Dear friends, colleagues, and fellow human rights defenders,
As our battle for the promotion and protection of human rights increasingly shifts towards the digital world, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project decided it was time for our online and offline organisational image to get a makeover. In 2016, we adopted DefendDefenders as the organisation’s new name and worked on a new brand and website to reflect the progress the organisation has made in the last 12 years.
Throughout 2016, DefendDefenders has taken stock of the changing political, economic, social and cultural dynamics in the sub-region and worked to develop strategies for human rights defenders (HRDs) to continue their work in this rapidly evolving environment. Today, HRDs face a combination of persisting and growing challenges, which include online censorship, administrative and legislative restrictions on civil society and the media, intimidation, threats, arbitrary arrest, and extrajudicial executions.
The dire situation in two countries in particular shaped the year for all of DefendDefenders’ departments: the continuing conflict in South Sudan, and the grave and worsening crisis in Burundi. While we provided support to HRDs from a total of 19 countries, 37% of our protection grants went towards Burundian and 16% towards South Sudanese HRDs respectively.
Our continued advocacy on both of these crises yielded some concrete results through the establishment of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan in March, and of a UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi in September. The Advocacy Program attended the 31st, 32nd and 33rd sessions of the UN Human Rights Council, as well as the 58th and 59th sessions of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights with delegations of HRDs to raise awareness of pressing human rights concerns across the sub-region.
Our Capacity Building Program continued to develop new ways of supporting the growing number of HRDs who now find themselves in exile, in need of assistance to navigate complex asylum seeking processes to continue their work on human rights, and to address the trauma of their experiences back home. This work has been informed by our report “Exiled and in Limbo” which provides analysis and recommendations on the situation of exiled HRDs in Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda.
A total number of 357 HRDs and 15 human rights organisations were supported under DefendDefenders’ flagship Protection Program in 2016. These interventions included direct financial grants for relocations, family support, emergency evacuations, and capacity building. Other interventions included access to medical treatment, solidarity visits and physical accompaniment, legal support, referrals to other partners, security advice, counselling, internships, and fellowships.
As always, our Technology Program has been busy pioneering new ways to protect HRDs as they work in an increasingly digital environment. This development has both empowered HRDs with strong communication tools and made them vulnerable to new threats, such as online surveillance and Internet shutdowns. Throughout the year, the Technology Program trained and provided tools to 485 HRDs in digital safety,social media, and documentation.
The Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network (PAHRDN) supported over 200 HRDs and four organisations across the continent. It has continued to look for ways to create linkages between different sub-regions and strengthen Pan-African solidarity, and this year was focused on developing the concept of African Hub Cities. Throughout 2016, PAHRDN consulted with state and non-state actors on the establishment of four African HRD Hub Cities in Kampala (Uganda), Johannesburg/Pretoria (South Africa), Tunis (Tunisia), and Abidjan (Ivory Coast).
DefendDefenders’ newly adopted five-year strategic plan focuses on building on our achievements by sharing more widely our lessons learnt, while at the same time innovating and adapting to the challenging environment and shrinking space for human rights activism. We will continue to explore the opportunities presented by the wider global agenda and emerging technological developments to better and more effectively support HRDs.
As the organisation grows and evolves, DefendDefenders is active on many fronts but our goal hasn’t changed: to ensure that all HRDs in the sub-region are able to continue their important human rights work in the safest way possible.
On behalf of the entire DefendDefenders team, I would like to extend our sincere gratitude to all our partners who have supported us throughout the year including our board members, and look forward to continuing and strengthening our collaboration in 2017.
Yours in solidarity,