CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and RESOCIDE jointly organised a workshop on enhancing the capacity of human rights defenders to respond to threats in West Africa in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso from 2 to 3 July 2012. The workshop which brought together participants from Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, the Gambia, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and the USA, aimed at identifying specific threats faced by civil society and human rights activists in West Africa and creating a network to facilitate timely and proactive responses to these threats. At the close of the meeting, particpants agreed to create a West African Network for human rights defenders which they named Africa Rights Defenders. The meeting was made possible by the financial support of Irish Aid.
At the start of the workshop, participants presented country experiences on human rights issues. It was clear that Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and human rights defenders continue to work in restricted spaces despite improved legal frameworks for democratic governance and different levels of political transitions experienced by countries in the region. Even though the constitutions of most West African countries make provisions for the respect and protection of human rights, and countries are signatories to or have ratified several regional and international human rights conventions, governments often lack the will to implement these commitments.
Most country experiences indicate that human rights defenders, journalists and civil society activists are often victims of physical assaults, kidnappings, enforced disappearances, torture, judicial harassments and pre-trial detentions. Family members of and lawyers for activists are regularly threatened while some human rights defenders have been assassinated in the line of duty. In Senegal for example, close to 20 activists died in prison during the tenure of the former president while citizens and human rights defenders were attacked, harassed and tortured as they led protests against attempts by the president to amend the constitution to extend his stay in office.