DESPITE mechanisms to uphold human rights on the continent, governments continue to repress their citizens, particularly during elections. Kenyan Susan Muriungi, who has just been appointed Regional Director of Protection International Africa (PI)*, talks to Africa Briefing
Africa Briefing: What is the current state of human rights in Africa?
Susan Muriungi: Human rights all around the world have been regressing in the last few years. In his outgoing speech as assistant secretary-general for human rights at the UN, Andrew Gilmour said that the push back against human rights had been worse than when compared to the Cold War era when such rights were at their lowest standards.
He particularly placed blame on the wave of nationalist, authoritarian populist leaders for torture, arrests and murders of journalists, brutal repression of demonstrations and closing of civil society space. The situation is also true on the African continent, where the space in which individuals and organisations can defend human rights continues to be restricted, undoing early post-independence achievements.
However, on paper, a lot seems to be going in the right direction for human rights in Africa. There are sincere efforts to enshrine human rights in law in most of the 54 countries, and institutions focusing on various human rights aspects at the national, regional and continental levels are continually being established.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African peer review mechanism, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child are just but a few examples.
Despite these mechanisms, African states continue to repress human rights, particularly during election periods. Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya are some of the countries that have experienced an increase in repression of human rights defenders around elections.
Other rights that continue to be widely abused across the region include women’s and children’s rights and rights associated with sexual orientation and expression.
AB: African leaders regularly cite external interference when they clamp down on human rights activists. Do you think this claim is accurate?
SM: Many African leaders thrive on the ignorance of their populations. Such leaders will not appreciate dissenting voices particularly as they threaten their very existence. Their survival comes from repressing activists to ward off the attention of the media and international actors that may exert pressure on them to act in the right way.
AB: Will the establishment of PI’s Regional Office in Africa make a difference to defending human rights defenders?
SM: The hub is mandated with the task of serving existing and potential protection desks in the respective countries where PI has established a presence. Currently Protection International Africa (PIA) has fully operational protection desks in Kenya, the DRC and a strong presence in West Africa and Tanzania. More desks will be added.
The PIA hub makes it possible to provide direct support for human rights defenders in a more efficient manner, rather than the old model that required all protection desks to go through the PI head office in Brussels.
We recognise that it may not always be possible for PIA to reach every village and community through its own personnel. No one organisation can single-handedly do that unless it is equipped with huge funds and personnel.
Then there are social and cultural barriers that make it difficult to penetrate some areas. PIA’s advantage is in its international, regional and local mechanisms that allow partnerships at all these levels.
With these multi-layered networks, and after evaluation of each unique situation, PIA is able to make recommendations regarding the best approach to take. This may involve working through international actors or through local partnerships. Either way, PIA remains a part of the process from the beginning to the end.
AB: How does the Office plan to operate, given its continental mandate?
SM: A hub in Africa creates the opportunity to design interventions reflecting the continent’s diverse socio-political and economic contexts to provide the most impactful strategies for each situation. Such interventions include training HRDs (human rights defenders) on personal preventive and responsive mechanisms so that they remain safe during periods of high risk.
The training involves physical security, digital security and psychosocial support. It is planned after a detailed needs analysis that will allow PIA to come up with the most appropriate programme.
Beyond training, PIA pursues an advocacy agenda through participation in processes leading to policy decisions that affect the wellbeing of HRDs. Towards this end, PIA promotes dialogues and roundtable discussions on issues relating to and affecting HRDS.
PI has done extensive research on the protection of HRDs across the globe, which PIA will continue to build on, but with an Africa-centred approach.
PIA will work with the existing protection desks in Kenya and the DRC and help them to reach out to other African countries where there are protection needs. Additionally, PIA intends to work closely with relevant organisations in the region to widen and deepen the mandate to protect HRDs.
Partners and networks are important actors for PI and, indeed, in the pursuit of the safety and wellbeing for HRDs, on which PIA places a high value. These networks are very important in the realisation of PIA’s objective of reaching grassroots HRDs.
AB: Do you have the capacity – in terms of financial and human resources – to do an effective job?
SM: Having only been formed recently, the hub is still growing and is therefore faced with some constraints. Of particular concern is the shortage of personnel as a result of limited funding. PIA continues to seek relevant funding for the structural growth of its hub as well as the implementation of its interventions.
It is not all a gloomy picture, however, as the staff of the protection desks in Kenya and the DRC as well as others working in Tanzania and West Africa support the realisation of the hub’s goals.
The hub has received some funding from within and outside the region and continues to network for increased financing. PI’s global office in Brussels has been particularly supportive of PIA, which is the first of four hubs to be established within PI’s five-year global strategy (2019-2023).
PIA is making great strides, though, and we are working towards becoming fully operational with minimum financial dependence on the global office by the end of 2021.
AB: Do you envisage any obstacles that could hinder PI Africa’s work?
SM: Some of the obstacles facing PI’s work in Africa include harassment by states wary of our role in strengthening the voices of HRDs in their country. This has already been the case in some countries where we are trying to deepen our work, such as in Tanzania.
As a way to reduce the threats associated with working in countries with repressive governments, we have developed strategies that have helped us to continue working in environments that have proved difficult for other organisations.
This does not mean that our work is without any risks, as shown by the imprisonment of Germain Rukuki, a Burundian HRD, who at the time of his arrest was an employee of a local organisation working with PI on a joint project.
Germain was sentenced to 32 years in prison on trumped-up charges. He termed the sentence a political decision, appealed but his conviction was upheld in July 2019.
Incidentally, some of the ways to reduce such risks on HRDs is to work closely with perpetrators, a strategy that PIA is keen on pursuing through diplomatic alliances and platforms.
*PI Africa was launched in Nairobi last December. It the first of four regional hubs to be established by Protection International, a Brussels-based organisation that supports human rights defenders. PI says that the decision to create regional hubs is to bring decision-making closer to human rights defenders while ensuring more timely interventions where threats exist.