FREEDOMS AND RIGHTS

Building enabling environment for Africa’s human rights defenders

People have the right to defend rights free from fear and attacks

In Summary

• There are many examples of brave men and women who have been subject to arbitrary arrest solely for being human rights defenders, acting to promote or protect human rights.

• For instance, in July 2017, Germain Rukuki, a rights activist, was at home in Bujumbura, Burundi,  when police arrested him. 

Human rights activists bared by police officers at urban divisional offices during a demonstration
Human rights activists bared by police officers at urban divisional offices during a demonstration
Image: FILE

How would you feel if you were arrested for a crime you did not commit? And not just arrested, but put through a judicial process within which your guilt seemed to be predetermined?

This terrifying spectacle is not as unusual as you might think in East Africa, and there are many examples of brave men and women who have been subject to arbitrary arrest solely for being human rights defenders, acting to promote or protect human rights.

In July 2017, Germain Rukuki was at home in Bujumbura, Burundi,  when police arrested him.  He was charged with breaching the internal security of the state, rebellion, participation in an insurrectionist movement and receiving contributions and funds from foreign organisations and the Burundi High Court sentenced him to 32 years in prison in April 2018.

 

But Germain is not a criminal.

He was simply defending human rights and assisting the most vulnerable people. His trial is completely political. I believe he did not commit any of the acts he was convicted for. Defending human rights is a risky business as one risks arbitrary detention, kidnapping, disappearances, physical aggression, judicial harassment, intimidation and killings.

Still, our freedoms, rights and societies depend on the people who take a stand in their defence. It is for this reason that Protection International decided to contribute towards a safer environment for human rights defenders. People have the right to defend rights free from fear and attacks and each and every one of us can help improve the protection of those who are doing it at great risk.

This simple idea sparked off an incredible journey. Since the late nineties, we have been working together with defenders in over 60 countries around the world to strengthen their capacities in managing their protection effectively.

We established protection desks in 10 countries and piloted new methodologies and innovative approaches for the self-protection of organisations and communities.

Based on our experience accompanying defenders in their struggles, we conducted extensive research and provided systematic reviews on existing public policy initiatives for human rights defenders’ protection – our contribution to building an enabling environment and demanding from those who should fulfill their obligations to protect defenders.

In recent years, however, we have observed worrying trends worldwide: A shrinking space for civil society, the rise in powerful revisionist agendas of international human rights standards and the undermining of democratic values.

 

For this reason, in the framework of its Global Strategy 2019-23, Protection International has launched a new approach to protection, shifting its focus from individual defenders at risk to their collectives and to the right to defend human rights.

Protection International is also transforming itself into a network of regional protection hubs. PI’s Hubs will have their own locally  based management and governance structures. They will be able to independently establish links with existing initiatives and promote new ones, working in a flexible manner across countries in the region.

PI Africa was officially launched in Nairobi on December 3 last year as the first of four hubs that will form PI in the next years.

Celebrations took place at the Belgian Ambassador’s residence in Nairobi to mark the momentous occasion as well as to honour all Africans facing an increasingly hostile environment to defend human rights.

We took this decision, together with members of the International Board of Directors and staff, because we want to bring our decision-making where it matters the most: Close to the defenders.

We also wanted to make sure that our interventions are timelier and more driven by both the context and the needs around the existential threats that human rights defenders face every day.

We are now better located and equipped in responding to the needs for protection support coming from Africa’s Human Rights Defenders. PI Africa Hub will work from Nairobi with grassroots communities – including journalists and activists exposed to great risks for speaking truth to power – by establishing networks among them and with key stakeholders to normalise protection and promotion of basic rights and freedoms.

The hub will also task states to being accountable, recognising and protecting HRDs. We are also looking forward to collaborating with all similar thinking partners and stakeholders towards creating a truly enabling environment for HRDs in Africa to thrive, so that Germain and every other African Human Rights Defender will be free from fear and attacks.