African Defenders Expands Network to Keep Activists Across Africa Safe but Not Silent

AfricanDefenders staff, board members, and partners celebrate the launch of a new Ubuntu Hub City in Accra, Ghana in March, 2022.

Human rights defenders across Africa face increasing isolation and persecution due to the global pandemic and conflicts across the region. In response, human rights organizations, including the Pan African Human Rights Defenders Network (African Defenders), expanded the capacity of African organizations to protect human rights defenders across the continent.

“AfricanDefenders’ main work is to promote and protect human rights defenders and the work they do for their communities in various settings by reducing their vulnerability and the risk of persecution and by enhancing their capacity to do effective work,” Hassan Shire, chairperson of African Defenders and executive director of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (Defend Defenders), said. Shire is also a member of the World Movement for Democracy Steering Committee.

AfricanDefenders held a consultation to increase engagement between North African human rights defenders and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR)

In 2009, a conference of over 85 African human rights defenders and 33 international partners identified a need for an umbrella organization to strengthen and coordinate the work of existing human rights organizations and networks. They created the African Defenders network, which today includes five sub-regional networks and assists civil society actors in their engagement with regional and international human rights bodies. African Defenders also conducts regular advocacy campaigns to promote human rights and democratic norms.

“Shrinking civic space and resurgent authoritarianism present new risks for frontline democracy advocates across Africa,” said Bridget Millman, senior Global program officer at NED. “Operating across sub-Saharan and North Africa, the African Defenders network offers support and safe haven for human rights defenders within their own continent while also increasing their capacity and amplifying their voices.”

One of African Defenders’ important projects is the Ubuntu Hub Cities initiative, which works to temporarily relocate artists, bloggers, journalists or other human rights defenders facing violence or threats in their home country. Moving these activists to a safe host city where they speak the language and remain connected to local organizations help them continue their important work. The network now has locations in in Kampala, Uganda, Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, Tunis, Tunisia and Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Cape Town, South Africa. In March 2022, the organization expanded even further, adding a seventh Ubuntu Hub City location in Accra, Ghana, to host additional human rights defenders from West Africa.

In addition to providing housing for human rights defenders, the African Defenders works with local partners to provide medical support and services. “While in relocation, we support the human rights defenders to continue their work if they want to do so, and this is done through education or fellowship placements,” said Walda Shaka, program and protection officer at African Defenders. “We also offer support … such as medical assistance for victims of sexual or gender-based violence, psychosocial support for those that have experienced trauma doing their work, legal aid for those that have filed complaints against the perpetrators of their threats, and family support for women human rights defenders that have dependents.”

According to Shire, it is important to continue sheltering human rights defenders within the African continent. Previously, human rights defenders seeking refuge often fled to countries outside Africa. However, these relocations were often expensive, and activists often faced cultural displacement and language barriers that made it difficult for them to continue their human rights activism.

“This concept of housing ourselves in our own continent is a cherished dream,” said Shire at the launch of the Ubuntu Hub City in Ghana. “Hosting these resilient human rights defenders from across the continent will go a long way in making our continent the place that we want.”