Human rights defenders (HRDs) continue to contribute significantly to the advancement of Human rights for All. Now, more than ever, HRDs demonstrate their role and critical contributions they make in documenting violations, challenging authority, monitoring developments and offering constructive advice and guidance to state and non-state actors in ensuring that human rights for all are realized. Despite all the meaningful contributions, HRDs usually achieve this in restrictive, and oftentimes, dangerous environments with them facing real danger such as threats, blackmail, physical attacks, unlawful detentions, digital threats and criminalization.
Particularly, HRDs in Africa have continued to grapple with increased threats and danger. Like other continents, over the time there has been reduced/shrinking civic space. An added layer to this has been the underrepresentation of cases of violations against HRDs under the UN mechanisms through the Special Rapporteur on HRDs. This is a critical time to promote civic space and protect HRDs due to the array of emerging issues that need critical support and push from HRDs. This includes safeguarding the rule of law, especially for cases that are underreported due to factors such as age, gender, sexual orientation, work, indigenous people, gender and religious minorities, and those who advocate for land and resources rights.
While the declaration provides a framework through which HRDs can be protected, there still are gaps in the implementation due to a number of challenges.
The Marrakech Declaration made at the 13th International Conference of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) which took place in Marrakech, Morocco, from 10 to 12 October 2018 with the theme
“Expanding the civic space and promoting and protecting human rights defenders, with a specific focus on women: The role of national human rights institutions” calls for mass mobilization and actions to push for its implementation to respond to the emerging challenges as it focuses on the promotion and protection of all HRDs with a specific focus on women. The declaration recognizes the positive contributions HRDs make for the realization of human rights for all, the violations HRDs face, and implementation which has commenced through human rights institutions (HRIs). While the declaration provides a framework through which HRDs can be protected, there still are gaps in the implementation due to a number of challenges which include but are not limited to:
- Lack of financial resources and capacity by Human Rights Institutions (HRIs) to comprehensively respond to challenges faced by HRDs in-country. This has also affected the popularization and awareness of the declaration for use among HRDs.
- Lack of a national legal and policy framework that supports the Marrakesh declaration to ensure comprehensive implementation. This has limited the usefulness of the declaration to HRDs.
- Political interference and lack of political will by HRIs to ensure the protection of all HRDs, especially those working on issues seen as counter-productive to the standing governments and issues considered socially contentious such as LGBTQI rights, sex workers rights and sexual and reproductive Justice (SRJ) for all.
- The Covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the implementation challenges, with some States using Covid-19 public health responses to restrict freedom of assembly, further shrinking the civic space.
- Lack of solidarity actions among CSOs and HRDs especially for the more vulnerable CSOs and HRDs outlined previously.
In this context, it is of utmost importance that HRDs strengthen their collaboration with like-minded partners and allies in ensuring that there is a unified and deliberate move to protect ALL HRDs while paying particular attention to HRDs facing multi-layered and multifaceted challenges. This Includes ensuring that HRDs are aware of the declaration and other national, regional and international instruments to influence their implementation in the country.
While the violations faced by HRDs can be many, for evidence-based advocacy, it is important that activists and other HRDs document such violations and raise the spotlight on the prevailing challenges to ensure support and quick responses.
Strengthening the capacity of civil society organizations (CSOs) and other HRIs to respond to the diverse challenges faced by HRDs in all their diversities is crucial in ensuring the successful implementation of such instruments. While the violations faced by HRDs can be many, for evidence-based advocacy, it is important that activists and other HRDs document such violations and raise the spotlight on the prevailing challenges to ensure support and quick responses.
HRDs can also influence the formulation of National Action Plans for the protection of HRDs in all their diversities including the establishment of a protection fund to respond to safety and security threats. This also calls for donor accountability to shift from the ever increasing trends of funding programmes but not necessarily general support to shift in approach and support organization strengthening and introducing and maintaining a holistic safety and security plan for HRDs among others. Such measures would allow for HRDs and CSOs to respond proactively to the threats.
For transnational and global responses, HRDs need to create and strengthen opportunities for transnational solidarities between African countries and the south for the increased impact such as putting pressure on the UNSR to put mechanisms in place that ensures increased reporting cases affecting HRDs in Africa. It is also important to bring in other key actors such as the treaty bodies, UN and other INGOs to influence and contribute to the implementation of the Marrakesh declaration. Now more than ever, there is a need for increased protection of HRDs and all key actors need to be mobilized and called to action.