Making the most of the Human Rights Council on the African continent


Despite African civil society’s engagement at the Human Rights Council having increased over the last decade, fundamental challenges remain in obtaining timely and effective mechanisms to address the continent’s gravest human rights crises, says Hassan Shire.

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By Hassan Shire, Executive Director of DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)

Few human rights defenders working in war-torn Juba, authoritarian Addis Ababa, or repressive Bujumbura know about the Human Rights Council (the Council). Even fewer understand its mandate and the mechanisms available to strengthen their valuable efforts to protect and promote human rights. DefendDefenders has been heavily involved in building the Council we have today, bridging the gap between Room XX of the Palais des Nations and those fighting for human rights on the frontline.

With increasingly brutal crises and conflicts erupting across the globe, monthly reports of terrorist attacks, and unprecedented numbers of displaced people moving across the continents, the space for civil society at the Human Rights Council has never been more important, nor has it ever been more at risk.

The Council’s core mandate is to protect the victims of human rights violations worldwide by promoting their rights. It is critical that these victims get access to the mechanisms established by the Council, such as the Universal Periodic Review or the Special Procedures. And yet, while human rights activists are increasingly able to engage with these mechanisms, the Council is failing to protect those who speak out.

If the Council is to preserve its credibility and maintain a healthy balance between the voices of victims and activists, and those of governments, it needs to respond to reprisals in a substantive manner. It is not acceptable that the lives of defenders are threatened when they speak to the growing corps of experts mandated by the Council to document and report on human rights violations.

In 2015, the President of the Human Rights Council demanded that the Government of South Sudan respond to the allegation of reprisals against an activist supported by DefendDefenders. South Sudanese security agents held him at gunpoint and threatened his family hours before he was due to fly to Geneva. This first public response to on-going reprisals was an important step towards tackling the issue. However, a more structured and systematic response is needed to dissuade governments from engaging in such practices.

Three times a year, the Council represents a vital forum for defenders witnessing, documenting, and reporting on the abuses committed against their people, and to share their knowledge and experiences with those who set the norms and officially record these violations, which might otherwise be swept under the carpet.

The Council’s response to country situations

Over the last decade, the Council has been successful in addressing some of the most chronic situations across our sub-region, including Sudan, Somalia, South Sudan, and Eritrea. DefendDefenders, together with countless courageous Eritrean activists, demanded and obtained the creation of a Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea in 2014, which produced a 500-page report,[1] published in November 2015, documenting the Government’s egregious and shocking human rights violations. In a flagrant example of the limitations of the Council’s mandate, the Eritrean Government refused to cooperate with the mission and denied the Commission members access to the country. Nevertheless, their report is thoroughly researched and stands as indisputable proof of the regime’s complete disregard of the rights and lives of its people.

In December 2015, member States of the Council reacted to the worsening crisis in Burundi by convening a Special Session a week after violent attacks were carried out in Bujumbura, leaving over 100 dead, and adopted a strong resolution by consensus. But when will it start reacting to the early warning signs of a looming crisis?

The world we live in is changing, and methods of repression are evolving. In Burundi, the adoption of repressive legislation and the imprisonment of journalists and human rights defenders preceding the outbreak of the crisis should have set off alarm bells in the halls of the Palais des Nations.[2] Yet little attention was paid to these worrying trends, and little has been paid to similar patterns documented during elections in other countries.[3]

As a body made up of member States, international politics have always played a part in shaping the Council’s agenda. However, I am concerned to see worrying and unholy alliances emerge, striving to encroach on some of the Council’s achievements. Prime human rights violators such as Russia, China, Egypt, Cuba, and Pakistan were seen working together at the March 2016 session to weaken the Council’s recognition and protection of defenders working on economic, social and cultural rights.

The Africa group, historically working as a bloc to counter country-specific resolutions, significantly hampered the Council’s response to the devastating civil war in South Sudan. A Commission for Human Rights in South Sudan was only established in March 2016. For over two years, bowing to the pressure of the group, African States refused to establish a mechanism that would work in parallel with the African Union’s on-going process. Can there really be too many cooks when it comes to bringing justice to the victims of one of the world’s most brutal conflicts?

Cooperation between the international and regional human rights systems

The Addis Ababa Roadmap,[4] adopted by the Special Procedures mandate-holders of both Human Rights Council and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2012, is a significant step towards improving such cooperation and collaboration between the two mechanisms, and has the potential to meaningfully advance the protection of human and peoples’ rights on our continent. Stronger collaboration between these two mechanisms is fundamental to improve responses to human rights crises in Africa.

To end on a positive note, there have recently been encouraging examples of bloc politics being put aside to prioritise victims of violations, most notably during the Special Session on Burundi. In a moving statement to the Council, the representative of Ghana spoke in solidarity with the people and the human rights defenders of Burundi, referring to the words of Nelson Mandela who, in 1999, asked ‘for how long shall innocent people of Burundi die at the hands of their own fellow citizens?’

Let us hope that over the course of the next ten years, we will see more States withstand political pressure, not only to fulfil their obligations towards the mandate of the Council but, more importantly, to stand side by side with victims of human cruelty and brutality and those fighting to defend them.

Hassan Shire is the Executive Director of DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project) and Chairperson of the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network (PAHRD-Net). Follow him and his organisation on Twitter: @Hassan_shire @EHAHRDP


[2] DefendDefenders, 2015: Burundi at a Turning Point, Human Rights Defenders Working In the Context of Elections, available at

[3] DefendDefenders, Caught Up in Bitter Contests, Human Rights Defenders working in the Context of Elections in Sudan, Ethiopia, Burundi and Uganda, available at


  • Africa
  • Asia
  • Europe
  • Latin America and Caribbean
  • United Nations
  • Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • Universal Periodic Review
  • Burundi
  • China
  • Cuba
  • Eritrea
  • Ethiopia
  • Ghana
  • Pakistan
  • Russia
  • Somalia
  • South Sudan