Ethiopian Government Faces Grilling at UN

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Update: This blog post was updated on May 30, 2014, after the Armenian Mission to the UN in Geneva contacted The Advocates with the final, official version of the statement that was delivered on May 6. The changes do not have any particular relevance to the substance of this post. To see the statement that was uploaded to the UN website and included in the original post, please click here.

We often say at The Advocates for Human Rights that making progress on human rights is running a marathon, not a sprint. For example, the United Nations’ newest human rights mechanism, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), takes place just once every four and a half years for each country.

The Ethiopian Government's delegation to the Universal Periodic Review on May 6, 2014, chaired by State Minister of Foreign Affairs Berhane Gebre-Christos
The Ethiopian Government’s delegation to the Universal Periodic Review on May 6, 2014, chaired by State Minister of Foreign Affairs Berhane Gebre-Christos

So it was particularly fortuitous that the UPR of Ethiopia took place this morning, as Oromo students continue a second week of demonstrations across the federal state of Oromia to protest the Ethiopian Government’s plans to annex that state’s lands in order to expand the territory of Addis Ababa, and as the Oromo diaspora gears up for protests around the world on Friday to show their support for the students on the ground.

Despite the UPR’s early hour–2:00 this morning here in Minnesota, or “Little Oromia” as the diaspora calls it–social media have been buzzing about the review. And as the 3 1/2 hour review progressed, the Oromo diaspora reported on breaking news of more student protests in Oromia.

A quick primer on the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review
Every country that is a member of the United Nations participates in the UPR once every 4 1/2 years. Unlike the opt-in treaty-body review processes, where independent human rights experts conduct the examination, the UPR is a peer-to-peer diplomatic process. Governments comment on the human rights records of other governments. As you might expect, some governments shower their allies with praise, while other governments use the UPR to offer sharp criticism. Each statement typically includes some words of praise, some statements of concern, and some recommendations for the government under review. Later, the government under review must respond to each recommendation, stating whether it accepts or rejects it.

Like other UN human rights mechanisms, the UPR process has a role for civil society. Last September civil society organizations around the world submitted “stakeholder reports” about human rights conditions on the ground in Ethiopia. These reports are supposed to cover: (1) what progress the government has made on any recommendations it accepted during the last round of review; and (2) any developments since the last review.

Members of the Ogaden ethnic group from Ethiopia, living in diaspora in Europe, protest in front of the United Nations in March 2014
Members of the Ogaden ethnic group from Ethiopia, living in diaspora in Europe, protest in front of the United Nations in March 2014

Diaspora civil society groups play critical role in UN reviews
Diaspora advocacy is critical when the UN reviews the human rights records of closed societies like Ethiopia, where local groups may not feel free to criticize the government openly. The Advocates worked with the Oromo diaspora in Minnesota to prepare a stakeholder report for Ethiopia’s UPR, just as we have done for some of the UN’s treaty body review mechanisms. Other diaspora groups are also engaged in the process. For example, groups like the International Oromo Women’s Organization, the UK and Australia and branches of the Oromia Support Group, and the Toronto-based Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa also submitted stakeholder reports for today’s UPR.

Earlier this year, we did in-person and email advocacy with the Geneva missions of governments that we thought might be receptive to the issues we raised in our report. And over the weekend, we followed up with an update on the student protests and government crack-down in Oromia. Watching the live webcast this morning, we were relieved to see that many governments took up some of the Oromo diaspora’s concerns.

The Advocates’ new diaspora toolkit, Paving Pathways, includes a chapter on how to conduct advocacy at the United Nations, and another on advocacy with regional human rights mechanisms like the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Armenia draws attention to diaspora ties, recent casualties in Oromia

Lilia Petrosyan delivers Armenia's statement at the UPR on May 6, 2014
Lilia Petrosyan delivers Armenia’s statement at the UPR on May 6, 2014

A whopping 119 governments signed up to make statements during the review. Because of the limited time and intense interest, each government had just 65 seconds to make its points.You can watch the full review here.

