How are the African nations of Mauritania and Rwanda doing when it comes to human rights online?

Right now the United Nations Human Rights Council is holding its 23rd Universal Periodic Review (UPR) working group session (November 2nd-13th, 2015). The Universal Periodic Review is the cooperative process by which the Human Rights Council reviews the human rights records of all 193 U.N. member states.

Here’s a look at the digital rights landscape in Mauritania and Rwanda, and the implications for people at risk of human rights violations in these countries.

Mauritania – domestic and international human rights obligations

Mauritania has signed on to various international human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention against Torture (CAT), the Convention against Enforced Disappearance (ICCPED), and the Optional Protocol to the CAT (OPCAT).

Article 10 of Mauritania’s constitution (PDF) guarantees to all citizens the freedom of expression, assembly, and association. However, according to the UPR, these rights are being violated.

Violation of digital rights in Mauritania

There has been systematic disregard of digital rights in Mauritania. These include:

Violation of access to information/ freedom of expression

June 13–21, 2011: The Emirati government applied pressure on an Emirati company to block the website of a Mauritanian newspaper El Badil Al Thalith. This censorship took place after the newspaper published articles criticising Arab leaders, including the United Arab Emirates government.

Violation of freedom of expression

August 7, 2013: Security forces arrested Mauritanian blogger Babbah Weld Abidine, the editor of the Lebjawi News blog, after he made an inquiry at the Public Prosecution office about a rape case in which the victim’s relatives accused the prosecutor’s office of releasing the rapist without charges.

December 2014: A blogger, Mr Cheikh Ould Mkheitir, was sentenced to death for apostasy. This was after he expressed his opinions via social media, criticising the inequalities in Mauritanian society and its caste system and challenging its conformity with Islam.

December 2014: An independent journalist, Hanevy Ould Dehah, reported receiving unspecific threats (PDF). He is the founder and manager of a leading news website www.taqadoumy.com, which publishes reports on corruption in the country. Subsequently, in January 2015, a group of unidentified persons physically assaulted (PDF) him on his way home. In 2010, after being sentenced to a two year prison term and jailed for eight months, he was freed under a presidential pardon issued in honor of Mawlid (the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday).

Rwanda – domestic and international human rights obligations

Rwanda has signed various international human rights instruments, including the ICCPR and CAT, among others.

Under Rwanda’s constitution (PDF), all citizens are guaranteed the right to privacy and freedom of expression. Other laws in Rwanda that are relevant to digital rights include:

Article 281, 285, 286 and 287 of Rwanda’s penal code (PDF), relevant to the right to privacy
Article 4, Law No 03/2013 of 08/02/2013 regulating access to information, relevant to the right to free expression.

To its credit, Rwanda’s government has embarked on ambitious programs to bring faster internet to a largely rural nation. However, it is notable that Rwanda lacks a specific data protection law. In 2013, legislators drafted a bill on data protection, but Rwandese citizens criticized the bill because there were broad exceptions to protections for personal data, justified on the grounds of protecting national sovereignty, national security and public policy.

Violation of digital rights in Rwanda

Despite the protections in the law in Rwanda, there have been reported incidents of digital rights being violated. These include:

Violation of access to information/ freedom of expression

In 2011: The government banned (PDF) the website of the independent newspaper Umuvugizi, citing allegations of publishing “divisive language.” Freedom House researchers also reported that some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) carried out a block (PDF) of a few opposition sites, although they remained available online through other service providers.

In late 2014: the government added (PDF) the BBC’s website to the list of websites blocked in Rwanda as part of its crackdown on those broadcasting the documentary, Rwanda, The Untold Story. The program reported on allegations that the number of Hutus who died during the 1994 Rwanda genocide was much higher than officially recognized.

In May 2015: According to a study conducted in early 2015, there were instances when the websites of the following independent news outlets and opposition blogs could not be accessed within Rwanda: Inyenyeri News, Veritas Info, The Rwandan, Leprophete, and Rwanda Democracy Watch.

Violation of privacy

In July 2015: Evidence in email leaked from Hacking Team, the Italian surveillance firm, shows that in 2012, the Rwandan government may have attempted to purchase the company’s sophisticated spyware, known as Remote Control System (RCS).

Where do we go from here?

Civil society organizations point out that both Mauritania and Rwanda have made significant improvements in ensuring compliance with recommendations from their previous Universal Periodic Review. This is the second review for both Mauritania and Rwanda, last reviewed in November 2010 and January 2011 respectively, and they now have an opportunity to:

Commit to acting upon the resolution of October 21, 2015, which took place during the 133 rd Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). Mauritania and Rwanda were among the 167 national governments that unanimously adopted the resolution on democracy in the digital era;
Commit to enhancing freedom of expression online and preventing violations by state and non-state actors, such as companies;
Cooperate more fully with United Nations and African Union treaty mechanisms and the work of special procedures such as those carried out by the U.N. special rapporteurs on freedom of expression and privacy; and
Enact laws guaranteeing access to information and preventing net discrimination.

The UPR is an important U.N. process aimed at addressing human rights issues all across the globe. It is a rare mechanism through which citizens around the world get to work with governments to improve human rights and hold them accountable to international law.

We encourage you to participate in this process by following along and spreading the word. You can follow the discussions online using the Twitter hashtags for the 23rd UPR session: #UPR and #UPR23