Supporting the development of human rights defender protection laws in Africa – ISHR launches ‘Model Law’

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(Banjul, the Gambia) – ISHR’s Model National Law on the Recognition and Protection of Human Rights Defenders has been launched at a high-level event at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights currently in session in Banjul in the Gambia.

Developed in consultation with over 500 defenders from every region, and settled and adopted by 29 of the world’s leading human rights experts and jurists, the Model Law provides authoritative guidance to States on how to implement the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders at the national level. It also provides a tool for civil society to promote, evaluate and report on implementation.

It comes at a crucial time for the continent, with a number of States in the process of developing protection laws and many States also passing laws which actually restrict or even criminalise the work of defenders.

Leading African human rights lawyers and defenders that contributed to the Model Law and formally endorsed it include former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, ACHPR Special Rapporteur on HRDs Reine Alapini-Gansou, former UN Special Rapporteur on HRDs Margaret Sekaggya, DefendDefenders Executive Director Hassan Shire, and ICJ Senior Legal Adviser Otto Saki, among others.

Speaking at the launch event to over 40 participants, including many human rights defenders, ACHPR Special Rapporteur Reine Alapini-Gansou said, ‘This is a powerful tool that National Human Rights Institutions and civil society organisations can use to hold governments accountable regarding their human rights treaty obligations and to also help raise awareness about the role and work of human rights defenders’.

ISHR’s Africa Advocacy Director, Clément Voule, said Côte d’Ivoire was the first country in Africa to have adopted a national law that protects defenders, with a law passed by parliament in 2014.

‘Since then, civil society or government actors in Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali and Sierra Leone have commenced processes of drafting national laws. In all cases, ISHR has provided its expertise and used the Model Law as a primary reference point,’ said Mr Voule.

Mr Voule said that ISHR’s experiences to date affirm that processes for the development of HRD laws should be inclusive and consultative and that effective implementation of such laws requires adequate resources and political will and leadership.

‘Consultation with defenders is essential during the development of national protection laws and in their implementation and evaluation. It is crucial to ensure that defenders’ needs and views are included if such laws are to be genuinely relevant, effective and protective,’ Mr Voule said.

As the primary objective of the Model Law is to provide defenders with an effective and well-researched tool to claim and protect their rights and work, woman human rights defender Ms Marthe Pedan Coulibaly shared the Ivorian experience at the Model Law’s ACHPR launch.

While the adoption of the Ivorian HRD national law in 2014 certainly made history, HRDs have continued to call for the adoption of an implementation decree to operationalise the law.

‘Côte d’Ivoire is being reviewed at this session of the African Commission and I reiterate the call of defenders for the Government to adopt the implementation decree. It must include a credible and independent protection and follow up mechanism,’ said Marthe Pedan Coulibaly the coordinator of the Ivorian Coalition of Human Rights Defenders.

Ms Coulibably stressed the importance of including specific measures that recognise women HRDs. She explained that after lobbying and advocacy the Ivorian law includes this provision in Article 9 of the law.

Event co-hosts, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), expressed that they consider the Model Law to be timely and important, particularly in light of the increasing legal restrictions to which many human rights defenders and civil society organisations in Africa are subject.

‘It is also important to ensure that judicial officers, members of Parliament and police officers are trained on the national protection laws once they are adopted by the governments,’ said Ms Pais da Silva, ICJ’s Associate Legal Adviser.

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