(Luanda, Angola) – African States should enact and enforce laws and policies to better protect freedom of expression, to support and safeguard the work of human rights defenders, and to prevent and ensure accountability for reprisals, a coalition of African and international NGOs said today.

In the run-up to the 55th session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which opens on Monday 28 April, ISHR, along with around 200 other NGOs, has been participating in the NGO Forum. The purpose of the Forum is to develop recommendations for the Commission for action during its 55th session.

There were a series of panel discussions during the Forum, including on freedom of expression (both online and offline), women’s land and property rights, and truth and reconciliation commissions, as well as a panel on advocacy strategies at the African Commission. Discussions were also held on human rights defenders and reprisals, and on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The discussion on freedom of expression took place as news came in that six Ethiopian activists, working for an organisation called Zone 9, had been arrested. The six activists are reportedly being held in the notorious Maekelawi detention centre, the site of many confirmed cases of torture. NGOs called for the Commission to adopt a resolution on the situation for human rights defenders in Ethiopia, referencing the case of the six detained defenders.

Some of the other key calls from the NGO Forum were for the Commission to:

  • condemn reprisals and implement the resolution on reprisals adopted by the African Commission in 2011, by developing a process for monitoring and following up on reported cases, and ensuring that States are held accountable;
  • adopt a resolution calling on States to enact legislation to protect human rights defenders, and in particular to domesticate existing international instruments protecting human rights defenders;
  • urge States to adopt freedom of expression and access to information laws in conformity with the African Commission’s model law on access to information and applicable regional and international standards
  • adopt the resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity which was submitted by the NGO Forum to the Commission’s 54th session, and further adopt a specific resolution condemning the anti-homosexuality law passed in Uganda;
  • urge States to protect human rights defenders working to protect the rights of people affected by extractive industries; and
  • develop a general comment on article 7b of the Maputo Protocol, clarifying the normative content of the right of women to property and land.

Following on from efforts by NGOs in March to persuade the UN Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution on the situation in Egypt, which resulted in a joint statement from 27 States, NGOs also called for the African Commission to adopt a resolution on Egypt at this session. The proposed resolution would call for the Egyptian authorities to, amongst other things, refrain from excessive use of force against protestors, uphold the right to a fair trial, and conform to international standards on the right to freedom of assembly and association.

On the sidelines of the Forum, ISHR facilitated a consultation, together with the ACHPR Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders and ISHR board member, Mme Reine Alapini-Gansou, to discuss draft guidelines in relation to protection of the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association in Africa. The draft has been developed by civil society to give guidance to States and civil society on how to implement the findings of the report of the African Commission’s study group on freedom of association and assembly. Ms Alapini-Gansou is the Chairperson of this study group, of which ISHR is also a member. The study group’s report will be adopted at this session of the Commission.

ISHR was also invited to participate in a consultation on the Addis Ababa Roadmap on cooperation between the UN’s special procedures and the African Commission. ISHR Programme Manager and African Commission Advocacy Coordinator, Mr Clement Voule, took part in a panel discussing the way forwards for the Roadmap. He made numerous suggestions for cooperation between the two systems, including formalising participation of Commissioners when African countries are being discussed at the Human Rights Council, and calling on the African Commission and UN special procedures to develop joint actions and a coordinated approach to dealing with cases of reprisals. A coordinated approach between international and regional mechanisms would heighten efforts to hold States accountable and increase the protection offered to defenders. It would also go some way towards implementing the calls made in the Human Rights Council for a focal point on reprisals (Resolution 24/24 adopted in September 2013) and for a more effective, unified response to reprisals (joint statement led by Botswana on behalf of a group of 55 States in March 2014).

The 55the session of the African Commission session gets underway today. Look for updates on Twitter at #ACHPR55 or follow @ISHRGlobal and @cvoule.

Contact: Clement Voule, c.voule@ishr.ch

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