The Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL) has had its observer status taken away by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), according to a statement released by the group last week. CAL said it was “deeply disappointed” by the decision.
CAL is a feminist and activist, pan-African network organization consisting of 14 groups throughout 11 sub-Saharan African countries working for women’s rights and justice. The organization received observer status to the ACHPR in 2015.
The observer status allows for groups to be more involved in ACHPR’s sessions, allowing dialogue between civil society and human rights groups and the Commission.
“The withdrawal of CAL’s observer status actively excludes African women’s rights movements and defenders from the vital human rights spaces where decisions are made about us and for us, but ultimately without us,” the statement said.
According to the statement, CAL was notified by the ACHPR of its decision on August 8, only saying it was due to compliance with the African Union’s (AU’s) Executive Council’s decisions. The ACHPR reports to the AU.
“We received a one-paragraph letter from the Secretariat of the Commission, so this is something we were expecting but we were hoping the Commission wouldn’t fold under the Executive Council of the African Union,” Caroline Tagny, media and campaigns manager for CAL, told INTO. The AU had attempted to revoke CAL’s observer status in the past.
In it, the letter only explained that the Commission was acting on the directions of the AU’s Executive Council, according to Tagny.
“The withdrawal of CAL’s observer status also exemplifies the backlash that women and LGBTQI movements are facing on the continent in their work for the recognition of issues of autonomy, sexuality and gender in the human rights framework, as well as persistent attacks on their rights to freedom of expression and association,” Donna A. M. Smith, the group’s director of development, said in the statement.
The statement also said that in “bowing to the pressure of the Executive Council of the African Union and its regressive interpretation of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights” the ACHPR has “dealt a significant blow to human rights in Africa.” It added that this has only served to “undermine [ACHPR’s] credibility, independence and mandate as the premier institution on the continent tasked with defending and upholding the human rights of ALL.”
The group said that if ACHPR aligns its own criteria to that of the AU, as it was directed to, that would prevent many other civil society groups from being able to receive the status due to its difficult process.
CAL has worked on various campaigns and movements across the region, including recently helping organize eSwatini’s (formerly known as Swaziland) first Pride Parade.
Tagny told INTO that CAL’s removal as an observer is only part of the current issue with the African Union: “CAL’s observer status is withdrawn and it does affect the organization, but it’s bigger than just this. It’s about [how] the African Union…is trying to restrict the ACHPR.”
She said that the misogynistic, patriarchal, and homophobic attitudes coming from some African states have led to an erosion of legitimacy for the commission. These states, she noted, are using “residue of legislation brought by colonizers” to argue against women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. Tagny emphasized that this attack on civil society is seen not only in African countries but also across the world.
“I’m not really sure where they are taking their reasoning from,” Tagny said of the attitudes that are believed to be the center of why CAL’s status was revoked.
Part of the problem is how some of these governments that are part of the AU executive council work. Tagny explained that they may hold the view that opposition in their countries shouldn’t even exist, including civil society organizations that they perceive as part of the opposition.
Who exactly are these countries that are allegedly attempting to silence human rights groups on the continent? “We have an idea,” said Tagny, “but we’re not privy to the discussions that the states are having behind closed doors…but you can see the behavior of certain states and extrapolate that type of policing.”
“This is quite dangerous. For a human rights body to do their job they are supposed to be doing they are not supposed to be pressured in terms of doing their work,” Tagny added. The commissions should be independent experts in order for it to be credible, especially since, “governments are often the guilty parties in terms of human rights violations.”
“It’s kind of weird [the ACHPR] would change their decision that they themselves made in the first place,” Tagny told INTO. ACHPR examined their application, so they deemed CAL acceptable based on the criteria they had created.
Then again, Tagny said, they, as a marginalized group, may be simple prey for the AU: “We’re the easy targets, right? Lesbians. We’re easy targets here.”
“It is worrisome not only for us but for most NGOs, activist groups, and civil society organizations who have observer status right now. It demonstrates that the Commission is ready to fold under political pressure,” Tagny explained.
Even though this situation may be disappointing at the moment, Tagny is optimistic that this is only a small step backward. She believes the young people across the continent will be able to bring more progressive policies to African countries. The negative attitudes about women’s rights and LGBTQ rights can only last for so long as those holding misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic become relics of the past.
“I’m quite confident that this is a temporary setback but it still must be denounced and the people who do make those decisions must be held accountable to the decisions affecting the lives of millions on the continent,” Tagny said. “We’re talking about life and death.”
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