Blog
2019: End of year message

Dear friends and colleagues,

As we move towards the end of 2018, it is time to reflect upon our achievements, actions, and challenges over this past year. I am grateful to say that we have enhanced our work, methodologies, strategies, and most importantly our impact in 2018 – ensuring an increased and improved level of proactive and reactive support to human rights defenders (HRDs) in the East and Horn of Africa. I am very proud of my team, as well as the progressive human rights activities of HRDs in the sub-region which allow for an optimistic and confident projection of 2019.

This year has been imperative for human rights and a milestone for HRDs. We commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the 20th anniversary of the Declaration for Human Rights Defenders. The development of the human rights frameworks were important achievements, but the implementation of the frameworks, safeguarded by dedicated individuals and groups worldwide, are the outstanding and essential accomplishments which merit our full respect and honour.

In light of these anniversaries, I was delighted to attend the HRD World Summit 2018 in Paris, bringing together hundreds of HRDs from all over the world, to reaffirm our efforts, provide a platform for HRDs, and to identify and promote our strategies to ensure that all actors fulfil their obligations under human rights law. The momentous event concluded with the adoption of a proactive Action Plan for HRDs – calling for a lasting commitment from states to protect HRDs and take concrete actions to ensure a favourable environment for their work.

This years’ edition of DefendDefenders’ annual flagship event, Claiming Spaces for HRDs, took place in Nairobi, bringing together more than 100 HRDs from across Kenya. The event also celebrated the 10thanniversary of the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders – Kenya (NCHRD-K), established by DefendDefenders to ensure support to HRDs at the national level. National coalitions in the sub-region are a cornerstone of HRD protection and support, and are our most essential partners.

To evaluate the year of 2018 and identify approaches for 2019, DefendDefenders convened for a staff retreat in Entebbe, Uganda, which, in addition to identifying avenues for enhanced impact, reaffirmed our dedication to safeguard tailor-made support to HRDs in the region.

In 2018, DefendDefenders opened an office in Geneva, the seat of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). This landmark move allows us to enhance our engagement with the UN human rights system and to advance our advocacy in relation to countries covered by our mandate – five out of 11 are currently on the HRC’s agenda. The expansion of the work conducted by our Advocacy and Research Department has included research on HRC dynamics, publishing Headlong Rush: Burundi’s behaviour as a member of the UN Human Rights Council. Additionally, we submitted two reports on Eritrea and Ethiopia’s Universal Periodic Review.

At the Council, we continued to advocate for strong protective and investigative mechanisms. Achievements include renewals of mandates: of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, and the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi. We also raised the alarm on Tanzania’s mounting human rights crisis, on the basis of the HRC’s “prevention mandate.” This led to increased international attention to the country, which we hope will contribute to preventing the situation from further deteriorating. Additionally, we carried out research missions in South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, resulting in the publishing of three comprehensive, thematic reports; “Spreading Fear and Asserting Control: Tanzania’s Assault on Civic Space,” “This Is Our Freedom, These Are Our Rights: human rights defenders in South Sudan since July 2016; and “To Them We’re Not Even Human: Marginalised Human Rights Defenders in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.”

DefendDefenders’ Protection and Security Management Department continued to support HRDs through reactive protection interventions and capacity building sessions. Over 168 (as of November 2018) protection grant requests were approved over the course of the year, while working with diplomatic missions, UN bodies especially the OHCHR and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and governmental refugee agencies in the region to find durable solutions including resettlement for exiled HRDs.

We extended technical support and guidance to NCHRD-K, Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC), National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders-Burundi (CBDDH), National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders-Somalia, South Sudan Human Rights Defenders Network (SSHRDN) and National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders-Uganda (NCHRDU). Fact-finding missions were conducted in North Western Uganda, South Western Uganda, Eastern Uganda, Tanzania and Zanzibar to get information on the specific cases of HRDs at risk, in addition to attending various international fora.

To ensure preventive HRD protection, a series of trainings were conducted to build the capacities of vulnerable HRDs. In total, 265 HRDs were trained in physical security and digital safety. Additionally, we are very pleased to announce that 16 new trainers were identified and given training over the course of this year. Most 2018 trainings incorporated artistic therapy to support HRDs to cope up with mental stress linked to their human rights work, with an in-house clinical psychologists offering counselling to HRDs. In addition to the trainings, DefendDefenders’ Floribert Chebeya Resource Centre was equipped with new facilities to raise the capacities of HRDs especially those in exile.

