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Indigenous Peoples Cry for Protection: As Human Rights Defenders Zoom on West Africa

Professor Mary Lawlor/UNSR
Professor Mary Lawlor/UNSR

Professor Francisco Cali Tzay/UNSR
Professor Francisco Cali Tzay/UNSR
Mathoni Wanyek/OSF Regional Director
Mathoni Wanyek/OSF Regional Director

(Monrovia – 12 April 2021): Grassroots Frontline Environmental, Land and Human Right Defenders in West Africa convened from 29 – 31 March 2021, to discuss the situation affecting their work by way of the zoom technology. It was by all means a meeting of multidimensional profiles – with the high and the lowly in society interfacing. Credit to the Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Resource Rights and Governance Platform and its affiliate organization, Green Advocates International-Liberia, the progenitor of the initiative. 

Who was in?

Organizers of the virtual conference succeeded in attracting four UN Special Rapporteurs to the conference including, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, Prof. Mary Lawlor; the UN Special Rapporteur for Indigenous Peoples, Prof. Francisco Cali Tzay; Dr. Anne Chabord, Legal Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on Countering Terrorism, and the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights & the Environment, Prof. David Boyd.

Essentially, all the ‘UN Specials’ could not just resist attending the three-day deliberations because the ‘overlooked and unprotected’ community and indigenous defenders were also in front of the cameras, not behind this time. If this is not sufficiently a point of departure from the old order, what is it?

The stories of these so-called grassroot frontline defenders are oftentimes told by 2nd and many times 3rd parties. In fact, their stories are either half told, undocumented or under reported by noted human rights organizations monitoring the sector and the media. So, the MRU CSO Platform is a massive game changer because abandoned people can now ‘sing their own songs while also crying their own cries.’ 

Meantime, if there were any lingering doubts somewhere else as to who a defender really is, as the conference sought to examine, the philosophy of grassroots frontline defenders has since been implanted and nurtured in West Africa.

In fact, the intervention of the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders was reassuring and explicit. Speaking on the panel, “Connecting the Unconnected Defenders: Who is a Defender…” Prof. Mary Lawlor submitted that human rights defenders are people who take peaceful actions to promote and protect the rights of others. Adding, “…it is the motivation of individuals and groups …it is the action that satisfies them that makes them become human rights defenders, not their profession, education or political position or anything else; it is their motivation and their actions.”

The Makeni Convening

In 2019, more than 60 of such defenders from eight West African countries and the DR Congo, were assembled in Makeni, Sierra Leone for the 1st Annual Peoples’ Forum of the MRU CSO Platform. Delegates came from Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria, Guinea, Cote D’Ivoire, Niger, Mali and host country, Sierra Leone. The discussions were focused on the theme, “Developing Strategies to Educate, Mobilize and Empower Affected Communities and Indigenous Peoples to ensure Corporate Accountability in West Africa.”

The three-day interactions in Makeni appear to have emboldened the participants and the MRU CSO Platform to take the struggles of affected people to the next level. Multinational companies operating concessions and grabbing lands in the region, mostly without free, prior and informed consent, have since witnessed an upsurge in the number of grievances against them.

No! The affected communities and indigenous peoples are not ‘just crying, making noise and protesting’ like in the past. They have added a legal dimension to their advocacy. Companies extracting natural resources and their host governments in the region (that fail to humanize the poor people), are being arraigned before the regional ECOWAS Court of Justice, national courts, grievance mechanisms and the legal systems of their (companies) home countries.

Corporate Accountability

The West African sub-region is surely experiencing a new approach to activism and the impact is evident: In Guinea, the people of Zoghota, fought for more than eight years to demanding justice for the night time massacre carried out by the Guinean army at the urging of Vale-BSG Resources, a transnational company with roots in Brazil and Israel. On August 4, 2012, Guinean troops ruthlessly quelled a demonstration by residents of the southeastern Guinean village of Zogota. At least six villagers were killed, while many others were wounded and homes set ablaze. The ECOWAS Court ruled that the Guinean Government is responsible for the deaths and ordered to pay compensation to beneficiaries of each of the six murdered victims.

