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Securing the Firewall and Connecting the Unconnected: Frontline Defenders Across West Africa

What is in the Report

The West Africa Frontline Grassroots Environmental and Human Rights Defender (HRD) Baseline Assessment report (focusing on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR) issues) provides an overview of the situation of HRD who focus on ESC rights, specifically land and environmental rights on the frontline in communities in West Africa plus Equatorial Guinea. The research for this report relied on interviews of key informants and HRDs who are primarily based in urban areas, as well as desk research, and the profiles of Frontline Grassroots Defenders working in poor rural and urban slums communities conducted between 2020 and 2021.  The report was validated at virtual international conference held in March of 2021.

This baseline assessment report provides an overview of the situation facing HRDs in West Africa, specifically those working on the frontlines across the region and covered questions such as: 

  • Who are the HRDs and what types of violations do they endure?
  • Who are the perpetrators and how do they operate?
  • What are the strategies used by National and Frontline Grassroots HRDs for protection? 
  • What are the impediments (legal and programmatic) including trending violations and abuses related to attacks and reprisals? 
  • What are the mechanisms that are available to individuals at the local, community, national, regional, and international levels for protection? 
  • Where are there gaps?

The baseline assessment report also draws attention to the work of HRDs focusing on the climate crisis and environmental and social impacts related to the operations of multinational corporations and other non-state actors. The report revealed that Frontline Grassroots Defenders are at the frontlines responding to the impacts of climate change, such as droughts, food insecurity, floods, and sea level change. They also respond to the downstream consequences of these impacts, which include intensified conflicts between pastoralists and farmers, artisanal small-scale miners, large-scale commercial mining operators, artisanal fisherfolk, and industrial commercial fisheries. According to the report, HRDs are on the frontlines of the struggle to ensure that the principles and rights laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and subsequent human rights conventions are upheld around the world.

The report describes how the 2000 UN Declaration of Human Rights Defenders puts the responsibility on governments to implement and respect its provisions. Among these provisions is the duty to protect HRDs from harm because of their work. Despite the policies and conventions aimed to address the issue and the global recognition of the problem, serious barriers to implementation remain due to the type and nature of attacks on HRDs in West Africa, especially attacks on Frontline Grassroots HRDs. Relevant circumstances include regional trends towards shrinking civilian space, criminalization, militarization, stigmatization, and cumbersome registration procedures that make it challenging for HRDs to operate independently. HRDs in West Africa do not have adequate protection. In many instances, arbitrary arrest and detention, frivolous criminal charges, false accusations, unfair trial, and conviction of HRDs takes place.

In the report, the authors recounts how the historical and current political, social, and economic circumstances in the region have impacted the status of Frontline Grassroots HRDs. The post-independence decades have been characterized by violent civil, political, ethnic, and religious conflicts. Despite these challenges, according to the report, there has also been progress in the peaceful resolution of these violent conflicts. Throughout the region, threats to political power and resources perceived by political leaders are major sources of conflict. Elections, in particular, often ignite violence and strife.

In a situational analysis of the status of defenders across West Africa, the report narrates how defenders play a variety of roles and work as journalists, environmentalists, women and gender activists, indigenous peoples and land rights advocates, whistle-blowers, trade unionists, lawyers, teachers, or housing campaigners. Some act individually and others as part of groups in order to promote or protect human rights, either as part of their jobs or in a voluntary capacity.

The report makes two distinctions among HRDs. First, National HRDs work at the national levels, often lead organizations and coalitions, and are known for their work fighting on behalf of ESCR issues. Second, Frontline Grassroots HRDs work at the community level fighting for ESCR issues and are often unknown outside of their immediate communities.

Critical tools to support the work of defenders across West Africa.

Given the amount of quantitative and qualitative data generated during the baseline assessment and the virtual conference to validate the report, the authors carved out of the report and designed a number of tools to support the work of defenders across West Africa. They include the following:

Annex 1: Legal and Policy Recommendations

The following are key policy actions to protect HRDs. These policy actions are relevant for a broad range of governments, multinationals, national human rights institutions, donors, civil society organizations, the African Commission, ECOWAS, the UN, and other stakeholders.

