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BLOG: Opening remarks for Claiming Spaces 2013: Tactical Tools for HRDs in South Sudan

Ladies and gentlemen,

Acting Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, His Excellency Mr. Paul Tholen

Ambassador of the United States of America, Her Excellency Mrs. Susan Page,

Ambassador of the European Union Delegation to the Republic of South Sudan, Hi Excellency Mr. Sven Kuhn Von Burgsdorff,

Colleagues, friends, members of the press, and fellow human rights defenders.

Thank you all for joining us here today for the opening of the 3rd annual edition of “Claiming Spaces: Tactical Tools for Human Rights Defenders.” I would like especially to thank the executive director and staff of Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation for their help in organizing this forum.

I would also like to like thank the acting Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, His Excellency Mr. Paul Tholen who will officially open ‘Claiming Spaces’ 2013, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands for generously supporting our research in South Sudan over the last three years. Our research culminates today in the launch of our latest report, “Change will not come until we talk about Reality: The closing space for human rights defenders in South Sudan”.

Let me begin by introducing the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project and explaining why we are here in South Sudan this week. EHAHRDP acts as the secretariat to the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Network, which is a regional network of human rights defenders with over 75 members from Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia (and Somaliland), South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

EHAHRDP was established in 2005 following extensive field research in the region, which identified the most pressing and un-met needs of human rights defenders. These needs included:

Insufficient collaboration amongst human rights organizations, especially between neighbouring countries;

Resource constraints (notably material) which greatly undermine the effectiveness of human rights defenders’ work;

Knowledge gaps, in particular regarding international human rights instruments and mechanisms as well as crisis management.

The Network aims to protect and defend HRDs in the region, build their capacity and advocate and raise public awareness of HRDs’ profiles and the issues they face. EHAHRDP’s three core programmes of protection, advocacy and capacity-building are designed around the network’s main aims.

One of EHAHRDP’s cross-cutting priorities in all this work has been to support the establishment of national coalitions for human rights defenders. We recognize that HRDs working at the national level have far deeper knowledge of the context in which they are working and an ability to reach activists throughout the country. Where the national coalitions exist we seek to carry out all our activities in close collaboration with the coalitions, and where they don’t we have been supporting their creation.

In August 2012, EHAHRDP helped to facilitate discussions that led to the formation of the South Sudan Human Rights Defenders Network. I will let my colleague Edmund Yakani, the Executive Director of CEPO, to go into more details of what the network has achieved over the past year, and what lies ahead.

Tomorrow, people around the world will celebrate 65 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On Human Rights Day, marked annually on 10th December, we as a community of human rights defenders can reflect on how far the global human rights movement has come over that period. It is also a chance to recognise how far there is still yet to travel, and to reaffirm our shared commitment to human rights. As people all over the world mourn the passing of Nelson Mandela, I am reminded of one of his most famous statements, spoken from a South African courtroom almost half a century ago:

I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities

Today, 9th December 2013, is a very important anniversary in its own right. Fifteen years ago today, on 9th December 1998, the United Nations adopted the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. On this day, we remember the men and women – human rights defenders – who continue to devote their lives to the promotion and protection of human rights. It’s the men and women present here today who have come from across South Sudan to take part in who continue to struggle for the full respect of human rights despite all the difficulties and resistance that come their way.

EHAHRDP’s commitment to human rights defenders in South Sudan is long-standing. In 2005, EHAHRDP and Amnesty International held the landmark Human Rights Defenders Conference in Entebbe, Uganda. It provided a unique opportunity for human rightsdefenders from East Africa and the Horn of Africa to share their experiences, exchange ideasand build networks to support each other. This conference broughttogether 43 human rights defenders from across the region. The South Sudan Law Society acted as the first focal point of the network in South Sudan, and I am encouraged to note their ongoing work in the defence of human rights.

The new Republic of South Sudan stands at a pivotal point in its short history. Following the 2011 referendum, there were encouraging early signs that human rights defenders would be given a safe space within civil society to contribute to nation-building. The country has made very significant progress in a number of key areas. I have been encouraged to note the government’s recent public commitments to implementing a number of international human rights treaties. I am also extremely glad that the South Sudan Human Rights Commission is here today. Their role in the promotion and protection of human rights in South Sudan is pivotal, and I call on the government and its international partners to ensure that they are provided with the support they need to continue in their essential duties.

We are launching a new report today that provides an overview of the challenges facing human rights defenders in South Sudan. The report is the product of three years of work, and shows that there has been an increase in the risks facing many South Sudanese human rights defenders as they go about their work. Journalists in particular face many great challenges, but I am also concerned to note that HRDs working within NGOs are now at enhanced risk due to the Voluntary and Humanitarian Non-Governmental Organizations Bill. This Bill, in its current form, would place draconian restrictions on NGOs’ freedom of association, and their freedom to operate independently.

As we say in the report, our aim is not simply to describe the situation, but also to provide a set of concrete and practical recommendations to the government, and to its international partners.

When EHAHRDP started its research for this report in 2010, we noted that there was limited interaction between HRDs with key stakeholders, and limited knowledge by HRDs of their own rights. Fortunately, we have seen great developments in both those areas of concern in the past three years. I would particularly like to mention the the Human Rights Forum, a shared enterprise between civil society and the South Sudan Human Rights Commission, that has been supported by UNMISS. This is a valuable platform for HRDs to engage with the Human Rights Commission, to talk openly and constructively, and to work together towards change.

It is in this context that EHAHRDP is organizing this five-day workshop – ‘Claiming Spaces: Tactical Tools for Human Rights Defenders’ – to create a space for HRDs to share practical tools and skills, engage with and create networks with other defenders in the country, and explore new and emerging technologies and strategies that can be used to advance human rights and mobilise communities for human rights promotion.

The topics to be covered in the workshops include:

  • Using social media

  • Stress reduction strategies

  • UN and regional advocacy mechanisms

  • Digital security and social media

  • Security management and risk assessment

Given the limited time, I sincerely hope that the introductions to the topics that will be covered in over the next four days will instigate spark your interest in them and give you a starting point for further discussions, learning and experimentation with these tools and techniques.

On that note I would like to finish off by wishing you all fruitful discussions and encouraging you to utilize this opportunity as much as possible to network with your fellow human rights defenders from across the country while we are together this week.

I thank you.

Hassan Shire