The Armenian government offered the most direct commentary on the student protests in Oromia, and also referenced the Armenian diaspora in Ethiopia:

We would like to stress the friendly relations existing between our 2 nations. The presence of the Armenian community in Ethiopia has a centuries old history. Armenia particularly appreciates the generosity of the Ethiopian people and government, who hosted and integrated the survivors of the Armenian Genocide at the beginning of the 20th century.

Armenia commends the commitment of Ethiopia to the promotion of human rights, including respect for minority rights, cultural diversity and tolerance. In this regard, we are concerned about the reports of recent casualties in the state of Oromia. Armenia hopes that Ethiopia will continue to make efforts to further promote human rights, as a basis for encouraging tolerance and diversity in the country. . . .We have 2 recommendations for Ethiopia:

1) To further promote tolerance and dialogue between different ethnic and religious groups.

2) To further develop and expand human rights awareness-raising programs in the country.

Perhaps reflecting last-minute changes to incorporate a reference to the government’s use of lethal force against student protesters in Oromia last week, the version of Armenia’s statement originally uploaded to the UN website includes the words “New Version” in handwriting at the top.

Governments press Ethiopia to address inter-ethnic conflict, allow free expression, open up civil society
Governments raised a variety of important human rights issues, many of which directly concern the Oromo people, as reflected in our stakeholder report. (Click the country name to read the full text of the country’s statement.)

  • Violence and mistreatment by security forces
    • Costa Rica urged Ethiopia to take urgent measures to investigate torture and extrajudicial killings committed by the national defense forces of Ethiopia.
    • Finland and Montenegro recommended that Ethiopia ensure that is has clear, independent, and effective complaints mechanisms in place for individuals to raise allegations of mistreatment by security, military, and law enforcement authorities and prison officials.
    • Rwanda called on Ethiopia to set up police and military training on human rights.
  • Forcible resettlement of farmers and pastoralists
    • Austria recommended that Ethiopia’s national human rights institutions be equipped with the resources and capacities needed to independently investigate, and provide appeals and redress for, alleged human rights violations in relation to the resettlement of communities through Ethiopia’s Commune Development Program. The United Kingdom also expressed support for credible mechanisms to investigate allegations of abuses by special police in relation to relocation programs.
    • Bolivia encouraged Ethiopia to protect the rights of farmers and other rural workers.
    • Rwanda called on Ethiopia to strengthen measures to ensure food security.
    • Malaysia and Thailand urged Ethiopia to step up efforts to improve health services, especially in rural areas.
    • Morocco recommended that Ethiopia ensure that all segments of society benefit from economic growth.
  • Ethnic and religious discrimination and persecution
    • Namibia urged Ethiopia to enhance the institutional and financial capacities of the Ethiopia Human Rights Commission to effectively carry out its mandate, especially with regard to its working relations with the Oromo, Ogaden, Gambella, and Somali communities.
    • The Holy See urged Ethiopia to improve its outreach to all ethnic communities to actively participate in the political process.
    • Argentina, Bolivia, and Nicaragua urged the Ethiopian Government to combat racism, intolerance, and other forms of discrimination directed at vulnerable groups.
    • Burundi and the Holy See, like Armenia, recommended that Ethiopia expand activities to promote inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue. Canada made a similar recommendation to address inter-religious tensions.
    • Tunisia called on Ethiopia to address education discrimination, and Sudan recommended that Ethiopia expand primary education in students’ mother tongue.
    • Malaysia, the Maldives, and Namibia encouraged Ethiopia to improve the quality of education for children, especially in rural areas.
  • Freedom of expression and association for opposition political parties, human rights defenders
    • Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Nigeria, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States recommended that Ethiopia fully implement its constitutional guarantees of freedom of association, expression, and assembly for independent political parties, ethnic and religious groups, and non-governmental organizations.
    • Canada urged Ethiopia to fully protect members of opposition groups, political activists, and journalists from arbitrary detention. Estonia called on Ethiopia to end harassment of political opposition party members, journalists, and human rights defenders. Finland recommended that Ethiopia take further measures to ensure the safety and freedom of action of human rights defenders.
  • Restrictions on civil society, media; anti-terrorism measures
    • Australia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Ireland, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden, and the United States recommended that Ethiopia abolish or amend its Charities and Societies Proclamation to allow non-governmental organizations to operate more effectively and to receive funding from outside the country.
    • Australia, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, and Switzerland urged Ethiopia to narrow its definition of terrorism under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and exclude the practice of journalism from the definition, to ensure protections for freedom of expression and assembly, and to better allow non-governmental organizations to function. The United States called for Ethiopia to ensure that the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation is applied apolitically.
    • The Czech Republic also called on Ethiopia to immediately release all journalists detained for their professional activities, including the bloggers and journalists arrested in April 2014 and those jailed earlier, such as Mr. Nega and Ms Alemu.
    • Estonia, Ireland and South Korea urged Ethiopia to stop online censorship and respect freedom of the press. Ghana recommended that Ethiopia decriminalize defamation.
    • Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, and France encouraged Ethiopia to amend its Mass Media Proclamation to bring it in line with international human rights standards.
  • Due process and judicial independence
    • Botswana expressed concern about intimidation, harassment, threats, and firing of judges who resist political pressure, and called on Ethiopia to ensure the full independence and impartiality of the judiciary.
    • Switzerland called on Ethiopia to ensure the right to a fair trial.
  • Disappearances, torture in detention facilities
    • Argentina, France, Japan, Paraguay, and Tunisia recommended that the Ethiopian Government take further actions to address enforced disappearances, such as ratifying the Convention on Enforced Disappearances.
    • Austria and recommended that Ethiopia train all personnel in detention facilities to investigate and prosecute all alleged cases of torture. Paraguay and Spain also called for efforts to prevent torture in detention. The United Kingdom expressed support for credible mechanisms to investigate allegations of mistreatment of prisoners. Bhutan and Russia recommended that Ethiopia improve prison conditions. Kyrgyzstan called on Ethiopia to add a definition of torture to its criminal code that includes all elements contained in the Convention Against Torture.
    • Hungary, Paraguay, and Tunisia urged Ethiopia to grant the Red Cross and other independent international mechanisms immediate, full, and genuine access to all detention facilities in Ethiopia, and Hungary expressed concern about allegations of arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of detainees, including torture, rape, and prolonged incommunicado detention.

