54th Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights
22 October – 5 November 2013
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights is an expert body established by the African Union to monitor, promote and protect human rights in Africa. The 54th Ordinary Session of the Commission was held in Banjul, The Gambia. It was preceded by a three-day NGO Forum (18 - 20 October), which brought together human rights defenders from across the continent.
The Forum aims to bring human rights concerns to the attention of the Commission in order to increase the protection and promotion of rights through the mechanism… more
GABON AND CAMEROON PRESENT REPORTS, BUT OTHER STATES FAIL TO SHOW UP
Two States, Gabon and Cameroon, presented their reports on implementation of human rights within their jurisdiction to the Commission’s 54th session. This was an improvement on the previous session, when not a single State presented a report.
However, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and Mozambique, for the second session in a row, both failed to attend and present their reports at this session. The African Commission gave no public explanation regarding these countries’ absences.
Gabon submitted its initial and combined periodic report for the period 1986 to 2012, and Cameroon presented its third periodic report covering 2008 to 2012. The common issues raised during the reviews included women’s participation in public and political decision making processes; the exploitation of natural resources and the impact of this on communities; the environment for human rights activism; domestic protection and enforcement of human rights; and children’s rights and human rights education.
Cameroon was questioned by Commissioners regarding the lack of safety for human rights defenders working on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), particularly in the context of the recent murder of SOGI activist Mr Eric Lembembe. The government responded by denying the existence of homophobia in the country, saying lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons have equal access to basic human rights.
Regarding human rights defenders in general, the government failed to acknowledge the specific risks and protection needs of defenders and argued that there is no reason to accord special rights to defenders, as they should enjoy the rights of any citizen. Cameroon also rejected the Commission’s call for the decriminalisation of defamation laws, arguing that such laws are necessary to protect individuals from defamation and intrusion of privacy by the media.
Cameroon argued that public opinion remained in favour of keeping the death penalty and noted there have been no executions since 1987.
The Commissioner overseeing Cameroon expressed reservations regarding Cameroon’s approach to the protection of human rights defenders, including those working on LGBT rights. The rapporteur furthermore expressed concern at Cameroon’s arguments supporting the continuation of the death penalty, saying they were unconvincing.
In the final communiqué of the session, the African Commission made no reference to the adoption of the concluding observations of these reviews; apparently it is waiting for Cameroon and Gabon to provide additional information to questions raised during the reviews before continuing to draft conclusions. Once adopted, these will be made available here.
NEW COMMISSIONERS APPOINTED
The African Union’s Assembly of Heads of State and Government voted in May 2013 to re-elect three commissioners for a term of six years each, and to appoint Lawrence Murugu Mute as a new Commissioner. Human rights experts and NGOs welcomed his appointment as an important signal for the advancement of the rights of persons living with disability, as Commissioner Mute is legally blind.
The Commission will now be chaired by Commissioner Sylvie Kayitesie, former Vice-chair, with Mohammed Khafallah as the new Vice-chair.
Pending issues for the Office of Commissioners include the Commission’s position on SOGI rights and the question of reprisals against those that cooperate with the African human rights system. Both of these sensitive issues are critical to the effective functioning of the Commission.
The lack of implementation of recommendations and decisions of the African Commission is another important hurdle for the office to address. According to information issued by the Commission during its 25th anniversary session, only 10 percent of its decisions are effectively implemented.
LAMPEDUSA DROWNINGS AND MIGRANTS’ ISSUES INADEQUATELY ADDRESSED
During the NGO Forum, there was criticism that the Commission and the African Union had not made any public statement on the drowning of migrants travelling to Europe at Lampedusa. These deaths, and the phenomenon of Africans leaving the continent with the hope of a better life in Europe, were referred to repeatedly during the Forum.
In particular, defenders discussed the lack of basic rights on the continent that push people to such extremes. The attempts of some organisations to encourage States, in particular the African Group, to organise a Special Session on the issue at the UN Human Rights Council has, for the moment, also not led to any decision.
MAPUTO PROTOCOL ON WOMEN’S RIGHTS MARKS TEN YEAR ANNIVERSARY, BUT CHALLENGES REMAIN
ISHR made a statement at the Commission calling on African States to implement the Maputo Protocol, and to show leadership at the current session of the UN General Assembly in New York by supporting the first-ever resolution focused on the protection of women defenders.
