Freedom of Assembly, Association, and Climate Defenders in Africa

African Climate Defenders interface with UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Peaceful Assembly and Association

Climate defenders in Africa face common challenges in exercising their assembly and association rights. For example, anti-mining protesters in The Gambia and the Malen Land Owners and Users Association in Sierra Leone have both been targeted by law enforcement and security agents in the recent past when exercising their assembly rights. At the upcoming 76th Session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in October 2021, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Clément Voule, will present a thematic report on the role of fundamental freedoms in advancing climate justice.

On May 13, 2021, ICNL, in collaboration with CIVICUS, convened civil society organizations that work on climate justice from across sub-Saharan Africa to meet with UNSR Voule. The goal of the meeting was to share first-hand information about the threats and challenges to freedom of peaceful assembly and association facing climate defenders in Africa. Participants came from 11 countries and included climate justice and environmental defenders, youth groups, representatives of indigenous peoples, trade unionists, women’s organizations, and associations that provide legal support to activists.

The below presents an overview of the issues brought up during the convening:

Main Challenges to Exercising Assembly and Association Rights

Participants shared their experiences on a range of challenges. The discussion touched on restrictions on the rights to association and assembly, challenges navigating these restrictions, and political interference, among other issues. The list below highlights those challenges that were common across countries and sectors.

Restrictions on protest rights

  • Authorities abuse the notification system provided by assembly laws to prevent climate justice activists from gathering and protesting.
  • Law enforcement agents and security personnel fail to respect international and domestic legal protections relating to assemblies, including peaceful protests.
    • They often use excessive force, selective or arbitrary arrest, and unlawful detention to prevent or disperse gatherings. Furthermore, law enforcement will surveil protest organizers and participants before and after protests. These tactics are also used against those who monitor and report on protests.
  • Women and young protesters bear the brunt of excessive force, etc.
    • Women climate activists who engage in protests are more vulnerable to brutality and sexual violence.
  • Government authorities do not investigate violations of assembly rights that are reported, which undermines redress for victims, and fuels impunity.

Third party involvement in suppressing exercise of rights

  • Government and private sector actors often collude to suppress dissent.
    • Examples include unlawfully preventing protests in specific locations and excluding union representatives and workers from climate discourse and negotiating platforms.
  • Government officials that have interests in private companies have used law enforcement agents and other institutions to prevent or suppress rights.
  • Government or private companies have sought to co-opt media to stigmatize the work of climate defenders and to attack their integrity.
  • Activists are painted as “anti-development” and “anti-government” and consequently face harassment and heightened attacks. This creates a chilling effect on defenders’ ability to associate, gather, speak, and act.

Other Barriers to Participation

  • Restrictions on access to information and lack of transparency, including government decision-making on climate-related policy issues and contracts with private companies.
  • The lack of effective platforms for substantive public participation in, and oversight of policy formulation and implementation.

Challenges Faced by At-risk and Marginalized Groups

The effects of climate change on individuals and communities are not homogenous, and it is a mistake to look at them as such. Depending on their characteristics, people could be affected in very different ways. Furthermore, vulnerabilities are compounded for at-risk and marginalized groups, including indigenous peoples, women, children, workers, and youth. Here are the main issues the group discussed:

  • The exclusion of indigenous peoples is systemic and requires structural change and specific policies and legal frameworks to ensure that their voices are heard.
    • Often indigenous groups are actively ignored, harassed, and their rights to assembly and association are threatened or not recognized. This is despite their strong connections to the land and deep historical knowledge of the local environment. Indigenous communities must have an influential voice in climate discussions.
  • Women are less able to exercise their rights to assembly, association, and expression, due to the added dimensions of sexual violence and patriarchal societal norms.
  • Young people are marginalized in decision-making processes due to a lack of agency and exclusion from political decision-making. They are also subject to more violations of their fundamental freedoms during protests.
  • Trade union representatives are often left out of climate discussions and not seen as important actors—despite the importance of their inclusion in climate policy discussions, especially since environmental disasters can leave many workers jobless.

Recommendations for International Actors, including the UNSR

Participants engaged in an interactive discussion to develop recommendations for governments, human rights mechanisms, intergovernmental and multi-stakeholder organizations, and businesses for protecting climate justice activism. These included:

Develop or strengthen legal frameworks that enable climate defenders to exercise their freedoms of association and peaceful assembly:

  1. UN and continental human rights mechanisms must do more to hold governments accountable to their obligations under international agreements, including climate agreements and regional and international instruments that guarantee freedom of assembly and association.
  2. Pay particular and urgent attention to reforming laws that present barriers to protest rights and allow for excessive force by law enforcement and security agents.
  3. Ensure that legal frameworks concretely protect freedom of association for both formal and informal coalitions and broader movements. These frameworks can support networks in creating partnerships between human rights organizations, activists, and climate defenders.
  4. Pressure country governments to use legislation and policy to address the specific challenges that marginalized groups – indigenous peoples, women, children, and youth – face in exercising their rights, as well as the greater risks faced by these groups as a result of the climate crisis.
  5. Put in place systems to ensure that state actors, including law enforcement and security agents, properly implement laws and are held accountable for excessive force.

Provide frameworks and platforms that substantively address current public participation shortcomings and exclusion

  1. Governments must develop and implement formal engagement frameworks that facilitate substantive consultations and input in policies and laws affecting climate, as well as in the design and implementation of development projects.
  2. Governments must provide for such participation in their national and local budgets and make special provisions for participation activities targeting indigenous peoples, women, workers, youth, and children. This includes deliberate inclusion through outreach to each constituency to ensure informed representation.
  3. Implement measures to improve and ensure participation in multilateral institutions, where African voices continue to be marginalized or excluded. This requires specific initiatives to create safe and respectful spaces, developing accessible meeting arrangements to allow for experience exchange and information-sharing that contributes to norm-development and improved human rights accountability.

Support more robust and responsive monitoring, reporting, and reaction mechanisms by state and non-state actors

  1. Set up a simple reporting platform for climate defenders and activists to safely send evidence of violations of assembly rights (e.g. sharing of videos, etc.).
  2. Facilitate capacity-building for climate civil society organizations and youth activists to develop tools for responding to human rights violations and conducting effective activism.

Recognize and address the poor implementation of laws and provide accountability and redress

  1. Train law enforcement agents and security sector personnel on their obligations to uphold association and assembly rights.
  2. Improve the investigation and prosecution of rights violations to address impunity.
  3. Involve UN and other multilateral institutions in the monitoring of protests, etc. as they offer more protection to climate defenders exercising their rights.

Ensure Additional protections for marginalized groups

  1. Recognize and respect the agency of local communities in establishing effective solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change. This calls for measures to ensure meaningful consultations with these groups by state authorities at the national and subnational levels.