Recommendations to engage with UN Special Procedures

Some of the recommendations had to do with other United Nations procedures:

  • Ghana and Hungary, Japan, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Slovenia, and Uruguay recommended that Ethiopia permit visits from all UN special procedures mandate-holders.
  • The United States called on Ethiopia to allow the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Assembly and Association to conduct a country visit, and the United Kingdom recommended that Ethiopia invite the Special Rapporteur on Torture to visit the country.
  • Spain also urged Ethiopia to respond to individual communications from special procedures mandate-holders.

The Oromo diaspora may want to use some of these special procedures, described in more detail in our chapters of Paving Pathways on UN advocacy and capacity-building, to submit urgent action letters and request country visits to investigate the situation on the ground in Oromia.

What’s next?
The Ethiopian Government will have several months to examine the recommendations, but then it will have to say definitively whether it accepts or rejects each one. Civil society in Ethiopia, with support from the diaspora, can then lobby for implementation of any accepted recommendations. And the diaspora can engage in remote monitoring of rejected recommendations to continue to shed light on ongoing human rights violations.

There’s also an upcoming opportunity for advocacy at the United Nations specifically relating to the rights of children in Ethiopia. Ethiopia has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and July 1 is the deadline for civil society groups to share information with the human rights experts on the Committee on the Rights of the Child as they prepare for their 2015 review of Ethiopia. Oromos in the diaspora who are concerned about students in Oromia who are under age 18 and who have faced violence, threats, and arrests because of their participation in protests may want to engage in more systematic remote monitoring and then write a report to bring the issue to the attention of the Committee. They may also want to raise other human rights concerns relevant to children in Ethiopia.