In Nigeria, farmers and fishermen in the Niger Delta battled the oil giant, Royal Dutch Shell for more than 12 years and recently won litigation in a Dutch Court in The Hague, Shell having contaminated land and groundwater there. Also, in Nigeria, Pastor Evaristus Nicholas led the campaign on behalf of his Aggah community from Rivers State, to file a complaint against the Italian energy company, ENI S.p.A with Italy’s grievance mechanism, OECD National Contact Point, complaining of the shocking impacts of flooding on their health, property, livelihoods and the environment.

In Liberia, 22 communities affected by the operations of the agriculture conglomerate SOCFIN, owner of the Salala Rubber Corporation (SRC) are at an advanced stage with their complaint before the International Finance Corporation’s watchdog, Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO).

A community-based association, the Marginalised Affected Property Owners (MAPO), filed suit against Koidu Limited (KL) on March 4, 2019, in a domestic court in Kenema, Sierra Leone. Koidu Limited (KL) – formerly known as Koidu Holdings Ltd. (KHL) is wholly owned by BSG Resources Limited – an international company based in Guernsey owned by a Liechtenstein-based trust controlled by Israeli entrepreneur Beny Steinmetz. The diamond exploiting company is accused of causing extensive property

and environmental damage, and being complicit in the shooting of peaceful protesters. A separate complaint was simultaneously filed against the Government of Sierra Leone to the ECOWAS Court; just to name a few. 

The Baseline Assessment

The enormity of the challenges, the wanton abuses and subjugation narrated in the testimonies of delegates at the Makeni Forum, in many respects laid the foundation for the commissioning of a comprehensive baseline assessment of the situation across the region in order to get a better appreciation of the issues and capture some empirical data.

The study targeted the whole of West Africa and the Central African Country of Equatorial Guinea to document the experiences, knowledge, lessons learned, skills, expertise, and practices of frontline grassroots defenders across the region, as well as desk review.

The description of the situation is unambiguous. Grassroots environmental, land, and human rights defenders in West Africa, face challenges and threats that make the work they do very difficult.

Findings from the assessment indict governments across the region and the Sahel for inviting multinational corporations into their countries and apparently leaving them to operate at the expense of the indigenous communities who are left to scramble for survival in their own countries with no protection. Poor people are sacrificed just to satisfy their need for foreign investment.

Alfred Brownell, the Lead Campaigner of Green Advocates International (GAI), quoted Frontline Defenders in the report as referring to Northern Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali, as “the Desert of Death,” wherein communities and villagers facing the agony of the Climate Crisis, ‘are held captives in a pentagonal death trap and a web of killings between competing actors: including government forces, paramilitary militias, criminal gangs and bandits, and extremist organizations.’

The Same Narrative

From Guinea to Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Mali, Ghana, Liberia, Niger and other parts, the pattern of attacks is identical. There are stories of reprisal attacks, evictions from traditional and sacred sites, loss of livelihood mechanism for especially women, detention, kidnappings and other forms of brutality.

The Open Society Foundation funded the baseline study and the conference. Its Regional Director for Africa, Mathoni Wanyek appeared to reassure organizers of a continuing backing to take the report beyond the webinar to deliver some concrete results.

Mathoni declared, “The sub region is rich but actually poor.” She spoke about the risky ecosystem that requires various forms of support for those advocating against land grab and predatory tendencies. She thinks training, litigation support, emergency quick response and relocation of defenders whose lives are at risk, as some areas of intervention. Madam Mathoni also stressed solidarity actions in the circumstance and pledged the sustained support of the OSF going forward.

