Protecting Women Human Rights Defenders: Leveraging the German-African Union Partnership

24 March 2020   ·   Toni Haastrup, Miriam Mona Müller

To link human rights mechanisms to the agenda on Women, Peace, and Security, Germany should reinforce its support to the African Union’s engagement in peace and security. Building on existing African women’s mediator and leadership networks, Berlin should dedicate funds to the work of women human rights defenders and the development of a database highlighting their efforts and challenges.

According to the German Embassy in Addis Ababa, 29% of German aid to the African Union goes to its Department of Peace and Security. It might thus be expected that some of this support is disbursed to women, peace, and security (WPS) initiatives as a priority of peace and security. At the same time, the majority of the AU’s peace and security commitments is of a militarized nature. Consequently, the promotion of human rights within the United Nations (UN) mandated WPS agenda is not a priority.

As a key advocate for human rights and the WPS agenda more broadly, the German government is well placed to support better integration of the work of women human rights defenders into WPS implementation. In Africa, a main avenue for this intensified cooperation would be to support various existing mechanisms within the AU to develop an institutionalized strategy across the continent that protects women human rights defenders. We argue that Germany’s commitment to a survivor-centered approach in WPS cannot be realized if the significant role of women human rights defenders remains a marginalized topic within its cooperation with the AU.

Connecting Human Rights Initiatives and WPS Commitments

Women human rights defenders is a term used to describe everyone who defends women’s rights and women who defend human rights. Human rights intersect with the WPS agenda in that human rights mechanisms can be used to achieve some of the WPS’ aims including the protection of women during conflict. Furthermore, the promotion of women’s rights and gender equality more broadly is an aim of the WPS agenda and Africa’s regional human rights system.

The German government should therefore prioritize the work of the AU’s Special Envoy on Women, Peace and Security, of the AU Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, and of the Special Rapporteur on Rights of Women, as well as the work of the AU Women, Gender and Development Directorate, to bring together initiatives from the two continents.

Currently, the support of women human rights defenders is only emergent and not yet fully institutionalized within the WPS agenda on a global level. In Africa, women human rights defenders continue to bear the risks of gender-specific harms without receiving adequate resources even while trying to obtain justice for survivors of (gender-based) violence. Yet, as we show below, there are now WPS mechanisms within the AU that are well placed to provide dedicated institutional support for women human rights defenders, particularly around the four commitments articulated in the UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2467, adopted in April 2019:

  • Holding the perpetrators to account;
  • Putting victims and survivors center-stage;
  • Prioritizing neglected groups of victims;
  • Strengthening civil society.

Leveraging AU’s Civil Society Participation of Women as Agents of Change

These goals are consistent with Germany’s regional approach to Africa and its current WPS National Action Plan (NAP). Germany is already a key supporter of core AU initiatives such as the African women’s mediator and leadership networks, namely FemWise-Africa and the African Women Leaders’ Network (AWLN). Those initiatives aim at installing the agency of African women leaders including peacebuilders and women human rights defenders drawing on African and global normative frameworks. In so doing, the AU has created space for the institutionalization of home-grown civil society participation underscoring the important role of women as agents of change. Yet, their actual political influence is negligible due to a lack of predictable funding and restricted rights to participate in these spaces. While Africa’s human rights system makes provisions for the protection of women’s rights, it has not been leveraged.

For more coherent WPS strategies and in partnership with the African Union, Germany should implement a joint WPS agenda that supports African initiatives and reinforces international cooperation. More specifically, in line with Germany’s commitments and the African initiatives, Germany is best placed to further its WPS footprint in Africa through continued close cooperation with the office of the AU’s Special Envoy on Women, Peace and Security, Peace and Security, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, and the Special Rapporteur on Rights of Women as well as the AU Women, Gender and Development Directorate.

1. Gender Mainstreaming in German support to African Union’s Peace and Security Initiatives

Germany, through the Foreign Office and Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, should institutionalize gender mainstreaming in its support to the AU. In particular, this can be done by ensuring gender sensitive budgeting for the Peace and Security programs of the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ). In 2017, the GIZ’s financial support for the AU went to the African Peace and Security Architecture (€6M), research on peace and security through the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) based at Addis Ababa University (€6M), the African Union Border Programme (€21,5M), and the Police (€4M). Germany must ensure that gender concerns are reflected in all of its supported AU peace and security initiatives and respond to the needs of the most marginalized. Moreover, lessons learned from past projects must inform the design of future ones.

2. Financial Support Specifically Dedicated to Women Human Rights Defenders

As noted in UN Women’s 2015 Global Study, underfinancing remains a significant hindrance to realizing the ambitions of the WPS agenda. This has also been highlighted by the AU’s Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Currently, most of the external funding offered to the AU goes towards peace support operations. More support should go to concretely ‘silencing the guns’ with an emphasis on human rights. In the context of the German vice presidency of the AWLN Group of Friends, the German representation at the UN should advocate for a new track of the African Women’s Leadership Fund dedicated specifically to the work of women human rights defenders. Such funding would be used to develop continent-wide safe havens for women human rights defenders and the women they defend against gender-based violence. Moreover, legal assistance would be covered by this fund. Such funding should be disbursed with input and guidance from the Special Rapporteur on Women's Rights in Africa and Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders.

3. Developing a Database on Women Human Rights Defenders 

Research on the work, priorities, and range of activities of women human rights defenders in Africa is not collated, which creates a knowledge gap in how donors can be most effective in their support. African knowledge production is key, which is why the German government should invest strategically in research analysis on women human rights defenders. As their work often remains hidden, data collection helps to increase the visibility of their successes but also underscores ongoing challenges. The German government should fund the creation of a database under the joint partnership of the Office of the Special Envoy and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. Such a database would rely on insights from local authorities to document violations targeting women human rights defenders and studies from research institutions. Moreover, civil society organizations including think tanks and non-governmental organizations across the continent would be able to feed into this database.

Developing a National Action Plan With a Long-Term Focus on Women Human Rights Defenders 

Women human rights defenders are essential for gender justice in their role as intermediaries between victims and the states. Given existing gaps in the institutionalization of their roles, the next German NAP and the cooperation with the African Union in general should prioritize supporting them. There is an urgent need for a long-term WPS focus on women human rights defenders. The current German NAP already acknowledges the importance of Africa and of the role of women human rights defenders in ensuring the implementation of the German NAP’s priorities. The meaningful participation of the women human rights defenders in institutional processes of the WPS agenda must thus be significantly enhanced through the recommendations proposed.

Zivilgesellschaft Menschenrechte Frauen

Toni Haastrup

Toni Haastrup is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Stirling, Scotland. Her current research focuses on the regional practices of implementing the Women, Peace, and Security agenda and 'feminist' foreign policy. She has published widely in these areas. @ToniHaastrup

Miriam Mona Müller

Miriam Mona Müller is a PhD Researcher at Heinrich-Heine University in Germany and a board member of the United Nations Association of Germany. She works on the inter-regional governance of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda in the Global South. @MiriamMonaMue; @HHU_de; @DGVN_de