African civil society discusses next steps to protect free communication with ACHPR

02.11.2015

At the NGO forum ahead of the 57th session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, the Commission's expert presented her new policy against intimidation and reprisals, developed to further the implementation of the ACHPR-Focal Point on reprisals. 

ACHPR Panelists on Reprisals

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(Banjul, The Gambia) - During the NGO Forum ahead of the 57th session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (the Commission), civil society from across Africa discussed a new policy against intimidation and reprisals developed by the Commission’s expert on human rights defenders. This event, organised by ISHR, Cairo Institute for Human rights Studies in collaboration with the Commission,  Ms Reine Alapini-Gansou, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders,  and focal point on Reprisals within the Commission presented her plans on operationalising her mandate to protect human rights defenders engaging with the Commission from reprisals

‘I am concerned about continued reprisals in the form of severe restriction on human rights defenders wanting to engage with the Commission and my mandate’, said Ms Reine Alapini-Gansou, the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders. 

The Special Rapporteur expressed particular concern about the restriction on human rights defenders in Angola, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the  Congo, among others. 

She called on Angola to enable human rights defenders to work freely, including with the Commission, also referring to the constructive dialogue of the Commission with leaders during the session in 2014. 

During the event,  António Ventura from Angola (Associação Justiça, Paz e Democracia – AJPD), raised the difficult situation facing human rights defenders in his country. Despite the reinforced recognition of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the 2010 constitution, Angola imposes severe and arbitrary restrictions on the right to freedom of association. Moreover activists have been intimidated through suppression of assemblies, and the State resorts to media campaigns to accuse defenders of pursuing political or western interests. 

‘Without proper registration, our organisations cannot open and use bank accounts. As a result of financial constraints, defenders often fail to travel to the Commission and testify’, Mr Ventura said. 

The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders has developed, in consultation with civil society groups facilitated by ISHR, an operational policy defining the working methods to implement the extended mandate to stop reprisals. The policy details the steps to be taken by the Special Rapporteur when receiving, considering and taking action on allegations of reprisals. 

The mandate has also developed an ‘information note’ for civil society to be better equipped on how to submit information to the Special Rapporteur, including a questionnaire. Both documents are expected to be endorsed by the Commission, and will be made available publicly. 

In addressing the information note, Nadine Essmat of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), stressed the need to develop working methods that facilitate easy and secure communication of defenders with the mandate, including technological solutions to protect the identity, security and promote confidentiality of those submitting information.

‘The appointment of the Focal Point by the Commission is a very encouraging first step for victims of reprisals’, said Ms Essmat of the Cairo Institute. ‘But it is critical that victims are not put at further risk through submitting information’, Ms Essmat concluded. 

During the discussion, participants expressed concern about the security of the Angolan defenders having testified and attending the session, particularly given the presence of representatives of the Angolan Government in the room. 

‘In testifying to the Forum, members of Angolan civil society demonstrate their courage in standing up for human rights,’ said Clement Voulé, ISHR’s Head of African Advocacy. He noted that while it is important that Governments and their civil society develop a better working relationships, he underscored the obligation of the State to refrain from intimidating NGOs and defenders. He added that these activists must be respected and permitted to exercise their legitimate role of participating in meetings of the Commission, expressing their view, even dissenting views. 

‘The African Commission and various United Nations bodies have underscored the right of everyone to freely express their views in international and regional rights forums’, Mr Voulé said. ‘The Commission itself, its Commissioners, but also diplomatic partners must be watching Angola – including through engaging the delegation at the upcoming 57th session – to get concrete commitments to respect the role of civil society and protect defenders’, Mr Voulé said. 

The challenge of increasing States’ compliance with the work and recommendations of the Commission was raised, and participants expressed some skepticism about the impact of the Focal Point, given the current lack of implementation of many outputs of the Commission. In responding, Ms Alapini-Gansou affirmed that the creation was the first step in a process towards equipping the Commission to more effectively prevent and address reprisals. 

‘We rely on the close collaboration with civil society, human rights defenders and national human rights institutions, to translate the work of the Commission into concrete changes on the continent’ Ms Alapini-Gansou said. ‘It is not just our duty, but also in our very interest to ensure they are protected’, she said. 

Background

In recent years the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the Commission) has received increased reports of intimidation and reprisals against individuals and groups seeking to cooperate, cooperating, or who have cooperated with it. The Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders in particular frequently raises the issue of intimidation and reprisals in the course of her work. 

During its 55th session – ironically held in Angola amidst concerns of intimidation and reprisals against civil society by the host State – the Commission extended the scope of the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders to include protection from reprisals against human rights defenders engaging with the Commission.

The focal point was created to better protect the right of individuals and groups to safe and unhindered communication with and access to the Commission.  

Contact: Clement Voulé, c.voulé@ishr.ch, +220 377 86 19 (Gambia),  +41 78 867 52 50 (Switzerland)