Statement by the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project to 56th Ordinary Session of the Africa Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights Banjul, Gambia, 21 April 2015
Madame Chairperson, distinguished Commissioners, State Delegates, representatives of NHRIs and NGOs; all protocols respectfully observed.
On behalf of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, 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 twelve months.
The past year has been marked in most countries by renewed government clampdowns on fundamental human rights, and the targeting through various means of human rights defenders working on the front lines of human rights protection.
I would like to focus on the three countries from our sub-region whose state reports are under consideration at this session, as well as focussing on other countries where the human rights concerns, especially relating to human rights defenders and civil society, have reached critical proportions.
Let me begin by framing these issues. In many countries from our sub-region, counter-terrorism laws were wilfully misapplied to target the work of journalists and human rights defenders. Across the region, administrative and bureaucratic obstacles were used by governments to disrupt the work of human rights defenders and journalists. In many countries, including Kenya, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan, brutal armed conflicts and terrorist atrocities resulted in appalling human rights abuses against civilian populations.
In Djibouti, whose state report is due for consideration at this session, we warmly welcome the delegation of Djibouti to the African Commission, and express our gratitude for the presentation of their first ever Periodic Report to the African Commission.
In spite of these encouraging signs of engagement, I am concerned that human rights continue to be severely curtailed, with political freedoms and freedoms of expression being most notably restricted. In August 2014, Mohamed Ibrahim Waiss, a journalist with the radio station ‘The Voice of Djibouti’, was arrested and detained in Djibouti City, and accused of ‘incitement and publishing false news’. This followed his coverage of a demonstration organized by a coalition of opposition political parties. This is sadly representative of how journalists and human rights defenders are treated in this small, and overlooked state.
Whilst the 55th Ordinary Session was ongoing last year in Angola, in Ethiopia six members of the ‘Zone 9’ blogging collective, and three other journalists were arrested in one of the most astonishing clampdowns on freedom of expression ever seen. They have been accused of working in collusion with banned opposition groups, and for collaborating with mainstream human rights groups, and using widely available (and entirely lawful) digital security tools. All of these charges are completely baseless, and flagrantly violate the African Charter and other international legal instruments. Their continued detention must be addressed by the African Commission at this session.
Kenya has experienced profound tragedy throughout the course of the last year. We unequivocally condemn the horrific terrorist atrocity that took place in Garissa earlier this month, and which claimed the lives of over 140 young men and women. Terrorism is never justified.
However, as Kenya grapples with terrorism, there has been a major roll-back on the rule of law in the country. Kenya’s efforts to address insecurity have been tainted with reports of serious human rights violations including extra judicial killings, and arbitrary detention and torture by its security forces. Kenya’s assault on civil society continues. Just a few days ago, the Inspector General of Police of Kenya issued a public notice, freezing the bank accounts of two highly respected Kenyan human rights organizations, and linking them (without any basis), to the terrorist organization Al- Shabaab. These organisations, MUHURI and Haki Africa, were raided on Monday and Tuesday of this week, and had documents, computers, financial records and other assets seized, in a wholly unjustifiable attempt to disrupt their legitimate work.
On Somalia, let me first acknowledge, and express my profound appreciation to Commissioner Reine Alapini Gansou, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in Africa. Commissioner Gansou, with our organisation’s support, undertook the first ever visit by a Special Mechanism of the African Commission, to Mogadishu, in January of this year. She met with countless activists, journalists, human rights defenders, and members of the Somali Federal Government, including His Excellency the President. We warmly welcome this move on the part of Commissioner Gansou. Moreover, we welcome the express commitment by the government of Somalia to engage further with the African Commission in addressing the grave human rights concerns in this country.
Honourable Commissioners, as you will know, the horrors of terrorism are a daily reality for many Somali citizens. As above, I condemn these acts. Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists to operate. Journalists continue to be attacked by both state and non-state actors. Impunity prevails, as the perpetrators of these violations are not held accountable. In Somaliland also, freedom of expression continues to come under routine attack, with a number of journalists arrested and detained throughout the course of the year. I urge the Commission, and its Special Mechanisms, to devote renewed attention to the human rights situation in Somalia – across the whole country- including Puntland, Somaliland, and other territories, and ensuring meaningful follow up to Resolution 264, which was passed in March of last year.
And now to South Sudan. Over the last 16 months, South Sudan has been in the midst of a humanitarian and human rights crisis of almost unimaginable proportions. The degree of suffering experienced by civilians in the course of this latest war is unimaginable, and its scope still unknown. Entire villages have been emptied and razed; men, women and children killed, injured and subject to sexual violence. Many organisations have documented human rights violations at the hands of both government and non-state forces, which could constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. Regional peace talks, brokered by IGAD, collapsed in March 2015 without a substantive resolution between the warring parties. The AU Peace & Security Council has refused to release the report of its own Commission of Inquiry. Impunity and injustice stalks the land.
Madam Chairperson, the human rights situation in South Sudan is among the gravest anywhere in the world. The Africa Commission must take decisive action at this session, including a strong call for the AU to release to report of its own Commission of Inquiry.
In Sudan, the human rights situation across the country continued to deteriorate throughout the last year. Fighting continues between government forces and rebel groups in several parts of Darfur. More than 450,000 people have fled violence in Darfur since the beginning of 2014. Ongoing armed conflict, including government aerial bombardments targeting civilians, continued in South Kordofan, and Blue Nile states, resulted in large numbers of civilian deaths and displaced. Government authorities continued to target human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists, and students.
And finally, to Uganda, whose state report is also due for consideration at this session. The impact of restrictive laws on the work of human rights defenders, and the wider Ugandan citizenry, is increasingly apparent. The recently gazetted Non Governmental Organizations (NGO) Bill will grant the state broad powers to supervise, approve, inspect, and dissolve all non-governmental organisations, and community based organisations, and would impose severe criminal penalties for violations. The language of the Bill is disconcertingly vague, and should be understood in the context of a broader raft of repressive laws, including the Public Order Management Act, which seek to restrict the rights of Ugandans to exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
In light of these updates and observations, I pose a few recommendations to the Honourable Commissioners:
- Firstly, I ask you to call upon the African Union Peace and Security Council to release the report of its own Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan, in an attempt to deliver the first steps in accountability for the many egregious human rights violations, and violations of international law that have been committed in South Sudan since December 2013;
- Secondly, I ask the Commission to adopt the Resolution on South Sudan, put forward to you this week by the NGO Forum;
- Thirdly, in the absence of any meaningful monitoring mechanisms in the country, for the Special Mechanisms of the Commission- the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, and the Honourable Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, under whose mandate South Sudan falls, to engage in country visits, and ensuring that the gross human rights violations occurring in the country are monitored, documented, reported on, and addressed;
- 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;
- 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.