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CHRSS), as the only international mechanism with the capacity to investigate and preserve evidence of human rights violations to ensure accountability, as the country continues to grapple with implementing the 2018 Revitalized Peace Agreement.

We convened the AfricanDefenders Convention in Bishoftu, Ethiopia, and brought together over 50 HRDs from at least 36 African countries. Over the course of three days, we reviewed the state of civic space and the situation of HRDs and adopted a plan of action going forward. During the session, we also hosted the 4th edition of the AfricanDefenders Shield Awards, where  the Eswatini human rights defender Mary Paias Da Silva, received the 2023 AfricanDefenders Shield Award. 

Amidst the multi-pronged advocacy, and stakeholder engagement, we continued to carry out our protection work, ensuring that distressed human rights defenders have a source of refugee. This month, we received 74 requests for support from HRDs at risk. Of these, 34 requests (19 male, 13 female, 2 from organisations) were approved, 15 requests were referred to various partner organisations, 17 requests were rejected, while 11 remain pending verification. 

I invite you to read further about our diverse work accomplished in the month of February.

Hassan Shire,

Executive Director, DefendDefenders

Chairperson, AfricanDefenders.    

Human Rights Defender of the Month: MARY PAIS DA SILVA

On 17 February 2023, in Ethiopia’s rustic resort of Bishoftu, more than 5000Km from her homeland,  Mary Da Silva was announced winner of the 2023 AfricanDefenders Shield Award, in the presence of hundreds of colleague human rights defenders from 36 African countries.  It was a fitting validation for the Eswatini human rights lawyer, whose sense of empathy and sensitivity to injustice has been a defining hallmark of her career.       

Born 45 years ago in Lubombo, eastern Eswatini, the last of 4 siblings, Mary attributes her values to her upbringing. 

Opportunities and Recommended Readings:

Updates from DefendDefenders

  • From 6- 17 February 2023, DefendDefenders conducted follow-up for HRDs in Southern Africa, covering 16 organisations in Zimbabwe and South Africa. 18 individuals – three male and 15 female, participated in the follow-up activity
  •  From 7-10 February, AfricanDefenders, DefendDefenders and CIVICUS jointly hosted the Global Resource Hub meeting on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly in Kampala, to discuss the challenges and opportunities for collaboration between partner organisations working around the right to protest or freedom of peaceful assembly.  In addition to DefendDefenders and CIVICUS, the meeting was also attended by FORUM Asia (FA), International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), Ford Foundation, Centro de Estudios Legales  Sociales (CELS), and Urgent Action Fund-Africa (UAF).
  • From 16- 17 February, DefendDefenders participated in the Protection Working Group annual retreat which took place in Nairobi, Kenya. The meeting sought to review the group’s scores and misses over the last 10 years regarding protecting HRDs and to map out a way forward.
  • On 22 February, DefendDefenders successfully held the 3rd Protection Service Provider’s dialogue with exiled HRDs in Uganda. The event attracted 81 participants, 48 of whom were exiled HRDs living in Uganda. The dialogue was also attended by representatives from the Office of the Prime Minister of Uganda, the Uganda Police, and local civil society organisations, including three working on refugee issues. 40 of the participants were male and 41 were female. 
  • From 20-24 February, DefendDefenders conducted an online digital security training for HRDs, benefiting eight HRDs – four male, and four female. A similar training was conducted for exclusively women human rights defenders(WHRDs) under our safe sisters program, benefitting eight WHRDs. 
  • Ahead of the 52nd session of the UN Human Rights Council – the longest in history with 5 ½ weeks, we released a letter calling for continued scrutiny of South Sudan’s human rights situation. Endorsed by a record 95 signatories, the letter calls on the Council to extend the mandate of the existing investigative commission, the CHRSS.
  • DefendDefenders also joined partner NGOs in calling for the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on HRDs to be renewed Council
  • AfricanDefenders and DefendDefenders murder of Eswatini human rights lawyer, defender and advocate Thulani Maseko who was shot and killed in cold blood at his home on the morning of January 21 2023. Thulani was a tireless ambassador of Eswatini’s pursuit for freedom and social justice, and was the winner of AfricanDefender’s Africa Shield Award in 2015.
  •  During the AfricanDefenders Convention, AfricanDefenders awarded the 2023 Shield Award to Eswatini human rights lawyer and Women human rights defender Mary Pais Da Silva. The AfricanDefenders Shield Award aims to honor exceptional individuals who have contributed to changes in their community by peacefully promoting and protecting human rights, as universally recognised by the Universal Declaration

Country Updates:


Four human rights activists were arrested as they tried to travel to Uganda for a civil society organisation’s meeting.  Audace Havyarimana, legal representative of the Association for Peace and the Promotion of Human Rights, Sylvana Inamahoro, the group’s executive director, Sonia Ndikumasabo, President of the Association of Women Lawyers of Burundi, and Marie Emerusabe, the association’s general coordinator were arrested at the airport by Burundi’s National Intelligence Service on for reasons yet unknown.  