Advocacy at the UN is a long process, but when governments stifle dissent and ignore civil society, sometimes international pressure can prompt incremental reforms. Persistent advocacy from diaspora groups is essential to the process.  The Oromo diaspora is up to the task. We know, after all, that the Oromo people are particularly talented distance runners and can run the marathon needed to improve human rights in Ethiopia.

This post is the second in a four-part series about human rights in Ethiopia. Part 1 describes the important role the Oromo diaspora is playing in remotely monitoring recent human rights developments in Ethiopia. Part 3 explores the Oromo diaspora’s strategies for showing solidarity with the Oromo students while pushing for human rights and holding perpetrators accountable for the violence against peaceful demonstrators. Part 4 tells the stories of Oromos in the diaspora who have spoken with friends and family members on the ground in Oromia about events over the past three weeks, and recaps the Ethiopian Government’s response to the UN review.

By Amy Bergquist, staff attorney for the International Justice Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.

More posts in this series:

Oromo Diaspora Mobilizes to Shine Spotlight on Student Protests in Ethiopia

“Little Oromia” Unites to Advocate for Justice and Human Rights in Ethiopia

Diaspora Speaks for Deliberately Silenced Oromos; Ethiopian Government Responds to UN Review

Nightmare for Nigeria’s School Girls

Girls in school in Nigeria Image: Naija247News
Girls in school in Nigeria
Image: Naija247News

On the night of April 14, dozens of armed men showed up at the dormitory of the Government Girls Secondary school in Chibok in northeastern Nigeria.  Dressed in Nigerian military uniforms, they told the girls that they were there to take them to safety and herded the girls into trucks and onto motorcycles.  At first, the girls believed them. But when the men started shooting their guns into the air and shouting, “Allahu Akbar,”  they realized that the men were militants from Boko Haram and that they were in serious danger.

Forty-three girls managed to escape by running away or jumping out of the trucks. But as many as 234 school girls between the ages of 12 and 17 were kidnapped, disappearing into the night without a trace. Two weeks later, their parents still have no idea where they are. And yesterday, village elders from Chibok told reporters that they had received information that the abducted girls were taken across the borders to Chad and Cameroon and sold as brides to Islamist militants for 2,000 naira (about $12). While unconfirmed, these reports are a chilling reminder of the threat of sexual violence faced by women and girls in conflict zones. 

The girls who were abducted were targeted simply because they were exercising their right to go to school, out of the ordinary for a girl in Nigeria. Access to basic education for girls has remained low, particularly in the northern region which has the  lowest girl child enrollment in Nigeria —in 2008 the net enrollment rate for girls into secondary school was only 22 percent.  The girls (who were both Christian and Muslim) at the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok must each have been determined to get an education in spite of tremendous odds.  The fact that these girls were also risking violence to be in school illustrates how important the right to education was to each of them.

How could this happen? And why?
Boko Haram is a violent insurgent group that has killed thousands of people since 2009, purportedly in an attempt to establish an Islamist state in northern Nigeria. Although the Nigerian government has issued a state of emergency in three northern states, attacks on villages in northern Nigeria have displaced more than 470,000 people—mostly women and children, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Since early 2014, Boko Haram’s attacks have been increasingly violent, targeting remote villages, markets, hospitals, and schools.  Boko Haramis responsible for at least 1500 deaths so far in 2014.

Boko Haram also has a history of taking hostages as “slaves.” In May 2013, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Sheku released a video saying that Boko Haram had taken women and children, including teenage girls, as hostages as part of its latest campaign. These hostages would be treated as “slaves,” he said.  This has raised concern among the family members of those abducted that “Boko Haram is adhering to the ancient Islamic belief that women captured during war are slaves with whom their ‘masters’ can have sex.  Regardless of alleged rationale, enslavement, imprisonment, forced labor, rape and sexual slavery are all serious violations of international law.  They are defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as crimes against humanity.

