Event Reports

Human Rights and the Problem of Shrinking Civic Spaces in East Africa

by Barbara Sabitzer
From 13 – 16 January 2020 we welcomed a delegation of Human Rights Defenders from East Africa to New York for a dialogue program addressing the shrinking civic spaces in their countries. The six delegates, two each from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda met not only people from the UN Secretariat but also different UN organizations as well as representatives from Human Rights NGOs and religious organizations.

Elections, and particularly the upcoming ones in Tanzania were discussed throughout the delegation’s visit with representatives from the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA), and a special focus was placed on possible electoral reforms. However, all delegates criticized that these reforms are often implemented far too close to Election Day so that they do not have any impact. Additionally, increased attacks on Human Rights in the three East African countries are coming in waves and are often increased before elections. These do not only affect members of HR NGOs but also include lawyers and judges. In all three countries, intimidations of members of the judiciary occur. These can range from canceling lawyers’ certificates to the abduction of lawyers to bombing offices of lawyers and judges and even their assassination. Particularly the latter were of great concern for Diego García-Sayán the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers. But he also explained to the group that he can only investigate a country situation by visiting it, and this can only happen upon the invitation of the respective government.


“We have a Rule by Law, not Rule of Law”

                                    – Nicolas Opiyo, Lawyer


Overall, a regional deterioration of the Rule of Law can be seen as Head of States attempt to hold on to power for as long as they can. Countries such as Rwanda and Tanzania pulled out from the African Court of Justice and Human Rights, based in Tanzania.  At the same time, signed treaties which safeguard human rights are being questioned and challenged. These withdrawals impact the work of national Human Rights Commissions (HRC) severely.  In Tanzania, the Human Rights Commission is fully dependent for their budget on the government, which currently provides enough to just not disbanding it, but makes it impossible to work effectively. In Kenya and Uganda, the HRCs are allowed by law to seek additional funding to government funds but become reliant on donor support.

Meeting with CTED
Meeting with CTED

As funding for NGOs through the UN system is often tricky to navigate, the members of the delegation met with the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF), the only UN organization solely dealing with NGOs and not with governments. UNDEF receives about 2,500 proposals per year from NGOs all around the world. After an internal review process, 50 proposals are chosen to be funded. As the UN is represented in a country on invitation of the government, UNDEF informs the government of projects they are planning to fund in the respective country. The government only receives the title of the project and has a veto right.  Some members of the Delegation highlighted that it can be difficult for local NGOs to accept funding from the US and sometimes even from the UN, as the government can interpret it as an agenda of regime change.

Collage of member of the Delegation
Collage of member of the Delegation

This puts in the forefront the balancing act the UN has to manage. On the one hand, they are in the country by invitation of the government and can be asked to stop their work and leave when the government decides so. Yet, often governments are depending on the UN and the support they are getting from UN organizations, however, how much critique and admonition on Human Rights violations does a government accept? The UN works on the premise that the UN presence in a country is better for the population than when it is asked to leave. Hence, Human Rights organizations might feel that sometimes the UN is not outspoken enough. Even though whenever the UN reports on Human Rights abuses by a government, the government at least knows that they are being watched and UN personnel in a country can, therefore, have a norm-setting function on governments through trusted, personal relationships.     


“The UN is often the only point of

access for us to our own government"

                                - Nicolas Opiyo, Lawyer


Another way to remind and encourage UN Member States about International Law is the UN’s Sixth Committee (Legal) of the General Assembly. Supplementing the work of the Sixth Committee is the “Group of Friends for the Rule of Law” which currently consists of 51 member States and is chaired by Austria. This is a UN-focused group and is not active inside the member states themselves.

Meeting at UNDP
Meeting at UNDP

Issues that affect all three countries are migration and refugees. This can be an especially multifaceted issue as countries, such as Uganda, receive refugees and migrants and are seen regionally and internationally as a stabilizing factor, however, internally the President is perceived as a leading cause for citizens to leave, mainly due to restrictive laws and persecution or simply in search for better economic opportunities.  The last point is especially relevant for women as many women from East Africa migrate to the Middle East for domestic work. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) trains many of these women before they leave, as the Human Rights of domestic workers in the Middle East are very often seen as dispensable. Female migrants and refugees experience more human rights abuses at all stages of their trip due to sexual violence and exploitation. However, the protection of female Human Rights defenders also needs more attention, as they do face cultural-specific abuse and intimidation, which was pointed out by representatives from UNWOMEN.

Please visit our twitter feed here for statements from the delegation.