Spaces for Change|S4C, Haki Africa-Kenya, Vocal Africa-Kenya and Civic Advisory Hub-Uganda, in collaboration with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism, co-hosted the Pan-African Conference on Human Rights and Counterterrorism held in Nairobi, Kenya, from 8th to 9th June 2024. The conference united different stakeholders comprising high-level government officials, parliamentarians, regional bodies, civil society leaders, researchers, security experts and human rights defenders from across Africa to explore the interconnectedness of human rights, security and the rule of law, with particular emphasis on counterterrorism in order to promote a holistic approach to achieving peace and stability in Africa.

The escalating security crisis and human rights violations in Africa exacerbated by terrorism and violent extremism positions Africa as a central hub for counter-terrorism measures initiated by diverse multilateral institutions including the United Nations and regional bodies. In the Sahel region of Africa, the situation is dire, with terrorism-related deaths there accounting for almost half of all deaths from terrorism globally.  As Kenya’s Raila Amollo Odinga summed up in his keynote, terrorism, economic challenges, social inequalities and unconstitutional change of government in some Africa states undermine democratic processes, extinguishing hope in the hearts of Africans. Consequently, numerous global counterterrorism initiatives in Africa have surged abound amid clamour for solutions that are homegrown and Africa-led, and put human rights and civil society engagement at the center of efforts to enthrone peace and stability in the continent. It is against this backdrop that the Conference strove to increase the capacity of African governments to put human rights at the forefront of their counterterrorism efforts in partnership with civil society organizations.

Leading a delegation of civil society organizations across West Africa to the conference with support from the Mott Foundation, S4C’s opening remarks emphasized that counter-terrorism measures implemented by African states should not shrink the civic space. Recognizing the interconnectedness between human rights and national security, human rights must occupy a central role in efforts to safeguard the security of African states consistent with the Common African Defense and Security Policy which is predicated on the spirit of developing African security solutions. S4C’s remarks highlighted the significant role played by CSOs in ensuring that human rights are not sacrificed at the altar or national and regional countermeasures. Civil society organizations across Africa have used policy influencing, constructive dialogue and litigation techniques to advocate against repressive provisions contained in anti-terrorism legislations. Some organizatioms have reported the activities of military forces countering insurgent groups and provided humanitarian assistance to conflict-ravaged communities while continuing to hold African governments accountable.  To take good work to scale, it is now important to foster and strengthen partnerships between civil society and governments, regional bodies, and other civic actors.

From his special remarks, it was enlivening to see that the current United Nations Special Rapporteur (UNSR) on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism, Prof. Ben Saul, has prioritized Africa in his mandate. This prioritization exemplifies his readiness to partner with African governments, CSOs, and actors in the fight against terrorism. His mandate will ensure countries countering terrorism abide by the rules of human rights law through technical assistance, recommendations and expertise to states, UN entities, CSOs and relevant stakeholders. Along these lines, the UNSR recently announced a public call for inputs into the Special Rapporteur’s thematic report on the protection of human rights by regional organizations when countering terrorism to be presented to the UN General Assembly in October 2024. The report will examine the extent regional and sub-regional organizations are involved in countering terrorism, including through standard setting; regional cooperation (in policing, border security, countering terrorist financing, sharing of information/intelligence/data, and mutual legal assistance and extradition); technical assistance and capacity building; the establishment of specialized counter-terrorism bodies; military activities; implementing international standards (including Security Council resolutions); and engagement with United Nations counter-terrorism bodies, other regional organizations, and third states.

The conference featured a series of experts-led plenary and panel sessions focused on devising strategies for integrating human rights standards into counter-terrorism measures. S4C moderated two plenary sessions that centered on the roles of CSOs and development partners in advancing human rights while combating terrorism. the second panel focused on the contributions of women, youth, and communities in promoting human rights, prevention, and counter-terrorism. These sessions aimed to highlight alternatives to kinetic approaches, such as avoiding excessive military force, enacting appropriate counter-terrorism policies, avoiding arbitrary legislative measures, and minimizing overt and covert surveillance and electronic interception operations. They underscored examples of successful collaborations among CSOs, communities, and citizens in counter-terrorism efforts. Additionally, the sessions emphasized the role of states in rebuilding trust with their citizens, crucial for fostering effective collaboration among stakeholders. Transparency and the infusion of human rights principles into state counter-terrorism measures were identified as key pillars for enhancing trust and cooperation.

Other major stakeholders present at the conference were donor agencies like the Open Society Foundation, the Africa Union, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Kenya National Commission on Human Rights and the National Counter Terrorism Centre Kenya. In conclusion, the Pan-African Conference on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism provided a distinctive platform to consolidate and advocate for an African-centered approach to achieving a secure and equitable continent. The conference sought to enhance regional cooperation among civil society and state actors on human rights and security, reaffirming African civil society’s dedication to upholding human rights as a cornerstone for sustainable security across the continent.

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