Whilst the Protocol is acknowledged as a key women’s rights instrument, participants also reflected on the lack of awareness and understanding of the Protocol by States and individuals, and that the Protocol is rarely mentioned in State reports to the Commission.
The NGO Forum made recommendations for tangible action that would encourage the implementation of the Protocol. It said the Commission should develop General Comments on the Protocol to provide guidelines for States on its implementation. This was aligned with a call to civil society organisations, in partnership with the Commission’s Special Rapporteur on Women’s Rights, to sensitise member States on areas of the Protocol that may be misunderstood and act as a barrier to ratification, popularisation and domestication. These include provisions on marriage, land, inheritance, sexual and reproductive health, and the right to safe abortion.
Given a lack of awareness and implementation of the Commission’s decisions, the Forum called on the Commission to encourage States to provide greater visibility for regional decisions at the national and community levels. This would increase women’s awareness of their rights and empower women to demand them. The NGO Forum also urged the Commission to hold States to account for decisions made at the domestic level that do not comply with the terms of the Protocol.
Enabling women’s participation in public life is a principle referred to in several articles of the Protocol, which highlight States’ responsibility to increase women’s participation in conflict prevention and resolution, and at all levels of decision-making.
The problem of restrictions to women’s engagement in public life was addressed at the Commission’s opening ceremony, by Burkina Faso’s Minister of Human Rights, Ms Julie Somda-Nigna, who spoke on behalf of African Union member States. Ms Somda-Nigna noted the attacks and hostility faced by women when they claim public space and demand rights for all. Emphasising the crucial role played by women in peace and security, democratic processes and human rights, she called upon all those present to increase efforts to acknowledge the important role of women human rights defenders, and to promote and protect their work.
The Commission considered the report on the situation of women human rights defenders produced by the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa. The report will be considered for final adoption at the Commission’s next Ordinary Session, in April 2014.
New resources for human rights defenders
The Commission adopted substantive resolutions focused on the implementation of the Kenya -Endorois decision. This landmark decision concluded that Kenya had violated the rights of the Endorois indigenous community by evicting them from their land.
Other resolutions focused on the question of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in Mali; police and human rights in Africa; women’s rights to land and productive resources; and the issue of the involuntary sterilization and the protection of human rights in access to HIV services… more
AFRICAN STATES MUST PROTECT AND PROVIDE AN ENABLING ENVIRONMENT TO HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS
States have a critical role to play in preventing violations against human rights defenders in Africa and in providing for their physical and legal protection, ISHR said in a statement to the African Commission.
ISHR’s statement urged States to investigate, prosecute and ensure accountability for violations against human rights defenders and called on the Commission to follow up on State obligations.
ISHR raised particular concerns regarding the misuse of laws, malicious prosecutions, unfair trials and judicial harassment to criminalise the work of human rights defenders… more
AFRICAN STATES SHOULD IMPLEMENT THE MAPUTO PROTOCOL AND PROTECT WOMEN HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS
In a further statement to the Commission, ISHR called on States to implement the Maputo Protocol, particularly in regard to women human rights defenders.
ISHR’s statement to the Commission called on African States to show leadership at the current session of the UN General Assembly in New York by supporting the first-ever resolution focused on the protection of women defenders. The draft resolution focuses on the risks and attacks faced by women defenders, notes the contexts in which women defenders live and work that can adversely affect their ability to claim and defend rights, and outlines specific measures to meet protection needs… more
NGO STATEMENT ON SITUATION AND PROTECTION NEEDS OF HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS IN AFRICA
ISHR was pleased to coordinate an NGO statement on the situation of human rights defenders across Africa and the legal, political and other steps necessary to protect defenders and support their invaluable work… more
ISHR CALLS ON NGO FORUM TO IMPROVE EFFECTIVENESS AND ADDRESS GENDER IMBALANCE
The lack of domestic implementation of the Commission’s decisions and recommendations is a chronic issue. ISHR therefore recommended that the NGO Forum dedicate time to sharing and assessing strategies for more effectively influencing the Commission.