The group has repeatedly attacked schools in northern Nigeria. Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden”  in the Hausa language. Boko Haram has set schools on fire and detonated bombs at university campus churches. In early February, armed gunmen abducted 20 female students at Goverment Girls Science College in the village of Konduga. On February 24, 2014, members of Boko Haram attacked and killed more than 40 male students at Federal Government College in Buni Yadi village and abducted an unknown number of female students. After these attacks, many schools in northeastern Nigeria were closed. The school where the abductions took place was closed as well, but local education officials decided to briefly reopen the Chibok school to allow the girls to take their exams.  

The mass kidnapping  in April was unprecedented and shocking. Even more shocking – after more than two weeks, the Nigerian government has done very little to find and rescue the girls.

The lack of government response has provoked outrage in Nigeria. On Wednesday, several hundred participated in a “million-woman protest march” in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital to demand that more resources be put toward finding and securing the kidnapped girls. The protesters in Nigeria are joined on Twitter with a growing movement under the hashtags #BringBackOurGirls, #BringBackOurDaughters and #234Girls.

One man, whose daughter was abducted along with his two nieces, said his wife has hardly slept since the attack. She lies awake at night “thinking about our daughter”.  As the mother of a young school girl myself, I feel deeply for her. The continuing tragedy of these young Nigerian school girls is every parent’s worst nightmare.

It’s time for world to wake up to the escalating violence in Nigeria, as well as the Nigerian government’s lack of response.

By: Jennifer Prestholdt, deputy director of The Advocates for Human Rights and the organization’s director of the International Justice Program. Ms. Prestholdt has a B.A. in political science from Yale and a M.A.L.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where she studied international human rights law and international refugee policy. She graduated cum laude from the University of Minnesota Law School.

Prestholdt has worked on refugee and asylum issues for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland and the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination Against and Protection of Minorities. Prior to becoming deputy director of The Advocates for Human Rights, Prestholdt practiced asylum law for five years as the organization’s  director of the Refugee and Immigrant Program. She has also taught International Human Rights Law as an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School. 

African Commission to Consider Violence Perpetrated Because of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity

African Commission to Consider Violence Perpetrated Because of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity

African Commission on Human and People's Rights

A delegation from the government of Cameroon is appearing this week before the 54th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to delve into human rights conditions in Cameroon and to respond to questions.

Reflecting grave concerns about violence that is based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Cameroon, the NGO Forum hosted by the African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies last weekend adopted a resolution condemning this human rights abuse. The resolution will therefore be presented to the African Commission for consideration during the closed portion of its session next week.

The Advocates for Human Rights’ partner organizations, Le Réseau des Défenseurs des Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale (REDHAC) and Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), participated in the NGO Forum. During the Commission’s review of Cameroon this week, Patience Ngo Mbe of REDHAC delivered an oral statement on the issue of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Cameroon. Our friends at African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHeR) and Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL) also released a report on violence based on perceived or real sexual orientation and gender identity in Africa in conjunction with the resolution being brought before the NGO forum.

Following the session, the African Commission will announce any resolutions it has adopted and will issue concluding observations and recommendations to the government of Cameroon about a myriad of human rights abuses in Cameroon. It is our hope that the Commission will home in on violence perpetrated because of actual and perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.

The resolution adopted by the NGO Forum is the product of several years of planning and advocacy by African non-governmental organizations. It reads as follows:

Resolution on Violence and Human Rights Violations against Persons on the Basis of their Imputed or Real Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Africa

Recalling that Article 4[o] of the Constitutive Act of the African Union recognizes respect for the sanctity of human life, condemnation and rejection of impunity as a guiding principle of the African Union;

Recalling also that Articles 3 and 28 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights recognize the equality of every individual under the law and the right of every individual to equal protection of the law, and the duty of every individual to respect and consider his fellow human beings without discrimination, and to maintain relations aimed at promoting, safeguarding and reinforcing mutual respect and tolerance respectively;

Recalling further that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights affirm the inherent dignity of all human beings that everyone is entitled to the enjoyment of rights and freedoms without distinction of any kind such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or any other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status;

Noting that Article 29[7] of the African Charter requires every individual to preserve and strengthen positive African cultural values in his relations with other members of society in the spirit of tolerance, dialogue and consultation;

