A CONSORTIUM of Civil Society organisations in Southern Africa have asked Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) heads of states to end the impunity of escalating human rights abuses of human rights defenders and restrictions on the civic space. In a communique read by Alliance for Community Action (ACA) executive director Laura Miti on behalf of the Human Rights Defenders from Zambia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania, the organisations called for democracy in the region. Miti said SADC must take its responsibility to democratise the region and outline steps to halt the democratic backslide of its member states and hold them accountable on their continued abuse of rights of human rights defenders.
Last year, human rights defenders in the region met in Zambia to share experiences on their work and to develop a local and regional human rights defenders’ rapid emergency response mechanism in light of escalating incidents of human rights abuses on them and restrictions on the civic space in their respective countries.
Among those who attended was AfiA Mama ASBL (Democratic Republic of Congo), Alliance for Community Action (Zambia), Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (Zambia), Center for Strategic Litigation (Tanzania), Chipata DFA (Zambia), DIMACHIBS (Democratic Republic of Congo), NDT Translators (Democratic Republic of Congo), Fumba Chama – Artist and Activist, Legal and Human Rights Centre (Tanzania), Lewis Mwape – Human Rights Defender, Linda Kasonde – Lawyer and Activist, Maiko Zulu – Artist and Activist, McDonald Chipenzi, Sara Longwe – Feminist and Activist (Zambia), Stella Mwiza Chintu, Youth Development Organisation (Zambia), YWCA Mongu (Zambia), Zambia Council for Social Development (ZCSD) and Zitukule Consortium (Zambia).
Miti said delegates resolved to ask SADC to compel its member states to recognise human rights and fundamental freedoms. She said human rights defenders from the countries represented were concerned that their governments had deliberately and repeatedly applied or increasingly passed repressive laws and policies that infringed on the realisation and enjoyment of freedom of expression, association, and assembly.
“Therefore, delegates call on the SADC Heads of State to end the impunity, protect HRDs and uphold and localise the UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/53/144 adopting the ‘Declaration on the Rights and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms’, which obligates them to: protect, promote and implement all human rights; Ensure that all persons are able to enjoy all social, economic, political and civic rights and freedoms in practice,” Miti said.
“Adopt such legislative, administrative and other steps as may be necessary to ensure effective implementation of all rights and freedoms; provide an effective remedy for persons who claim to have been victims of human rights violations; conduct prompt and impartial investigations of alleged violations of human rights; take all necessary measures to ensure the protection of everyone against any violence, threats, retaliation, adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the declaration; promote public understanding of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights; ensure and support the creation and development of independent national institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights, such as ombudsmen or human rights commissions; Promote and facilitate the teaching of human rights at all levels of formal education and professional training.”
Miti said despite DRC, Tanzania and Zambia having signed, ratified and deposited several treaties that uphold the rights of HRDs, these rights were systematically breached with impunity. She said open spaces for civic and democratic expression in the three countries were under threat of being curtailed by the introduction of legislation specifically aimed at restricting journalism and the social media through draconian media and internet legislation.
“Delegates note that countries in the SADC region are state parties to international treaties at the United Nations, the African Union and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), all of which have passed international instruments at one level or another that guarantee the protection of human rights,” Miti said.
“Delegates further noted that the international human rights framework further recognises and supports the promotion and protection of Human Rights Defenders under Article 12 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (1998); EU Guidelines (2004), The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (also known as the Banjul Charter (1987), the African Charter on Democracy Elections and Governance (ACDEG, 2007), resolution ACHPR/69(XXXV) on the protection of human rights defenders in Africa and Resolution ACHPR/Res.119 (XXXXII) 07 on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in Africa.”
She said there was need for the three countries to implement fundamental rights on which civil societies’ ability to act rests and create an enabling environment for human rights defenders to do their work freely. Miti, however, said laws such as the public order Act were being used to restrict civic space.
“Presently, public order laws, NGO laws, regulation of journalism and online spaces are being used as legal or policy measures that SADC countries are using to restrict and decline civic space. This is in conflict with Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights which provides for the right to free speech and expression including online; while Article 20 grants peaceful assembly and association rights. These rights have however continued to experience renewed, continual, or sustained erosion by those charged with the duty to uphold and protect them,” she said.
Miti said the UN declaration placed a special duty on state parties to uphold and protect human rights defenders and ensure that the environment in which they operate was a safe and enabling one.
“However, delegates present note that despite the obligation placed on these countries under the declaration, human rights defenders’ rights and safety are not guaranteed and are instead consistently breached,” said Miti.
“Finally, delegates call on SADC to take its responsibility to democratise the region seriously and immediately outline steps to halt the democratic backslide of its member states and hold them accountable. Delegates further call on SADC to ensure the region does not become one that ignores the human rights and voice of its citizens.”