ISHR is also concerned that male panelists continue to dominate panel discussions at the NGO Forum. This lack of gender balance is striking, and prevails despite being an issue that has been raised on numerous occasions at prior fora.
COMMISSION FAILS TO TAKE SUFFICIENT ACTION ON REPRISALS
In her report to the Commission, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders raised the issue of reprisals against those that cooperate with the African human rights system. She called on the Commission to take action to implement its resolution on reprisals. Unfortunately, the Commission did not act on the Special Rapporteur’s recommendation, since no reference on the issue was included in their final communiqué.
Since the adoption of the resolution, ISHR and several of its regional partners have encouraged the establishment of an African Commission focal point within the Secretariat to receive and respond to cases of reprisals.
DISCUSSIONS ADDRESS HUMAN RIGHTS AND EXTRACTIVE INDUSTRIES IN AFRICA
Several panel discussions at the NGO Forum and side events at the Commission were held on the question of extractive industries and human rights. Among them was a panel on the illicit financial flows from Africa, organised in connection with a study requested by the Commission from the Working Group on extractive industries and human rights in Africa. The discussion focused on how illicit financial flows affect the resources available for States to enforce their human rights obligations. The event gathered experts from the NGO community, States, national human rights institutions (NHRIs), together with Commissioners.
During the reviews of Gabon and Cameroon, the Commissioner in charge of these issues questioned the governments about the illicit financial flows from extractive industries operating in both countries.
A second discussion was organised on the issue of the free, prior and informed consent of communities where extractive industries begin operation. At this event, the Working Group said it was collaborating with a number of specialised NGOs on a resource guide for community-based approaches to reach consensus, within the framework of the African Charter.
These events also addressed the risks encountered by defenders working on human rights in the context of extractive industries. In this context, a number of human rights defenders gave evidence and accounts of the threats, attacks, restrictions and reprisals they face in connection with their work to ensure human rights accountability on the part of extractive industries.
NGO FORUM CALLS ON COMMISSION TO CONDEMN VIOLENCE AND DISCRIMINATION BASED ON SEXUAL ORIENTATION AND GENDER IDENTITY
A report entitled ‘Violence based on perceived or real sexual orientation and gender identity in Africa’ was launched at the NGO Forum by the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL) and African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR). The report documents numerous cases of physical violence against LGBT human rights defenders, including arbitrary arrest and detention, sexual violence, extortion and even killings. It also calls on States, not to provide ‘sexual minorities with special protection’, but to recognise ‘they are entitled to the rights all other citizens have - the rights to security, liberty, life, dignity and a fair trial’.
In welcoming the report, Commissioner Khafallah made the distinction between the importance of defending all people from discrimination and violence, and any personal views people may have regarding non-normative sexual and gender identities. He underlined the importance of the Commission speaking out against violence and defending human rights, particularly for those who cannot attain accountability at national levels.
The NGO Forum called on the Commission to condemn violence and other human rights violations against people on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation and gender identity. It also urged States to end impunity for such violations, whether perpetrated by State or non-State actors, by ensuring proper investigation and prosecution through the establishment of judicial procedures responsive to the needs of victims. The basic human rights principle of condemning violence and discrimination against any individual recalls the Human Rights Council’s June 2011 resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity. In its final communique, the Commission did not take up this call.
COMMISSION MOVES TO PROTECT PEOPLE WITH ALBINISM
Following the resolution passed on the protection of people with albinism at the Human Rights Council, several anti-discrimination activists spoke of the strategies they had followed to achieve this State recognition, and what lies ahead. During its private session, the Commission passed a resolution on protecting people with albinism.
INAUGURAL PAN AFRICAN HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS’ AWARDS RECOGNISES ANTI-FGM ACTIVIST
The inaugural Pan African Human Rights Defenders Awards was held at the NGO Forum. The overall winner was Iman Baba Leigh of the Gambia for his work for the eradication of female genital mutilation. Currently living in exile, Iman Baba Leigh was not able to receive the prize in person.
In an emotional speech, the Executive Director of Gambia Committee on Traditional Pracitces (GAMCOTRAP), Dr Isatou Touray, who is a close colleague of the Iman, accepted the award on his behalf. The award was said to be recognition of the commitment and impact of all those working on behalf of women’s rights, and of the threats faced by human rights defenders in the Gambia.