Noting also that Article 45 of the African Charter, which mandates the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, protects human and peoples’ rights in Africa;

Noting further that Article 60 of the African Charter requires the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to draw inspiration from the content of other international treaties and laws, and further noting that articles 2(1) and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which all African states are party, as well article 2 of the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) establish the principle of non discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, as elaborated respectively by the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and that

U.N. treaty bodies and Special Procedures, including the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture and other inhuman, degrading and cruel punishments and treatments, the UN Committee on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, have consistently held that the International Bill of Rights includes protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity;

Expressing grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination committed against individuals because of their imputed or real sexual orientation and gender identity, which include arbitrary arrests, detentions, extra-judicial killings and executions, forced disappearances, extortion and blackmail, violent attacks such as rape and other sexual assault, physical assaults, torture and murder;

Further alarmed at the incidence of violence and human rights violations and abuses by State and non-state actors targeting human rights defenders and civil society organisations working on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity in Africa;

Deeply disturbed by the unwillingness of law enforcement agencies to diligently investigate and prosecute perpetrators of violence and other human rights violations targeting persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation and gender identity;

Hereby:

1              Condemns the increasing incidence of violence and other human rights violations, including murder, rape, assault, persecution and imprisonment of persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation and gender identity in Africa;

2              Condemns exclusion of individuals and communities from the enjoyment of rights and the full realization of their potential because of their real or imputed sexual orientation and gender identity;

3              Specifically condemns the situation of systematic attacks by state and non-state actors against persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation and gender identity;

4              Strongly urges States to end impunity for acts of violation and abuse, whether committed by state or non-state actors, by enacting appropriate laws prohibiting and punishing all forms of violence including those targeting persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation and gender identities, ensure proper investigation and diligent prosecution of the perpetrators, and establishing judicial procedures favorable to the victims.

Shadow Reports Submitted

In related action, The Advocates and its partners also submitted reports in advance of the 54th Ordinary Session for the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ consideration, including:

1. A report on the violation of rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in Cameroon was submitted in collaboration with CAMFAIDS, REDHAC, L’Association pour la Défense des Droits des Homosexuels (ADEFHO). The report describes the widespread persecution of and discrimination against people on the basis of perceived and actual sexual orientation and gender identity.

2. A report on the rights of women in Cameroon was submitted in collaboration with Ecumenical Service for Peace, addressing four forms of violence-rape, domestic violence, breast ironing and, female genital mutilation, as well as the issue of women’s access to employment. The report demonstrates that Cameroon does not do enough to protect and promote the rights of women.

3. A report on the death penalty and detention conditions was submitted in partnership with Droits et Paix. This report shows that despite a de facto moratorium on the death penalty, Cameroon continues to sentence people to death and retains the possibility of carrying out these sentences. The report also describes serious human rights violations in the country’s detention facilities.

By: Ashley Monk, The Advocates’ development and communications assistant

“Look at the details of Eric Ohena Lembembe’s life and you will understand why he died.”

Eric LembembeThe International Justice Program doesn’t get to travel to Geneva very often, but thanks to the United Nations’ live webcasts, we can usually see and hear all the U.N.’s human rights action as it happens.

On Friday morning, I was eager to watch the U.N. Human Rights Council’s consideration of the Universal Periodic Review of Cameroon. I was especially moved when one of our colleagues from Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS) took the floor to speak on behalf of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association and recounted the July 15 discovery of a tortured and murdered Eric Ohena Lembembe, who, before his death, was CAMFAIDS’ executive director.

The CAMFAIDS’ representative had a lot to say during the allocated one and a half minutes, in part because of what CAMFAIDS has been through since May 1. In May and June, there was a rash of break-ins and even arson at the offices of attorneys and organizations that work on behalf of LGBTI people in Cameroon. The attorneys and other activists have faced escalating anonymous threats.

On July 1, Eric spoke out about the increasingly dangerous situation facing human rights defenders in Cameroon working on behalf of LGBTI people. “There is no doubt: Anti-gay thugs are targeting those who support equal rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” he said. “Unfortunately, a climate of hatred and bigotry in Cameroon, which extends to high levels in government, reassures homophobes that they can get away with these crimes.”

