CIVICUS joined other CSOs in participating at the 51st Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights which ran from 18 April to 2 May. CIVICUS also joined the ranks of over 400 CSOs that currently enjoy observer status with the Commission when it was officially granted observer status on 20 April 2012.
CIVICUS welcomes the granting of observer status. We will use this to team up with partners of and beyond the continent to promote civil society participation and voice in influencing democratic freedoms, good governance and human rights in Africa.
Prior to the session, CIVICUS, in partnership with Amnesty International, East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders’ Project and Human Rights Institute of South Africa added value to the debate by organising a successful side event on ‘Shrinking Civil Society Space in Africa: experiences from Angola, Ethiopia, Swaziland, Uganda and Zimbabwe’. The event attracted over 40 participants and brought into debate the critical issue of diminishing civil society space in many African countries. CIVICUS’ overview presentation offered examples from Algeria, Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Zambia, where states are seeking to narrow the space for civil society participation and voice.
Presentations by activists from Angola, Ethiopia and Swaziland illustrated the reality of their governments’ worrisome practice of stifling civil society freedoms to express, associate and assemble. In Ethiopia, “the CSO Proclamation Law creates a number of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, including debilitating restrictions on funding, several measures for observations and erroneous penalties for non-compliance,” said Endalkachew Molla, representing the Human Rights Council, which monitors rights violations in Ethiopia. Lomcebo Dlamini from the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations raised the alarm on increased restrictions on democratic freedoms in Swaziland ahead of the 2013 elections. “The Public Order Act, 1963, is used to restrict public gathering, and political parties are prevented from holding meetings,” she said. Lucia da Silveira from the Association for Justice, Peace and Democracy, Angola, presented on the continuing government use of excessive force to prevent peaceful demonstrations and the use of the law to stop human rights defenders speaking out about violations, including police brutality.
The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa, Reine Alpini-Gansou, expressed similar views. This was evident in her statement, read out by her assistant Dieudonné Wedi, which voiced particular concern with increasing criminalisation of the activities of human rights defenders. Participants emphasised the need for CSOs to continue to raise awareness of the situation and to work in solidarity to take action against states threatening CSOs’ existence and the work of human rights defenders. It was also clear that there is a need for non-LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) CSOs to strengthen relationships, networking and solidarity with LGBTI human rights defenders, whose work remains seriously imperilled on the continent.
Good news is that the Commission passed a resolution on Ethiopia on 2 May condemning the “excessive restrictions placed on human rights work by the Charities and Societies Proclamation” and calling for amendment of the Proclamation in accordance with the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and the removal of restrictions on freedom of expression imposed through the Mass Media and the Access to Information Proclamation (2008) and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (2009). CIVICUS is proud to have been amongst the CSOs whose efforts could be said to have contributed a strong voice leading to this outcome.
CIVICUS, given its Observer status, looks forward to continued engagement with both the NGO Forum and the Commission. CIVICUS will work with its network of partners and members on the continent to raise awareness about the situation of civil society in Africa. Our decision to prioritise engagement with the African Commission is a strategic one that also challenges us to increase our focus and networking.
Agnes Kabajuni, Policy and Advocacy Officer, CIVICUS