2022 Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Summit Theme: A Journey to Sustainability: Protecting Civic Space Through Strengthening Institutions for and Networks of Environmental and Human Rights Defenders in Southern Africa
The Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SouthernDefenders), in partnership with Advancing Human Rights in Southern Africa (ARISA), United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Regional Office for Southern Africa (OHCHR ROSA), the People’s Action for Accountability and Good Governance and Amnesty International, will host the 2022 Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Summit from November 28-29, 2022 in Lusaka, Zambia. The summit will bring together human rights defenders (HRDs) and civil society organisations (CSOs), grassroots movements and representatives of National Human Rights Institutions from Southern Africa to take stock of the ground-breaking gains as well as the challenges and risks faced by HRDs in the face of shrinking civic space in the region. The summit will be a hybrid event, meaning that we will have both virtual and in-person participation.
The theme for this year’s summit – A Journey to Sustainability: Protecting Civic Space Through Strengthening Institutions for and Networks of Environmental and Human Rights Defenders in Southern Africa – is particularly relevant in the context of the increasing repression of human rights and the weakening of institutions that are meant to defend democracies at both domestic and regional level. Over the past years, the Southern African region has experienced unprecedented risks to human rights defending and the operation of civic space. Furthermore, the ineptness of the regional bloc to commit to safeguarding human rights and democratic principles has demonstrated an unwillingness to ensure that defending human rights is recognised at both domestic and regional level.
While many countries across the Southern African region have successfully eased their lockdown measures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of the widespread health risk, coupled with grand corruption committed by States and non-State actors, have resulted in increasing levels of poverty and inequality, inadequate access to basic services and the general violation of civil and political rights that are guaranteed at national and international levels. This has caused the region to experience persistent political, economic and social unrest, as many continue to actively demand the expansion of civic space, as well as the respect for basic human rights and accountability in the abuse of power.
Across the region, we are observing increasing levels of state-sponsored violence, where the state apparatus has become an appendage to political interests. The unlawful response of deploying the military and private security within the context of human rights defending points to a worrying trend of silencing legitimate actors in democratic spaces and this also worsened by the increased impunity against the perpetrators. In Eswatini, the government continues to carry out a brutal crackdown on human rights defenders in response to pro-democracy and anti-police brutality protests. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the attacks on HRDs in North Kivu and Ituri provinces demonstrate the failure of the government in giving very broad powers to the military under the extended State of Siege, who have drastically cracked down on civic space or anyone they deem critical, including members of parliament and human rights defenders (HRDs). In South Africa, the increased repression against Abahlali baseMjondolo, a grassroots movement that has lost 24 of its members since 2005, with only 2 successful convictions, demonstrates the increased violence against those who advocate for equality.
Land and environmental defenders, as well as women human rights defenders, who are most exposed to abuse and reprisals continue to be threatened and killed for opposing large-scale agribusinesses and development projects and fighting for women’s rights. In Tanzania, the attack on Maasai villagers demonstrates how land and resource rights in the region are becoming highly contested, and few legal protections can be counted on, especially those that can properly respond to the context of Africans. Furthermore, the increase in the use of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) by powerful corporations against HRDs points to the failure of State actors, at the legislative, judicial and executive levels, to work towards facilitating an environment where criticism is enabled and recognised as critical in public interest issues.
The struggle for LGBTI+ rights has made significant gains over the past years which include, the decriminalisation of same-sex sexual acts in Botswana and Angola. However, protection challenges remain amongst LGBTI+ communities and transgender activists who continue to be the target of harassment and persecution.
In South Africa, the politicization of immigration may serve as a major rallying point in the 2024 elections, as seen by the growing manner in which xenophobic violence and discrimination is being used as a form of political scapegoating by those in power. The SADC area will be negatively impacted by this. Moreover, the rising trend of authoritarianism and the persistent refusal of the regional bloc to jointly defend human rights and civic space amounts to a dereliction of duty, both nationally and internationally, as it prevents States from taking the initiative in the spaces they occupy and coming to effective decisions on issues affecting the region.
In contrast to these negative trends, we have observed a few positive developments that strengthen the protection of defenders, including:
- Active solidarity: better collaboration and coordination between human rights defenders in the region;
- Evidence-based and data-driven advocacy: strategic litigation opportunities to protect and uphold human rights and a gradually expanding case law on the protection of HRDs;
- Mobilisation: new digital technologies used for civil society mobilization and participation; and
- Media resilience: improved media coverage.
- Increased recognition of human rights defenders (HRDs) as legitimate actors in the protection of civic space by National Human Rights Institutions
In response to the complex challenges, it becomes necessary to bring together HRDs and representatives of key institutions supporting democracy to contemplate creative ways of building solidarity across the region to defend civic space and protect the rights of HRDs.