The Advocates, volunteer attorneys, and partners in Cameroon working hard for change
Along with two volunteer attorneys from the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels, we’ve been working intensely over the past two months with colleagues from CAMFAIDS, as well as two other Cameroonian NGOs, to write a report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people in Cameroon.

The pace of the Human Rights Council’s UPR process is slow. Governments around the world made recommendations to the Government of Cameroon during an “interactive dialogue” back on May 1. Many countries recommended that Cameroon repeal Article 347 bis, the law that subjects a person engaged in sexual conduct with someone of the same sex to up to five years in prison. Only on September 20, more than four and a half months later, did the Government of Cameroon have to state whether it accepts or rejects those recommendations. (In the end, it accepted only one recommendation that mentioned homosexuality: a recommendation from Belgium to investigate police violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation.) And Friday was the only step in the process in which NGOs get to take the microphone at the U.N. to speak on the record, directly to the government under review.

Human rights defender Eric Ohena Lembembe is tortured and murdered
At the Human Rights Council on Friday, the CAMFAIDS’ representative described what happened to Eric just two weeks after he had spoken out about the increased dangers human rights activists in Cameroon were facing:

On July 15 at 5:45 p.m. in Yaounde, I discovered the dead body of my colleague, our colleague, with the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS, CAMFAIDS. He was a friend and activist for health; a human rights defender for LGBTI persons, a journalist and a writer. His name was Eric Ohena Lembembe. He was locked in his room after having been tortured and killed.

This crime took place after a series of attacks, threats, and arrests made against members of the LGBTI community and their defenders. Eric Ohena Lembembe denounced in his articles and publications these attacks and the instigators of them. He was harassed verbally on the telephone, by email and by SMS. He was even arrested and placed in detention. But he didn’t take these threats into account, and it cost him his life.

Since this crime, the insecurity situation for the LGBTI community has continued to get worse. I would like to thank the Government of Cameroon for its participation in the UPR, but at the same time we would like to draw attention to the silence with respect to the situation of abuse of LGBTI persons and their defenders.

We urge the government to implement the recommendations it accepted to investigate violence and threats against HRDs and of the rights of LGBTI persons, but also the recommendations they rejected to defend LGBTI persons. We call for an investigation into the killing of Mr. Ohena Lembembe. We call for the perpetrators to be sought out, prosecuted, and convicted. We would like the government to investigate, prosecute, and convict those responsible for the series of threats and attacks against human rights defenders who work for human rights. We call for the government to condemn all manifestations which incite homophobia and crimes.

Human rights defenders around the world face threats and harassment from both private parties and the government. The Advocates has developed a toolkit of resources for human rights defenders to use to enhance their safety and security. But the plight of human rights defenders in Cameroon who work on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity is particularly dire.

In wake of Eric’s murder, the government of Cameroon sets its sights on human rights defenders, rather than Eric’s murderers
The government’s investigation into Eric’s death has been lackluster. Authorities have not released the results of the coroner’s autopsy report. The police have made no arrests. Instead, police detained several of Eric’s colleagues for three days interrogate them about  their own sexual practices. And government officials have lashed out at Cameroonian human rights defenders for stirring up matters in the western media.

One of the most disturbing statements came from a commissioner on Cameroon’s National Commission for Human Rights and Freedoms. A CAMFAIDS’ representative heard her speak on a radio broadcast on September 4, just days before the representative was set to travel to Geneva to speak before the Human Rights Council. First, the commissioner defended Article 347 bis, asserting that it “reflects the opinion of the Cameroonian society.” Then, she issued a warning to human rights defenders who work on LGBTI issues:

Cameroonians who denigrate their country abroad in international bodies and then complain that they are insecure when they return to their home country — they themselves are responsible for what happens. They know they will be put down.

Her ominous words echoed in my head as the CAMFAIDS’ representative bravely took the microphone September 20, facing a delegation from the government of Cameroon.

