The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) recently published the Cotonou Declaration on strengthening and expanding the protection of all Human Rights Defenders in Africa that recommends repealing harmful and discriminatory laws, ensuring compliance with existing international standards that impact human rights defenders, and developing standards on women human rights defenders, among other recommendations. Adopted earlier this year during the 2nd International Symposium on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in Africa held from March 27 to April 1, 2017, in Cotonou, Benin, civil society, national human rights institutions (NHRIs), and States in the region developed the Declaration. See ACommHPR, Cotonou Declaration on strengthening and expanding the protection of all Human Rights Defenders in Africa (adopted on 1 April 2017). The Commission’s Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Madame Reine Alapini-Gansou, organized the colloquium with the goal of strengthening the protection of human rights defenders in the pan-African region through an assessment of the progress made, and the development of new strategies capable of responding to the current needs of human right defenders. See ACommHPR, 60th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Intersession Activity Report (2017), para. 35. The Declaration identifies the abuse of counter-terrorism laws, undue restrictions on the right to freedom of association, violence and threats of violence against defenders and their families, reprisals, and the targeting of certain groups of defenders, among others, as challenges to the protection of human rights defenders, and recommends, in part, raising awareness through the documentation of violations and publication of reports. See Cotonou Declaration on strengthening and expanding the protection of all Human Rights Defenders in Africa (2017). This Declaration is one of seven declarations adopted by the ACHPR since its founding, and while the ACHPR has adopted resolutions on human rights defenders, the existing treaties, declarations, and general comments in the pan-African Human Rights System do not address human rights defenders specifically.
The Declaration identifies counter-terrorism laws; restrictions to the right to freedom of association; killings, detention, disappearances, and ill-treatment; threats of reprisals; and the targeting of specific groups, such as women, as major challenges faced by human rights defenders in the region. First, the Declaration pointed out that many African countries have adopted counter-terrorism laws and policies, which can be used to “seriously undermine human rights and fundamental freedoms.” For example, counter-terrorism laws undermine human rights in the context of imposing the death penalty, justifying arbitrary detention, and limiting the freedom of association. See Cotonou Declaration on strengthening and expanding the protection of all Human Rights Defenders in Africa (2017). According to the declaration, the risk of abusing these policies is exacerbated by limited judicial oversight and the targeting of human rights defenders addressing issues of good governance. See id.
Second, the Declaration noted that there is a trend of restricting the right to freedom of association by limiting or prohibiting the ability to create, register, and operate an organization; human rights defenders may face criminal sanctions as a result of participating in affiliated meetings or gatherings. Additionally, the Declaration stated that restrictions on financing, including those placed on the receipt of foreign funding, are meant to restrict civil society. See id.
Third, the Declaration relayed accounts of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, acts of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, violence, arrests, arbitrary detentions, and threats experienced by human rights defenders and their families in some States in the region. Such conditions without proper redress, the declaration posited, create serious mental and psychological effects on human rights defenders and contribute to a climate of impunity that enables future violations of the same nature. See id.
Fourth, the Declaration stated that there have been attempts to silence human rights defenders who cooperate with sub-regional, regional, and universal human rights mechanisms. Reprisals and the threat of reprisals are used against human rights defenders in the form of death threats, smear campaigns, physical attacks, kidnappings, judicial harassment, police intimidation, and travel bans, among others. See id.
Finally, the Declaration expressed concern about the targeting of certain groups of human rights defenders, including women human rights defenders; human rights defenders in conflict and post-conflict areas; and human rights defenders who work on issues related to land, health, HIV, sexual orientation and gender identity, and sexual and reproductive health. See id.
In light of these observations, the Declaration provides a set of recommendations to United Nations agencies, the African Commission, the African Union and sub-regional institutions, regional States, National Human Rights Institutions, civil society organizations, media, and religious leaders. To the United Nations, the Declaration recommends continuing to prevent, document, and denounce human rights violations against human rights defenders; disseminating relevant human rights instruments and reports, like the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders; developing training programs for State officials; and facilitating dialogue with human rights defenders. See id.
To the African Commission, the Declaration recommends that the Commission continue to use its mandate to monitor States’ compliance with relevant human rights standards and to make recommendations on States reports, country visits, fact-finding missions, and urgent appeals. See id. The Declaration further recommends that the Commission denounce violations against human rights defenders, including by publishing an annual update on human rights reprisals and by implementing a redress mechanism to address reprisals. See id. Further, it should guarantee, according to the Declaration, the implementation of the Principles and Guidelines on Human and Peoples’ Rights while Countering Terrorism in Africa; review legislation restricting the space of civil society actors; develop guidelines on protecting women human rights defenders; develop a study on the situation of human rights defenders working on health, sexual and reproductive health, sexual orientation, and gender identity; and collaborate with human rights defenders to further identify challenges and progress on the continent. See id.
To the African Union, and other regional and sub-regional bodies, the Declaration recommends that they encourage awareness raising campaigns on the critical role of human rights defenders; facilitate dialogue on challenges and best practices between States, human rights defenders, and other stakeholders; support collaboration between all levels of human rights mechanisms; and improve the political climate by including human rights defenders in regional policy development. See id.
To States, the Declaration recommends adopting and implementing measures to prevent violations against human rights defenders, including by ending the criminalization of activists; repealing laws that restrict the freedom of association and that disproportionately discriminate against human rights defenders on the basis of sex, health, sexual orientation, and gender identity statuses; ensuring that responses to terrorism are not unduly restricting civil society; and supporting, publicly, the work of human rights defenders. See id.
To NHRIs, the Declaration recommends establishing and financing focal points on human rights defenders, with particular attention to defenders at a higher risk of harm. NHRIs should also, according to the Declaration, hold States accountable and intervene when States are likely to violate the rights of human rights defenders. See id.
To civil society, the Declaration recommends continued collaboration with national, regional, and universal human rights mechanisms to hold States accountable for human rights violations against human rights defenders. Civil society, the Declaration states, should facilitate national and regional defenders networks to create alliances between groups of defenders. See id.
Finally, the Declaration recommends that media promote the work of human rights defenders and prevent the incitement of hatred against human rights defenders. See id. Traditional and religious leaders, the Declaration recommends, should remove barriers to the work of human rights defenders by providing access to communities and preventing discrimination against certain categories of human rights defenders. See id.
Legal Framework for Human Rights Defenders
The Declaration follows developments at the universal level to increase protections for human rights defenders globally. In 2016, the United Nations Secretary General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights announced a new mandate to lead the United Nations towards ending reprisals against human rights defenders. [IJRC] Previously, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which delineates the rights of human rights defenders. While the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders is non-binding, it drew upon legally binding international instruments, and it represents a commitment by the majority of UN General Assembly Member States to implement its principles. See OHCHR, Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
The ACHPR has previously adopted resolutions on the topic of human rights defenders, including Resolution 69 on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Africa, Resolution 119 on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in Africa, Resolution 196 on Human Rights Defenders in Africa, and Resolution 273 on the extension of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders in Africa.