Thursday, October 17, 2013

Africa: Situation of human rights defenders in Togo improved, but challenges remain

Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

UN - 16 October 2013 – An independent United Nations expert today called on the Togolese Government to ensure a favourable environment in which human rights defenders can carry out their work.

The Government can do this by fully implementing the existing legal framework, avoiding stigmatisation and fostering a spirit of dialogue and constructive criticism, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, said at the end of her five-day mission to assess progress made in Togo since her last visit in 2008.

“The situation of defenders and civil society in Togo has improved with respect to what I saw in 2008, and I commend the authorities, civil society and the international community for the efforts made,” Ms. Sekaggya stated. “The environment for defenders is more enabling now, but important challenges remain.”

The degree of politicization of the environment in which defenders operate has worsened with respect to 2008, the expert stressed. “I call on civil society and media to re-assess their position and role in society to make sure that they act independently and in a professional manner when checking and reporting on the State’s obligation to protect and promote human rights.”

Ms. Sekaggya highlighted that journalism in Togo, which is quite young, is not always exercised with “enough degree of professionalism” and respect for basic ethics.

However, she warned that the existence of defamation as an offence in the Criminal Code can be used to “unduly punish those who are critical of Government policies and considerably reduce the space for defenders to exercise the basic right to freedom of expression, which is key to claiming other rights.”

Concerned about the use of force by the police when handling demonstrations, Ms. Sekaggya said security forces need to be well trained in crowd control and the role of defenders, and properly equipped. “Defenders also have a role to play in monitoring demonstrations and making sure that they are conducted in a peaceful manner,” she added.

She also cited the need to strengthen the engagement between the National Human Rights Commission and human rights defenders, and to address the lack of trust that seems to exist between them.

Ms. Sekaggya pointed to the challenges faced by certain groups of defenders, notably women defenders and those working on women’s rights, trade unionists, and those working for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

Independent experts or special rapporteurs are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back, in an unpaid capacity, on specific human rights themes. Ms. Sekaggya will present her report to the Council in March 2014.

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