Title: The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms: A Positive Agenda for Human Rights Online
Author: Tom Orrell
No. Of Pages: 20
The brief under review documents the development of the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms (the Declaration) and provides an overview of how it can spur the development of rights-based Internet policy regimes in Africa. The Declaration was drafted by African civil society advocates and digital rights defenders who are seeking to engage with the wider Internet policy stakeholder community within their own countries and regions. The Declaration further seeks to inspire digital rights advocates in other parts of the world to take proactive steps to develop normative standards for the protection of human rights online in their own contexts, learning from the lessons and approach of the African Declaration on Internet Rights.
In the foremost part of the brief, titled overview and context, the Author, Tom Orrell, notes that the Declaration was drafted by African civil society organisations to guide the creation of a positive, rights-based and democratically governed Internet policy environment in Africa. That the initiative is part of a rich heritage of freedom of expression advocacy by civil society in Africa and also builds on the continent’s innovative and inclusive approach towards the development of human rights instruments, first pioneered by the drafters of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa.
Apart from the ‘Overview and Context’ and the conclusion, the brief contains three parts. Part 1 examines the need for a regulatory environment for the Internet in Africa, the challenges facing existing frameworks and the current gaps in international and regional frameworks. Part 2 explains what the Declaration initiative is, how it has evolved, and explores why it can be part of the solution to these challenges. Finally, Part 3 reflects on lessons that can be learned by digital rights defenders from this initiative.
Part 1, titled “The need for an enabling environment for a rights based internet in Africa” identifies the digital divide, human rights violations and regulatory challenges as the most pressing challenges preventing the establishment of an enabling internet environment in Africa backing it up with statistical evidence. Orrell also notes that there are other interrelated factors such as challenges of electricity supply, increasing cost of access due to shortage of fibre-optic backbone infrastructure and lack of participatory approach to internet policy development.
Citing some of the instruments applicable to Africa including international, continental and regional, Part one categorically submits that one of the major challenges facing the establishment of effective Internet policy regimes in African states is that traditional international and regional human rights mechanisms are unable to provide adequate protection to individual victims of online human rights abuses.
Part 2 of the brief titled “Providing the Foundation For A Rights-Based Internet: The African Declaration On Internet Rights And Freedoms,” describes the Declaration as “a progressive, civil society-led initiative that seeks to promote the inclusion of democratic governance and human rights standards in the development of Internet policy in Africa.”
The section further espouses the rich history of African civil society organisations, where it notes that African civil society organisations have a long history of contributing to, and proactively developing normative standards in areas relating to free expression, the media and the use of ICTs – both on the continent and internationally. The Declaration initiative, it notes, is led by a coalition of African advocates who are inspired by the legacy of the Windhoek Declaration on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic Media. It adds that the African civil society advocates, including many who are involved in the current initiative, play a crucial role in the development and adoption of international standards.
The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms initiative is a continuation of this rich heritage of civil society leadership in standard-setting and advocacy, notes the author. The objective of the initiative is for the Declaration to be adopted and used by African states and international bodies as a guide to formulating and establishing a rights-based and enabling Internet policy environment in Africa; both at the national and regional level. By laying out a set of comprehensive principles and incorporating an explanatory part within the text, the Declaration is designed to help decision-makers develop harmonised, rights-based policies that complement existing human rights standards.
Harping more on the Declaration, the author quotes the Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda, Edetaen Ojo, who is a member of the Declaration Secretariat as saying:
“The initiative began with a conversation between myself and Kwame Karikari (former executive director of the Media Foundation for West Africa) at an event at Wilton Park on Freedom of Expression Online. It was clear that the Internet could have huge potential in Africa – the Internet could deliver a huge boost to development whether social, political or economic – but that there are barriers that must be overcome, not just in terms of access but also growing fear on the part of our governments about this new medium and attempts to enclose and control it.
We had both been involved in successful regional efforts to define and raise regional standards in the past – with the Windhoek Declaration, the African Broadcasting Charter, the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa and most recently the African Platform of Access to Information. These initiatives had enormous impacts in terms of building movements, raising issues across the agenda and getting political buy-in at the highest levels. We decided that the time had come to explore whether the Internet in Africa needs a similar initiative.
In September 2013 we brought together some of the key regional groups including the Association of Progressive Communications, Article 19 and Global Partners Digital at the 2013 Africa Internet Governance Forum. At the meeting we decided that we need a much broader discussion about the purposes of and strategies for developing an African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms. The event in Johannesburg [February 2014] was an opportunity to do exactly this, and kick off a shared civil society campaign to make this goal a reality.”
The section notes that the first dedicated ‘Declaration meeting’ held in February 2014 in Johannesburg where 21 regional organisations came together to discuss the idea and initiate the drafting process of the Declaration. Having identified five key issue-areas, a drafting group was constituted and led by Edetaen Ojo and Alimi Adamu. The group notably produced several drafts of the Declaration between February and June 2014.
More importantly, this section reveals that around 40 submissions from a range of stakeholder groups were collected during the consultation process, including from legal experts, human rights activists and the online technical community. It adds that the drafters group consolidated feedback in August 2014 after which a comprehensive draft of the Declaration was produced in English, French, Portuguese and Arabic. It notes that following completion of the drafting phase, the Declaration went live online (at: www.africaninternetrights.org) in September 2014 and was successfully launched at the 2014 IGF in Istanbul, Turkey and the Highway Africa Conference 2014 at Rhodes University in South Africa.
The third and last part of the brief titled “Building a Regional Initiative: Reflections from the Declaration Experience” identifies challenges and achievements with a view to helping digital rights defenders leverage on the experience of the Declaration process.
No doubt, this seminal account of the development of the Declaration and its anatomy provides a useful resource for civil society advocates in Africa, but more importantly for civil society advocates in other regions to develop their own normative standards for the protection of human rights online.