Human Rights Watch reported that Eritrean authorities were hunting and punishing relatives of alleged evaders of the country’s forceful military conscription program. The latest rights violation by the Eritrean authorities follows the country’s knee-deep involvement in the conflict in neighboring Ethiopia, where Eritrean troops have been fighting side-by-side with Ethiopian federal government forces to crush the Tigray People’s Liberation Front resistance in Northern Ethiopia, where the Eritrean soldiers have been accused of gross human rights violations.


Two media professionals – A youtuber Tewodros Asfaw, and Deacon Yosef Ketema, a journalist for EOTC Afaan Oromoo broadcast service were detained by security forces as part of the Ethiopian government’s crackdown on  voices critical of the federal government’s handling of the disagreement with the country’s Orthodox church. Both were picked up by plain-clothed security operatives and arbitrarily detained, as the federal government faced down with the Orthodox Church over the latter’s call for a nationwide demonstration. The government also temporarily shutdown social media platforms in the country in the process. 


Kenya’s Parliamentary Journalists Association(KPJA) decried a plot by a section of the country’s lawmakers to lockout a section of journalists from covering the House’s proceedings over allegations of poor dress code and inadequate coverage.  The KPJA leadership led by the chairperson Duncan Khaemba have sworn to protest the proposal, noting that they will continue to play their legitimate role as the public watchdog.

Comedian Eric Omondi was arrested outside Kenya’s Parliament buildings as he and a group of other activists protested the rising cost of living in the country. The protestors held placards criticising the political class for being insensitive to the plight of ordinary citizens, and instead holding “meaningless” rallies to throw political barbs at each other. Police however swiftly dispersed the protest, lobbing teargas amongst the protestors and arresting Omondi in the process.   


Rwanda was accused of backing the M23 rebels which have been accused of committing grave human rights abuses in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The rebels have been accused of forced recruitment of civilians and summary execution of others in its ongoing conflict with the Kinshasha government that is so far estimated to have displaced up to 520,000 people and heightened geopolitical tensions in the Great-Lakes region.      


The leader of Somalia’s Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS) was finally released, just hours after a court sentenced him to two months in prison.   Abdalle Ahmed Mumin, the Secretary General of the SJS was arrested in October 2022 after he criticized government’s attempts to ban journalists from reporting on the Al-Shabaab and the government’s offensive against it. Media freedom advocates had long challenged the prosecution of Mumin as being politically motivated.    

The UN’s Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Somalia deplored the high death toll in Somalia, following clashes between Somaliland security forces and clan members in Laas Canood, Sool region, in which atleast 63 people have been reported killed and 363 injured since fighting broke out in early February. Ms. Isha Dyfan, appointed the UN’s human rights watchdog in May 2020, called upon parties to the conflict to respect their obligations under international law and proritise protection of civilians. 


The United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan called upon South Sudan’s leaders to end the persistent violence against civilians and prioritise peaceful political transition, in line with the country’s 2018 Revitalised Peace Agreement. The Commission, which toured the country between 11 and 18 February 2023, noted that it was shocked by the continued widespread violence against civilians, especially sexual violence directed at the country’s women and girls, before calling upon the country’s leaders to “reorient their priorities and work together to put an end to this needless violence and protect the human rights of South Sudanese.”

Amnesty International called upon South Sudan authorities to clarify the fate and whereabouts of Morris Mabior Awikjok Bak, a critic of the South Sudanese government who was on 4 February abducted in Kenya, forcefully returned into the country, and is being held in incommunicado detention at a National Security Service detention facility. What happened to Morris Mabior Awikjok Bak matches a broader pattern of abductions and illegal transfers of South Sudanese refugees from neighboring countries by South Sudan’s National Security Service,” noted Flavia Mwangovya, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East and Southern Africa.


The Government of Uganda announced that it would not be renewing the mandate of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights(OHCHR), which has existed in the country since 2006. The office, initially set up to monitor human rights violations in the country’s North and Eastern regions during the Lords Resistance Army insurgency, was in 2009 given broader mandate to monitor human rights issues across the country. The Office has however found itself in a fractious relationship with the Ugandan government following the latter’s violent elections in 2021, after which many political opposition activists thronged its premises in Kampala for remedies. Human Rights Watch has called the move by the government the latest in a series of actions by the government of Uganda to stifle those working to protect human rights.

Uganda’s Parliament moved to enact a new law to criminalise same sex relationships in the country, a move that further jeopardizes the wellbeing of the country’s already-marginalised LBTQI community. On 28 February, Parliament granted Bugiri Municipality MP Asuman Basalirwa leave to introduce a Private Member’s Bill titled the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, 2023, a successor to the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2014, which was struck down by Uganda’s Constitutional Court for lack of quorum at the time of its passing.