End of year statement 2020

Dear friends and colleagues,

This year was overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected our normal way of operating. With offices closed, our technology set up allowed us to rethink and adapt quickly to the restrictive pandemic measuresWe always made it clear that while it is legitimate to weigh public health concerns against the protection of fundamental rights, any such restriction must be temporary, lawful, non-discriminatory, strictly necessary, and proportionate to the threat. It is unfortunate that throughout the continent we witnessed and documented numerous attacks on the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and movement in Africa which had a particularly detrimental effect on HRDs.  

We have documented violations against HRDs, artists and journalists as set forth below.  

Indeed, COVID19 exposed the rampant corruptiondiscrimination, and inequalities in our society today. I led a continental initiative to draw attention to the inhumane treatment of our fellow citizens in China, in relation to the pandemic. It is against all principles of dignity and shared humanity that should ideally guide China-Africa relations. An open letter, addressed to the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, H.E. Moussa Faki Mohammed, was signed by over 400 civil society organisations in Africa and 17, 000 African people from broad cross-section.

As Chair of AfricanDefenders, I committed my team to the African Union’s (AU) goal of “Silencing the Guns in 2020. At the end of the year, we are still working towards a conflict-free Africa, where genocide is prevented, and peace is a reality for all. We yet need to rid the continent of wars, violent conflicts, human rights violations, and humanitarian disasters. Nevertheless, in 2020 the AU has drawn lessons and with doubled efforts and strengthened AU organs, we can silence the gunsIn the same vein, through an outstanding partnership with the African Governance Architecture (African Union Commission), we hope to highly contribute to the African Union Agenda 2063.  

 I must commend my resilient and resourceful staff not only on swiftly reacting and adapting to the ‘new normal’ in 2020, but also pro-actively seeking new possibilities to carry out our work. Despite the pandemic, we continued to support HRDs and reach out to the most at risk and vulnerable and organised hybrid meetings and webinar series’. To help HRDs protect themselves, we published COVID-19 safety, security, and well-being guidelines in English, Arabic, and French, and dedicated the month of June to well-being, to emphasise the need for rest and respite.

Well-being was also emphasised in various workshops held under our resourcing resilience initiative. DefendDefenders’ protection and technology teams facilitated over 60 trainings to strengthen HRDs’ digital and physical security management. Additionally, we hosted various capacity building activities both physically and digitally under our Ttaala and Safe Sisters programmes.  

Under our Ubuntu Hub Cities programme, AfricanDefenders supported 37 HRDs with internal or external relocations, to keep them #SafebutNotSilent. DefendDefenders offered protection to over 200 HRDs at risk through relocation, rest and respite, covering medical costs and psychosocial support, supporting HRDs’ families, and replacing essential equipment.

Through DefendDefenders’ Great Lakes Project, we continued to support HRDs from Burundi through capacity building initiatives, and notably equipped the Coalition Burundaise des Défenseurs des Droits de l’Homme (CBDDH) with skills and knowledge in security, digital safety, protection, communication, and organisational development. The support provided and the skills transferred will be essential to monitor, document, and report human rights violations and abuses that continue in Burundi regardless of the new administration.  

With travel restricted globally since March 2020, DefendDefenders’ Geneva office proved to be an invaluable asset. The permanent presence of our Representative to the UN ensured continuity of our advocacy efforts at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), and allowed for in-person statements, next to the remote participation of HRDs from the sub-region. Voices of HRDs from the ground continued to resonate in Geneva. 

We also virtually took part in the 66th and 67th ordinary session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and hosted the proceedings of the Forum for the participation of NGOs to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. We submitted bi-annual reports, updating on the human rights situation in the East and Horn of Africa sub-region. We also published four research reports, touching upon different human rights aspects in the region. 

We commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration, one of the most progressive roadmaps for women’s and girl’s rights. We honoured this with a focus on women and women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in our campaigns. For International Women’s Day, 8 March, we shared interviews with five WHRDs to celebrate their essential work carried out in Africa. For International Youth Day, 12 August, we asked five young female Sudanese activists about the importance of youth in human rights. We concluded the year with a joint campaign, #SayNoToOnlineGBV, for 16 days of activism to end gender-based violence, where we shared victim’s stories of online gender-based violence. 

Meet DefendDefenders’ HRDs of the month: 

One of the most worrying trends for human rights we observed this year was shrinking civic space during electoral periods. Both Tanzania and Uganda have seen pre-electoral violence and restrictions on freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. This makes it all the more important to equip HRDs with tools to claim their space – the idea behind our yearly flagship event Claiming Spaces. Together with the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders Uganda, we hosted about 250 HRDs and high-level speakers for a week filled with panel discussions and workshops to equip them with tactical tools. We have also just released guidelines for HRDs during election periods.  

Despite the growing challenges, I am proud of how quickly, flexibly, competently, and jovially the DefendDefenders and AfricanDefenders team handled these challenges. 

 In the 15 years of DefendDefenders’ existence, which we celebrated on 4 November, I believe we have strengthened our operations in supporting the most at risks human rights defenders in Africa and have made our programmes accessible even at the grassroots level. 

I wish to extend my heartfelt gratitude to the national coalitions of HRDs and sub-regional HRD networks for their tireless effort on the ground, and of course our donors and partners, whose support makes our hard work possible. 

Stay healthy, stay safe, and take the rest that you need. Our offices will close from 17 December 2020 – 11 January 2021, but our emergency line +256 783 027 611 for HRDs at risk and [email protected] will remain operational throughout the holidays. 

All the best during this festive season, 

Hassan Shire