Dr. Allan Goodman, President and CEO of the Institute of International Education (IIE) re-echoed similar sentiments, while advancing the case for continued support; noting that “the COVID 19 situation has made the situation even difficult for grassroots frontline defenders.”

Earlier, the keynote speaker, Prof. Remy Ngoy Lumbu, Special Rapporteur on human Rights Defenders and Focal point on Reprisals of the Africa Commission on Human and People’s Rights, described the conference as “inspiring” especially for West Africa that is inundated with human and environmental rights violations.

As he set the tone for the discussions, he underlined the principle of protection and implored CSOs to take advantage of the growing interest in the plight of the grassroots defenders by reporting to the commission such attacks, abuses and violations. He assured that once brought to his attention, the matters would be taken up with governments concerned to take action in specific cases.

The AU Human Rights Commissioner’s speech was reinforced by the UN Special Rapporteur for Indigenous Peoples, Prof. Francisco Cali Tzay. He seemed to suggest that Africans should take matters into their own hands as it is done in Latin America and other countries in the world.

“Nobody is going to speak on your behalf. We have to do it for ourselves. You have a long history of fighting for the rights of the indigenous people across Africa, you suffered colonization in all your history, and you overcame, and we hope you can bring the reality outside Africa,” Prof. Tzay urged participants.

Addressing the panel on “Responding to Attacks and Reprisals against Indigenous Women in West Africa and the Sahel…” the Special Rapporteur said UN Declaration on Human Rights calls on all state and non-state actors to protect indigenous women as well as women human rights defenders at all levels. He thought the conference was unique opportunity for defenders to know their fundamental rights as their working tools.

Rallying the Connected

The conference convened on the theme, “Securing the Firewall and Connecting the Unconnected: Frontline Defenders Across West Africa.” Some of the topics treated in various panels were:

  • “Connecting the Unconnected Defenders: Who is a Defender- Examining under reporting of Reprisals, Attacks and killings”;
  • “Countering Extremism, The Herder – Farmer Conflicts and the Human Rights Implications for Frontline Defenders in West Africa and the Sahel”;
  • “Securing the Firewalls and Protecting Human Rights and the Environment – The Tragedy of the Sahel Region and the Case for Replicating Escazu in West Africa.”; and
  • “Protecting Grassroots Defenders: Responding to Attacks and Reprisals against Indigenous Women and WHRDs in West Africa and the Sahel” among others.

Aside from validating the baseline assessment report, the nearly 300 participants debated a number of auxiliary tools that grew out of the assessment report. The tools which are key to the next steps include: A Community-based Protection Protocols, Tools to Establish a Support and Response Mechanism, Policy Recommendation and Safe Communication Infrastructure for Grassroots defenders across West Africa.

A host of organizations joined hands and minds with the key organizers in giving the conference the needed relevance and visibility. They included: the Schell Center at Yale Law School, the West African Journalists Association, Global Witness, and International Service for Human Rights and SWEDWATCH.

Others were: Tulane University School of Law, West Africa Human Rights Defenders Network, Defend the Defender Coalition, ESCR-Net – International Network for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, PHRGE/Northeastern University School of Law, among others.

Next Steps

The study was categorical in its findings that attacks and abuses against grassroots defenders are not documented and therefore under reported. Hence, the conference ended with calls for the launching of a systematic and comprehensive monitoring and documentation of attacks and abuses against defenders in the sub-region.

Meanwhile, just before the opening of the Grassroots Defenders Conference, member countries of the MRU CSO Platform, whose members are drawn from indigenous and grassroots communities, met in the 2nd Annual People’s Forum via zoom, to review the activities of the network, approve working documents, and endorse the Secretariat and Steering Committee that had been operating on an interim basis.

The three-day People’s Forum also approved the Governing Structure, the Communication Strategy, the Strategic Program Direction of the Platform for the next two years, and inducted new members.

As a cost saving measure, the Forum preceded the Defenders’ conference on the same dates – 29 to 31 March, with few minutes’ interval between the two.