To Defend Human Rights: A High Risk Activity
By Sidiki Kaba and Eric Sottas
March 25, 2002
Editor's Note: The Observatory for the Protection Human Rights Defenders, joint program of FIDH (International Federation of Human Rights) et de l’OMCT (World Organisation Against Torture) recently published its Annual Report 2001, Human Rights Defenders on the Front Line. In this article, Sidiki Kaba, President of FIDH, and Eric Sottas, director of the OMCT, analyze the high risk in defending human rights worldwide and more particularly on the African continent.
The second Social Forum of Porto Alegre has confirmed the extraordinary vitality of the civil society in the North as well as in the South. The encountered methods of action are more and more varied, and reflect the diversity of the actors involved. Whether lawyers, journalists, defenders of the environment, members of disappeared persons’ families, or NGOs, all are committed to the defence and the promotion of all human rights for all. In every region of the world, they take risks to help victims and to defend fundamental freedoms. For this reason alone, in more than 80 countries, the defenders are harassed, arrested, tried, or even executed by the authorities or private groups.
The Annual Report 2001 of the Observatory for Protection of Human Rights Defenders has chosen to give the floor to civil society representatives facing various forms of repression. Numerous governments waver between the necessity to take into account the legitimate demands of civil society participants and feelings of fear and distrust towards them. Too often the balance falls on the bad side. A Tunisian judge who dares to write an open letter criticising the lack of independence of the judiciary in his country, is immediately summoned for questioning and then dismissed. A unionist fights for rights of workers in Colombia and is consequently threatened with kidnapping and execution.
To these repressive strategies must be added the consequences of the 11 September attacks on the United States, which have increased the degree of suspicion which confront the defenders. These events provide a pretext for authorities to accuse the defenders of supporting terrorist movements directly or indirectly. The "international campaign against terrorism" is used by certain states to legitimise their own policy of neutralization of all forms of opposition and political protest. Confronted with the opportunism of the national security systems of a number of States, now more than ever, human rights and their defenders risk being sacrificed on the alter of the antiterrorist struggle.
In 2001, not less than 400 defenders were victims of violations of their fundamental rights. The 2001 Report testifies to the global deterioration of the situation in which they find themselves.
The African continent continues to face persistent conflicts, as well as an increase in tensions and crises. Even if certain African countries have benefited from political change (Benin, Senegal, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cape Verde…), numerous states continue to refuse all political reform and have mastered electoral and also constitutional manipulation. However, the action of civil society contributes to impede certain abuses of the most repressive states. Due to the strong mobilization of civil society, important progress in the struggle against impunity resulted from complaints filed by victims in Senegal, Chad, and in Belgium against Hissen Habré and his collaborators. Although, due to their impact on the national and international scenes, NGOs increasingly appear as unavoidable partners or negotiators for governments, the relationship remains tense and difficult.
While seeking to remind states of their international commitments, the NGOs acting in the defence of human rights are systematically qualified as enemies of the state by political opponents who seek to destabilise the country.
In numerous African countries, students, journalists, lawyers, members of NGOs continue to be arrested arbitrarily because of their engagement. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 5 February 2001, the president of Katanga section of the Africa Association of Human Rights (Asadho), M. Golden Misabiko, was arrested, transferred, and placed in isolated detention without any formal charge. He was finally liberated only in September 2001. Threats, arbitrary arrests, and ill treatment of members of the Committee of Human Rights Observers (Codho), the Voice of the Voiceless, and the League of Electors, are widespread. In Ethiopia, Professor Mesfin Wolde Mariam, founding member and former President of Ethiopian Economic Council of Human Rights and Doctor Berhanu Nega, President of the Ethiopian Economic Association, were arrested on 8 May 2001 following a meeting devoted to human rights at the University of Addis-Ababa and were only liberated on 5 June 2001. Their trial was postponed until 5 April 2002. In Sudan also, many defenders of human rights were arrested without charge.
In certain countries, defenders of human rights continue to be physically threatened. In Zimbabwe, the President of ZimRIGHTS was attacked by young militants of the political party currently in power (ZANU-PF). In Chad, Jacqueline Moudeina, the lawyer for the victims of the former dictator, was the target of a grenade attack on 11 June 2001.
This year was marked by an unparalleled mobilisation of international and regional authorities against such repression. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations for the Defenders of Human Rights attained her second year of mandate. The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights created a special unit to receive complaints of groups and individuals threatened or harassed in order to evaluate the general situation of defenders of human rights across the continent. In other regions, although there is a growing awareness of the need to institute a true protection of human rights defenders, it collides in practice with resistance. The instigation of specific mechanisms to guarantee liberty of action to human rights defenders is needed. In May, the 31st session of the African Commission of Human Rights and People will be held in South Africa and thus constitutes an occasion not to be missed. Thanks to the persistence of the FIDH and the OMCT, the question of the protection necessary for the defenders appears as the order of the day. However, until the present, the tenacity of the obstacles has hindered the instigation of a protective mechanism. Today, we demand the Commissionaires to engage themselves to put an end to the recurrent repression and to recognize clearly the vital role of defenders by adopting such a mechanism in South Africa. That will constitute a symbol and pay homage to all those who, in this country, have played a role so decisive in putting an end to the abomination of apartheid. The CADHP have to seize this unique opportunity.
The mobilisation of all remains more than ever necessary for protecting the defenders in the front line. We wait for the CADHP to come to the front lines as well.
About the Authors:: The Observatory for the Protection Human Rights Defenders, joint program of FIDH (International Federation of Human Rights) et de l’OMCT (World Organisation Against Torture) recently published its Annual Report 2001, Human Rights Defenders on the Front Line. In this article (To Defend Human Rights: A High Risk Activity), Sidiki Kaba, President of FIDH, and Eric Sottas, director of the OMCT, analyze the high risk in defending human rights worldwide and more particularly on the African continent.
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