Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders at the African Commission's 55th session


Human rights defenders protect human rights at peril of their lives, and must be given adequate protection in doing so, said the African Commission’s Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders Ms Reine Alapini-Gansou.

Human rights defenders protect human rights at peril of their lives, and must be given adequate protection in doing so, said the African Commission’s Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders Ms Reine Alapini-Gansou.

Ms Alapini-Gansou’s comments came during the presentation of her report to the African Commission's 55th session. Several cases of activists under threat and attack have been referred to the Special Rapporteur since the Commission’s 54th session in October 2013. In response, she had sent letters raising concerns to the Democratic Republic of Congo (four incidents), Somalia, Senegal (one incident each), and Sudan (three incidents). The violations suffered included breaches of privacy, bodily integrity, arbitrary arrest, threats, prohibition of demonstrations and assembly, and judicial harassment. The Special Rapporteur had also issued six press releases, including on the anti-same-sex marriage act in Nigeria, and the anti-homosexuality act in Uganda.

Unfortunately, as the Special Rapporteur pointed out, cooperation with her mandate from States is generally low. For example, she had sent requests to visit all States featured in her press releases, but not a single one had replied.

Instead she faced criticism from some States for issuing those press releases without first consulting the States concerned. Ms Alapini-Gansou was unequivocal in her response that if releases are to go out in a timely and effective manner there is no time to debate beforehand.

The Special Rapporteur drew particular attention to reprisals against those who cooperate with the African Commission. The effectiveness of human rights bodies, including the Commission, depends upon the information supplied by human rights defenders. As Ms Alapini-Gansou pointed out, it presents a serious obstacle to the Commission’s work when defenders are deterred or otherwise prevented from participating in its sessions. There are several cases of defenders who do not attend sessions for fear of being attacked as a result, including a Sudanese woman human rights defender, and defenders from Mauritania.

Ms Alapini-Gansou also referred to the case of the six arrested Ethiopian bloggers and three journalists, pointing out that one of the bloggers had participated in the 54th session of the African Commission and had been preparing to participate in the 55th session when he was arrested.

The number of these cases, just at a cursory level, warrants further investigation and monitoring to build up a more accurate picture of the extent of reprisals against those cooperating or attempting to cooperate with the African Commission. ISHR raised this point in its own statement during the debate, reiterating a point we have made consistently in the past. The Special Rapporteur responded by calling for the African Commission to put in place a mechanism to enable reprisals to be reported and monitored by the Commission. Later in the session the Commissioners adopted a resolution to appoint a focal point on reprisals, which will receive allegations of reprisals and report on them to each session of the Commission.

One form of reprisal is to block NGOs from receiving observer status at the Commission. States have done this in the past by refusing to provide NGOs with written evidence of their official domestic registration or existence. Ms Alapini-Gansou particularly criticised Angola in this regard. She added that as this is becoming a widespread problem, the African Commission would grant observer status even without this document to ensure NGOs that are going good work can engage with the Commission.

The Special Rapporteur’s call on States to ensure that defenders can carry out their work without restriction or intimidation fell on unreceptive ears. All States that spoke did so to defend restrictions on human rights defenders. Sudan and Algeria emphasised their position that human rights defenders must act within the law, otherwise, said Sudan, ‘we are giving them immunity from civil and criminal law’. Speaking in a right to reply, Ethiopia responded to the detention of the six bloggers and three journalists stating that they were not arrested for exercising their freedom of expression but because they had failed to observe the law of the land. However, as the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project had pointed out, Ethiopian legislation as its relates to human rights defenders is some of the most restrictive in the world, including the Charities and Societies Proclamation and the Anti-Terrorist Act, and is far from complying with international human rights standards.

NGOs also referred to other legislation that has an impact on human rights defenders, including anti-homosexuality laws that put LGBTI defenders in fear of reprisals from their community, from the police and others.

Uganda spoke out against criticism of its Anti-Homosexuality Act, rehashing an argument that popular will, both nationally and globally, is on its side. The fact that 38 out of 54 African States prohibit homosexuality, far from being a source of shame, was touted by Uganda as a sign that its actions are in line with overall trends and opinion. Uganda added that it was currently developing guidelines on implementation of the Act.

Agreeing that of course there is no unanimity on this issue, the Special Rapporteur was clear that popularity is irrelevant. What is undebatable, she stressed, is that everyone has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and dignity.

While States reacted aggressively to criticism from both the Special Rapporteur and NGOs who spoke during the debate, Ms Alapini-Gansou was strong in defending the right to speak out against governments, pointing out that there is always something more a State can do to fully implement international human rights standards, and that criticism from human rights defenders is therefore entirely inevitable and unavoidable.

Human rights defenders must be able to voice these criticisms without fear if human rights standards are to be implemented on the ground. It is encouraging to see the African Commission begin to take these concerns seriously through the concrete step of creating a designated Commissioner (or focal point) to address the issue.


  • Africa
  • Human rights defenders
  • African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights
  • ACHPR Special Rapporteur on HRDs
  • Ethiopia
  • Uganda