Ms Reine Alapini-Gansou, African Commission Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, presents her mandate

With this year being declared as the ‘African Year for Human Rights’, ACHPR Special Rapporteur Reine Alapini-Gansou, reviews the progress achieved, challenges faced and important role intended for her mandate in the protection of human rights defenders in Africa.

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(Banjul, The Gambia) – ISHR was honoured to meet with the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders of  the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Commission) at the NGO Forum, which recently preceded the African Commission’s 58th session. With this year being declared by the African Union as the ‘African Year for Human Rights’, Ms Alapini-Gansou reviewed the progress achieved, challenges faced and important role intended for her mandate in the protection of human rights defenders in Africa.

Ms Alapini-Gansou first held the position of Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders from 2005 to 2009, and once again took on the role in 2012, following the request of her colleagues at the Commission. The mandate, established in 2004, aims to promote and protect the rights of human rights defenders, establishing strong and permanent relationships with them in order to better understand and respond to the challenges they face, and to report on these concerns at each session of the African Commission.

The methods of the Special Rapporteur

Assisted by a small team based at the Commission’s Secretariat in Banjul, the Special Rapporteur carries out her mission, making use of both self-generated methods and the formal tools of the African Commission. One of the latter, is the African Commission’s trigger mechanism, through which victims of human rights abuses can alert the Commission of their situation. 

However, Ms Alapini-Gansou says she is concerned with wanting to ease the burden of the African Commission, and as such, has developed other tools to assist her in her mandate, drawing from the good practices of the United Nations, for example, communications and urgent appeals, press releases, declarations, and the Special Rapporteur’s newsletter (which is implemented with ISHR’s support). The ultimate goal for all of these activities is to continue to draw attention to the violations suffered by human rights defenders in Africa, calling perpetrators to amend their actions, and calling other stakeholders to establish investigations and bring perpetrators to justice.

Civil society: the heart and lungs of the mandate

The Special Rapporteur emphasised the crucial importance of civil society networks to her mandate. 

‘[NGO networks] help my mandate to respond to the information received, but also to receive the right information [in the first place…]. Not only must there be a synergy between the Special Rapporteur and States, but also between the mechanism and civil society. We cannot succeed without this synergy.’

Among the human rights networks that provide valuable assistance to the Special Rapporteur, she cites African regional human rights defender networks, the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network, ISHR, and l’Observatoire pour la protection des défenseurs des droits de l’Homme.

Ms Alapini Gansou is especially concerned with ensuring that human rights defenders have real and effective access to her mandate.

‘One should not only rely on what we do at the NGO Forum and sessions of the African Commission, but we must try to ascertain if human rights defenders really know the mechanism. […] The Special Rapporteur must be seen as the overseer of the promotion and protection of the human rights of defenders in Africa.’

A growing number of thematic priorities 

One of the issues on which Ms Alapini-Gansou recognises the pioneering determination of ISHR and civil society more widely is that of reprisals.

‘We have been able to build on what was already established at the UN on the issue of reprisals, and now, in Africa, we have been able to go even further than what the UN has done, thanks to a resolution [on reprisals…] The Special Rapporteur mechanism has been appointed as the focal point of the African Commission on reprisals in Africa.’

Another priority of the mandate is that of freedom of association, a subject on which she was able to conduct a study and present its report to the African Commission. One of the main recommendations of the report is the development of guidelines on the freedom of association, a project on which Ms Alapini-Gansou’s team is currently working.

On the subject of women human rights defenders in Africa, Ms Alapini-Gansou highlights that ‘in many respects, they face greater challenges than their male counterparts.’ As such, the Special Rapporteur conducted a study on the subject, producing more than 50 recommendations for stakeholders. She stresses the need to now develop an ‘action plan’ to implement these recommendations.

The impact of terrorism and anti-terrorism laws on the work of human rights defenders and on the right to freedom of association is another growing concern for the Special Rapporteur.

How national crises affect human rights defenders in Africa

Whilst recognising the progress that has been made on the continent, the Special Rapporteur is nonetheless concerned with the deteriorating situation for human rights defenders in many parts of Africa. She believes ‘it is when there are crises of governance that advocates have the most problems’, and is particularly concerned by the situation of defenders in Burundi and the Republic of Congo, both currently in states of conflict.

‘We cannot claim today that human rights defenders in Burundi are being protected. And in Congo-Brazzaville, currently being torn apart by conflict, it has been days since we have heard any talk of human rights defenders. What has become of them? Nobody knows.’

2016: A pivotal year

With 2016 proclaimed ‘the African Year of Human Rights’ by the African Union, it provides a particular opportunity for the Special Rapporteur to review work undertaken by her mandate and to implement an action plan.

Ms Alapini-Gansou intends to organise a ‘Johannesburg +15’ conference in Benin at the end of the year, which will follow up on the Pan-African Conference of Human Rights held in 1998 in South Africa, and which was a pivotal event in the origin of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate.

It is therefore a strong message of encouragement that the Special Rapporteur intends to communicate to human rights defenders in Africa during this African Year of Human Rights.

‘Human rights defenders must continue to believe in what they do. Indeed, being a defender in Africa often means putting one’s own needs second, so without a deep conviction in what you do, discouragement can set in and it can be tempting to give up. The first thing I want to ask of defenders is that they continue to believe in what they do. It is also crucial that human rights defenders prioritise dialogue, regardless of whom the other party is. And finally, it is essential that defenders do not work in isolation because an isolated human rights defender is a vulnerable human rights defender.’

Ms Alapini-Gansou is also a lawyer with the Law Society of Benin and the International Criminal Court, judge of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and professor of criminal law at the University of Abomey-Calavi in Benin.

Contact: [email protected]

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