DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project) is a nonprofit working to have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights respected in the sub-region. They focus on supporting the work of human rights defenders by protecting individuals, advocating for them in the United Nations, uplifting their advocacy work and in some ways contributing directly to their operations.
DefendDefenders releases a bi-annual report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on crucial human rights issues in the sub-region. The most recent one covering October 2020 to April 2021 focused on civic space issues including freedom of expression in the context of COVID-19.
The nonprofit identifies the COVID-19 pandemic in conjunction with deliberate actions by governments as impacting respect for democracy, rule of law and human rights. In particular, states (in varying degrees of legality) used the pandemic as an excuse to curtail freedoms towards political and personal agendas. Reports of violations of the freedoms of opinion, expression, association and peaceful assembly increased during the six-month period.
There were government changes in four of the eleven countries in the East and Horn of Africa. In Tanzania, the sitting president passed away in March 2021, and the new president sworn in made positive promises of press freedom and due process reforms. Unfortunately, three other countries in the region had less positive transitions of power – in Uganda, Djibouti and Tanzania incumbents were re-elected in uncredible or flawed elections, and the press and political challengers in these countries were threatened during election season.
The report begins with an overview on the state of human rights in the eleven countries, followed by a list of recommendations for the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Burundi has been in turmoil since April 2015, with political and human rights under attack during the ongoing humanitarian crisis. In May 2020, there was a transition of presidential power following the sudden death of the sitting president. Change so far has been slow-moving, but the recent release of detained journalists has made people hopeful for positive change in the next half of 2021.
The authoritarian regimes of Djibouti and Eritrea continue to top the list of most repressive countries in Africa. In the April 2021 Djiboutian election, the incumbent was overwhelmingly re-elected, and Eritrea’s current president faces no opposition parties or independent civil society organizations to speak up against him. As a result, freedom violations in these two countries see no justice. On top of these repressive policies, the Eritrean military moved into the Tigray region in Ethiopia in November 2020 and possibly committed war crimes.
In Ethiopia the aforementioned armed conflict in the Tigray region brought with it the continued decline of human rights in the country, during which Ethiopia also allegedly committed war crimes, shut down the internet and blocked phone lines. In March 2021, Ethiopia’s prime minister acknowledged “atrocities committed,” and the OHCHR and Ethiopia’s national human rights commission (EHRC) began a joint investigation.
The human rights violations by state security forces in the name of state security and extrajudicial killings of youth in slums continue despite Kenya’s multi-party democratic system and vibrant civil society. Repressive laws target activists, politicians, and journalists critical of the government as well as defenders of business and human rights, specifically those working for indigenous and LGBTQIA+ peoples.
Rwandan citizens face restrictions on freedoms of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly and association. The government continues the repression, harassment, and detention of activists, journalists, members of civil society organizations, human rights defenders and politicians.
State and non-state actors target journalists in Somalia, and terrorist group Al Shabab holds significant territory and commits human rights violations with impunity. The president’s term ended in February 2021 with no plans for elections due to political deadlock.
Another leader in the Freedom House’s most repressive countries list, South Sudan has localized violence that threatens national stability. Government forces target civil activists and journalists and have allegedly committed war crimes including systemic sexual violence and reprisal killings of civilians.
Sudan has been working to expand democratic and civic spaces and to protect women. In February 2021 Sudan joined the Conventions against Torture (UNCAT) and on Enforced Disappearance (CED) and also cooperated with the International Criminal Court (ICC) on a trial against a Sudanese military commander. Other violations committed by the former regime over thirty years have not been brought to justice, and violence against and among civilians has been increasing, in particular in West Darfur.
Tanzania’s government has become increasingly authoritarian since the election of President John Magufuli in 2015. Re-elected in Oct. 2020, Magufuli continued to restrict independent civil society, attack political opposition members, detain HRDs, disbar lawyers, target human-rights NGOs, and suspend or revoke media houses’ licenses. Following his sudden death in March 2021, the new president reinstated the media licenses and explicitly promised to uphold free expression and protect due process.
While human rights defenders and civil society have a strong history in the country, the January 2021 election in Uganda marked a significant downturn in civil and human rights. Attacks against activists, members of the media and political opposition (including supporters) spiked. The government arrested and physically assaulted journalists, abducted and tortured political opposition members, dispersed peaceful protests with excessive force and arrested protesters.
DefendDefenders then presented a series of recommendations to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. These recommendations ask for specific heads of state to follow through on promises to investigate and report on human rights violations, uphold due process and accountability for crimes and reform restrictive legislation. They also call on all member states to uphold freedom of association and assembly, protect human-rights defenders with legislation and governmental respect for their work and formally accept the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ judicial authority.
You can read the entire report here.