I am happy to say that DefendDefenders is not only keeping up, but blazing a path with our programs in the field of information technology for HRDs. Our DefendersTech program continues to run innovative programs in the sub-region which helps HRDs to get the best from, and avoid the worst risks of, digital and Internet technologies.

The DefendersTech program works to digitally secure civil society in the East and Horn of Africa. In 2018, we carried out 22 trainings for 409 HRDs, as well as 13 audits or organisational security assessments. Recognising that the need for relevant, tactical IT skills far outstrips our ability to provide it on the ground, we have significantly invested in technology practitioners, staff, independent trainers, and consultants within civil society in the region, so that they can provide fast, relevant, and trustworthy service in their communities. Furthermore, we conducted seven training of trainers, three trainings in the SAFETAG digital security auditing framework, and provided fellowship and consultancy learning opportunities to three civil society technologists from the region.

One of our most prominent training of trainer programs has been the Safe Sister Women’s Digital Security Fellowship, in which tech-savvy women receive multiple-points of instruction and mentorship, and granting opportunities during a year-long fellowship program. After reviewing incredible results from our first round of Safe Sisters in East Africa, we launched a new round of the program for women activists in the Horn of Africa. We were especially pleased to unroll the DefendDefenders banner in Addis Ababa where we took advantage of the much improved civil society climate in Ethiopia to hold a Civil Society Techshare event in collaboration the Ethiopian Human Rights Council.

Going beyond defensive usage of technology through digital security skills and practices, we also ran a cycle of our Doc-IT program in which nine Ugandan organisations revamped their data collection systems with the help of digital tools, and built skills to analyse and present their findings with multimedia and high-impact visual design. We also closed a cycle of DATA4CHANGE and published a report into Uganda’s OTT social media taxes with the Open Observatory for Network Interference.

Through the Great Lakes Project (GLP), we continued to support HRDs from Burundi including through supporting a pool of lawyers to collect evidence and testimonies for future prosecution. The Project also launched a report Between Despair and Resilience: Burundian human rights defenders in protracted exile in Rwanda and Uganda. Through the professional empowerment program, we supported 22 HRDs by facilitating education placements and internships to ease their integration process while living in exile.

Through capacity building initiatives, the GLP equipped the Coalition Burundaise des Défenseurs des Droits de l’Homme (CBDDH) with skills and knowledge in protection, advocacy, research, communication, and organisational development. Additionally, the GLP facilitated training workshops in monitoring, documentation, reporting, and training of trainers.

The Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network (PAHRDN) continued to foster collaboration among HRDs, coalitions, and member networks across the continent. PAHRDN engaged in strategic advocacy missions, particularly at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), enabling 16 HRDs from across the continent to directly participate. PAHRDN also continued to develop its Ubuntu Hub Cities initiative for the relocation of at-risk HRDs, shared experiences and lessons learnt with similar initiatives across the globe, and started expanding the program to North Africa with a Hub City in Tunis, Tunisia. Additionally, PAHRDN co-organised and attended a workshop in Cape Town, South Africa, together with the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network, to identify synergies and cooperation between universities and HRD networks.

For the coming year, DefendDefenders will continue to raise awareness and visibility of our work and the work of HRDs. We will strengthen our work through close cooperation with national coalitions of HRDs, as well as other strategic partners at the regional and global level. Support the call for domestic laws to guarantee the protection of HRDs. Other countries (Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Mali) have already done this. We will work to ensure increased efforts to engage with key regional bodies such as the African Union and East Africa Community. At the global level, our office in Geneva will act as a liaison office for African HRDs to more closely engage with UN mechanisms. PAHRDN aims to further strengthen the network, and to become a regional leader of structured mid-term protection relocation program through the Ubuntu Hub Cities across the continent – where HRDs in need of protection can get rest and respite, while receiving training or further their education, to productively use their time while in exile.

With these achievements behind us, we now welcome the holidays; a time for further reflections, to regain energy and strength, and to nurture our body and mind. I look forward to our continued human rights efforts in 2019.

Our offices closed on 18 December and will re-open on 7 January 2019. However, our emergency line +256-783-027-61 for HRDs at risk will remain operational throughout the holidays.

Enjoy the festive season.

Yours sincerely,

Hassan Shire