The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and Focal Point on Reprisals in Africa, Honourable Commissioner Rémy Ngoy Lumbu, expresses concern following reports of reprisals against human rights defenders and civil society in Africa and the adverse effects that national responses of States Parties to combat the COVID-19 pandemic have on their work.
In the context of this COVID-19 global pandemic, the role of human rights defenders has become ever more important to safeguard the fundamental human rights enshrined in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Charter).
The Rapporteur notes, in particular, serious violations of the freedom of assembly and association, as enshrined in the African Charter and the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
The Rapporteur deplores the fact that, notwithstanding the press releases of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights of 17 and 24 March 2020 encouraging States to ensure compliance with the provisions of the African Charter and advocating for effective and human rights-based responses to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa, several human rights defenders continue to be detained in overcrowded or unsanitary prisons and other detention centres without being charged, and this makes them especially vulnerable to COVID-19 infection.
The Special Rapporteur stresses the obligation of States Parties to ensure that measures adopted within the framework of COVID-19 national responses are not used as an opportunity to discriminate against, stigmatize or target particular individuals or groups, including civil society organizations and human rights defenders.
The Special Rapporteur would like to remind that efforts deployed by States Parties to curb the spread of COVID-19 in their respective territories should not result in the silencing of human rights defenders and should comply with the provisions of the African Charter.
The Special Rapporteur would also like to call on human rights defenders to continue, with determination, their activities to promote and protect human rights in compliance with the laws and regulations adopted in the context of this global threat.
The Special Rapporteur urges States Parties to:
Ensure that national responses to the COVID-19 pandemic do not lead to the targeting or undue interference with the work of human rights defenders;
Refrain from using COVID-19 related emergency declarations to justify the adoption of repressive measures against specific groups such as human rights defenders;
Also refrain from adopting measures that restrict civic space and contribute to creating a hostile environment for human rights defenders;
Ensure that human rights defenders can communicate freely without fear of reprisal;
Take all necessary measures enabling human rights defenders to conduct their core activities, in particular, those providing support to the most vulnerable populations, while complying with the health measures necessary to combat COVID-19; and Promptly release human rights defenders detained without charge.