  1. Raise the profile and expose the problem by addressing the under reporting of attacks and reprisals against HRDs in the region, including probing the herders-farmers conflicts and the extremist defender’s nexus in northern Nigeria and the Sahel region, and create visibility about HRDs and their work.
  2. Center HRDs and/or frontline grassroots defenders by building their capacity.
  3. Strengthen the legal and policy framework.
  4. Ensure implementation of laws and the development of effective HRD mechanisms, defenders’ legal clinics at law schools, and other enforcement support.
  5. Build additional support to provide HRDs and their organizations with funding and capacity building.
  6. Ensure all HRDs are accounted for, recognized, protected, and supported.

Annex 2: Community Based Human Rights Protection Protocol

The community-based human rights protection protocol is the collection of the experiences, knowledge, skills, strategies, and lesson learned of Frontline Defenders. The aim of the protocol is to highlight, step-by-step, what individuals and communities can do to protect their own rights and the rights of communities to land, livelihood, and environment.

  1. Innovate and utilize community customary collective protection mechanisms pioneered by frontline defenders and indigenous peoples.
  2. Develop protection checklists to help keep communities in check or on alert..
  3. Develop a security risk assessment and protocol to keep individual and staff safe, including contingency planning for worst case scenarios.
  4. Women working together in coalition as a form of protection.
  5. Use peaceful methods first. Start by knowing and following the law and be sure to document.
  6. Use policy analysis as a weapon to engage and hold the government accountable.
  7. Use community-based assessment tools.
  8. Ensure community unity.
  9. Share experiences and networking.
  10. Bring cases to court at the national and regional level.
  11. Use national human rights institutions.
  12. Improve accessibility to real remedies for justice at the regional level.
  13. Hold companies accountable through the OECD process.
  14. Utilize the Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman of the IFC.
  15. Share impacts and violations as a basis for collective protections.

Annex 3: Strategic Plan for Next Steps

Overall findings regarding funding indicate that North European countries and the Netherlands have traditionally ranked among the greatest supporters of HRDs at the global level. However, in recent years, they have reduced their budgets. Generally, the work that Frontline Grassroots HRDs undertake is not funded directly by major donors.


  • Greater parity in funding between Frontline Grassroots HRDs and National HRDs.
  • Better monitoring and evaluation systems and baseline data.
  • Better records of how human rights issues are resolved.
  • Increased viability of existing mechanisms.
  • More support for engagement with mechanisms of redress at the various levels.

Next Steps

  • Empower people, reach out to the unconnected defenders, adequately respond to the under-reporting of attacks and reprisals, and deliberately support and co-create a robust monitoring and reporting project across the region with frontline defenders.
  • Help people understand the law in order to prevent problems before they arise.
  • Invest in legal aid for the most vulnerable and train frontline defenders as paralegals.
  • Increase participation in justice by using a climate and human rights lens to probe the herder-farmer conflicts and the extremist defender’s nexus in the Sahel.
  • Directly support local and regional frontline grassroots s defenders’ network to be more viable and enable a conversation to institutionalize environmental rights in the region.


The Baseline Assessment Report concludes that the Declaration on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and subsequent legislation places responsibility on governments to protect HRDs from harm as a consequence of their work. However, according to the report, West African governments are not only failing to protect HRDs and Frontline Grassroots HRDs, but they also violate the rights of HRDs, often siding with multinationals or other non-state actors over their own citizens.

The report points out that National HRDs, with their connections and experience, have an important role to play to support and ensure protection for Frontline Grassroots HRDs, who are largely unknown outside their communities and villages. According to the report, Frontline Grassroots HRDs are largely left to protect themselves and use strategies that are locally available rather than relying on outside support. Ultimately, the goal is for greater protection for HRDs using both formal remedies and informal remedies. 

You can also read the Executive Summary for the report here in English (Securing the Firewall and Connecting the Unconnected) and French ( Sécuriser le pare-feu et connecter les non connectés) The final report is  available in English  (Securing the Firewall and Connecting the Unconnected )  and  French  (Sécuriser le pare-feu et connecter les non connectés)