African Human Rights Defenders acknowledge gains but concerns remain deep…

Human rights defenders from across Africa say they remain deeply concerned by the threats, harassment, intimidation and physical violence they continue to face in carrying out their work.

Human rights defenders from 45 African countries, together with partners from across the world, met at the All-Africa Human Rights Defenders’ Conference in Kampala, Uganda, last week (20-23 April), organized by the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Network. In a final statement, they acknowledged the achievements made since the first such conference was held in Johannesburg more than a decade ago.

Advances included the appointment of a United Nations as well as African Union Special Rapporteur on HRDs, the adoption of a UN declaration on HRDs, the establishment of regional HRD networks in Africa and an increasing awareness of their work across the continent.

However, the Kampala meeting also condemned the sizeable number of human rights defenders who have been killed in their efforts to promote and protect universal rights over the past ten years. The conference declaration also stressed deep concern over the continued violation of the rights of defenders in the various sub-regions of Africa, where they are routinely subjected to harassment, stigmatisation, arbitrary arrest, unfair trials, torture and even killings.

There was particular concern about threats against vulnerable HRDs, especially women, people working in areas of armed conflict and under repressive regimes, journalists, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) and minority rights activists.

Addressing the Kampala forum, Amnesty International’s Africa Programme Director, Erwin van der Borght, spoke of the many gains, in terms of better communication where human rights defenders are at risk, more opportunities for activists to meet and strengthened protection mechanisms at regional as well as international level.

But, van der Borght also stressed that “the human rights situation in many African countries remains precarious. Governments continue to restrict, without justification, the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.  Activists regularly have to flee their countries because of security risks and some are killed because of their human rights work.”

Among the demands made by the Kampala meeting was a call to the governments in Africa to bring an immediate end to the harassment, intimidation, legislative affronts and attacks on HRDs; to respect the United Nations declaration on HRDs; and to ensure that domestic legislation conforms with their regional and international human rights obligations.