At the UPR, government of Cameroon attempts to sully Eric’s memory
Many other NGOs made statements on a variety of topics, but in response, the government of Cameroon’s ambassador to the U.N. spoke only in an attempt to deny the realities facing human rights defenders and to sully Eric’s memory:

If you look at statistics, well, we speak about one person who allegedly was a victim of violations because of his homosexuality. But there’s no proof that this gentleman was a victim because of his sexual orientation. He is a man like any other. He might have committed crimes and he was the victim of a settlement of scores which was all too quickly attributed to the Cameroon government.

What would be the advantage, the interest in killing somebody who is a homosexual? There would be no point. No one witnessed him having sexual relations. The government in Cameroon, the armed forces, the police, the security forces, has no power, no ability to go and investigate and inquire about what people do in the privacy of their own bedroom . . . .

So I reject this alleged case of this young man who allegedly was found dead as a result of his homosexuality. Distinguished Ambassadors, ladies and gentlemen, these are just things that have been made up. Look at the details of this person’s life and you will understand why he died.

Inadvertently, this government representative may have stumbled upon a nugget of truth at the end of his statement.

Eric was tortured and killed because he worked courageously as a human rights defender
The details of Eric’s life show that he was a courageous human rights defender. He was a fierce advocate who fought to end government-sanctioned discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

If the government of Cameroon ever conducts a thorough investigation into the circumstances of Eric’s torture and murder, it will likely find that he was targeted not because he was gay, but because he publicly spoke out against homophobia and criticized the government of Cameroon for condoning threats and violence against human rights defenders of the LGBTI community in Cameroon.

Jennifer and Alice NkomWhat’s next for human rights defenders working with and on behalf of LGBTI Cameroonians?
Since Eric’s murder, threats against human rights defenders have escalated. Some anonymous messages state simply, “You’re next.” But the movement to end persecution based on gender identity and sexual orientation in Cameroon will not be silenced. “It has become more difficult; I must die, and I will,” said Alice Nkom, one of only two lawyers in Cameroon who will defend people charged under Article 347 bis. “Because many died for us to be free today–free to be a woman, to be a black woman, to do what I do. So we must continue.”

The movement’s next step, if funding allows, is to take its case to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which will review Cameroon’s human rights record October 22-25 in the Gambia. There, our colleagues from Cameroon hope to press Africans to stand up for the rights of LGBTI Africans

Our comprehensive report to the African Commission about LGBTI rights in Cameroon reaches the following conclusions:

  •  Human rights defenders in Cameroon who serve and support people who are LGBTI are increasingly vulnerable and insecure, and the Government of Cameroon plays an active role in creating a climate of impunity for people who endanger and harass these human rights defenders.
  • Enforcement of Article 347 bis (the law that criminalizes same-sex conduct) violates prohibitions on arbitrary arrest, torture, and ill-treatment, and violates individuals’ rights to privacy and security, as well as their right to be free from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Criminalization, discrimination, and stigmatization of same-sex sexual conduct in Cameroon undermine efforts to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS.
  • Private parties and non-governmental organizations perpetrate acts of violence and harassment directed toward sexual minorities, and government officials at all levels foster a climate that contributes to such persecution.
  • Cameroon’s criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults is a colonial legacy steeped in European ethnocentric views of African sexuality.

Get engaged; get involved
Amy BergquistTo read the full report, coauthored by The Advocates, CAMFAIDS,  the St. Paul’s Foundation for International ReconciliationLe Réseau des Défenseurs des Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale (REDHAC), and L’Association pour la Défense des Droits des Homosexuels (ADEFHO), click here. The report notes that in September 2012 men in security force uniforms kidnapped and raped the niece of REDHAC executive director Mrs. Maximilienne Ngo Mbe, in an attack she believes was intended to punish her for her human rights work. In April 2013, unidentified assailants attempted to kidnap her son from his school. Mrs. Ngo Mbe has received death threats by text message.

If you are interested in assisting with translating parts of the report into French, please contact Amy Bergquist at abergquist@advrights.org.

Amy Bergquist is a staff attorney with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.