Looking back on 2019: End of the year statement

Dear friends and colleagues,

2019 has been a busy and fruitful year for DefendDefenders and AfricanDefenders. As we near the end, I would like to take some time to reflect on our achievements and challenges during the course of this year. I am happy to report that these eventful 12 months were diligently spent enhancing our work and impact by improving proactive and reactive support to human rights defenders (HRDs) on the African continent.

The year started with a high-level mission to the African Union (AU). The inclusive development of a prosperous and democratic African society requires participation, and the AU has made a strong commitment to work in partnership with civil society organisations (CSOs) in the implementation of its Agenda 2063. I led a delegation to conduct high-level advocacy with the AU Commission through the African Governance Architecture (AGA) to share views on how we would contribute in achieving the goals contained in Agenda 2063. As a result of our mission, we are finalising a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the African Union Commission to consolidate our partnership.

In February 2019, we launched the Ubuntu Hub Cities initiative, an African-based relocation mechanism for the holistic protection of African HRDs at risk. By relocating HRDs in a secure environment closer to home, the initiative enables them to remain safe, but not silent. It was sensational to witness the launch of an initiative that now counts six hub cities in TunisiaCôte d’ IvoireUganda, and South Africa. I take this opportunity to reiterate my sincere appreciation to the Governments of Cote d´Ivoire, South Africa, Tunisia, and Uganda for facilitating this process, which has enabled us to support 36 HRDs since January 2019.

Ten years after the “All African Human Rights Defenders Conference” convened by DefendDefenders in 2009 in Kampala, AfricanDefenders held the Johannesburg +20 (Joburg+20) Convention in Zanzibar, Tanzania, which brought together HRDs from across Africa, Pan-African partner organisations, and the highest dignitaries of the African human rights system, notably the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and representatives of national human rights institutions (NHRIs). One important outcome of the Convention is the Kampala Plan of Action +10 (KAPA+10). On the side-lines of the Convention, we recognised outstanding African HRDs and presented them with a shield of solidarity for their excellent contribution and bravery in protecting human rights in Africa. We granted six Shield Awards to courageous figures of the human rights struggle on the continent.

The landmark opening of an office in Geneva in 2018, the seat of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), bore fruit in 2019 and allowed us to enhance our engagement with the UN human rights system and advance our advocacy on country specific and thematic issues relevant to HRDs. In 2019, 12 HRDs from the East and Horn of Africa sub-region, including DefendDefenders staff, actively participated in the sessions.

As in previous years, we continued our engagement with the ACHPR, participating in its 64th and 65th ordinary sessions, in Egypt and the Gambia, respectively. We did so by delivering oral statements, submitting bi-annual reports on human rights violations, hosting side events, and welcoming HRDs from the continent, including staff, to attend the sessions and share their stories. This year we supported 22 HRDs, including staff, to engage with the respective ordinary sessions. The Commission offers a space to discuss the human rights situation on the continent, and we implore it to maintain a high degree of autonomy and hold AU member states that violate human rights accountable.

Ethiopia remained one of our focus countries this year, and I was honoured to spend ten days in Addis Ababa and Jijiga in January to meet with government officials, representatives of the UN, and CSOs. We followed up the high-level meetings with an in-depth fact finding mission in March, which culminated in the publication of Turning the Page: Rebuilding Civil Society in Ethiopia. The report examines the challenges facing Ethiopian HRDs amid the reform process and makes recommendations for rebuilding a robust and inclusive civil society. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize  2019 to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is a big win for the  country, illustrating that political will  can convert into  fundamental, progressive  reforms  in short periods of time.

To cap off a year of exceptional changes in the country, in December, we hosted 60 Ethiopian HRDs for our flagship event in Addis Ababa, Claiming Spaces: Tactical Tools for Human Rights Defenders, which equipped participants with technical skills to enable them to effectively carry out their work in a rapidly changing environment. The highlight of Claiming Spaces was the historic launch of the Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Coalition, which was a result of close dialogue and partnership with key Ethiopian actors as Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), Consortium of Ethiopian Human Rights Organisations (CEHRO), Association of Human Rights Ethiopia (AHRE), Ethiopian Women’s Lawyers Association (EWLA), and not least, individual Ethiopian HRDs. The Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Coalition will safeguard the rights of HRDs and fill the existing protection gaps for HRDs in the country. We look forward to continue boosting human rights in Ethiopia.

Sudan also weighed heavily on our minds throughout the year. I led a delegation to the country in October, in order to ascertain the situation and hold several meetings with key stakeholders. We look forward to continued engagement in Sudan throughout 2020 and wish to express our gratitude and respect for all those who fought bravely for freedom and human rights in the face of tremendous adversity. To the families who lost their loved ones, we want you to know that their sacrifice will not be in vain.

Every year, we focus on a specific theme to anchor our work and shine light on a specific group of HRDs who we believe have critically unaddressed vulnerabilities; previous themes included journalists and marginalised HRDs. In 2019, we focused on lawyers, and while not all lawyers are HRDs, in challenging political and social environments they help victims claim their rights, provide legal advice, petition against the enactment of unjust laws, and take human rights cases to supranational institutions. They act as the first line of defence against human rights abuses by ensuring that citizens access justice and remedies. To that effect, in December, we published Navigating Justice: Lawyers as Human Rights Defenders in Ethiopia and Somalia/Somaliland, which examines the work of lawyers to identify their best practices, vulnerabilities, and needs in these rapidly changing environments.

We continue to support HRDs through reactive protection interventions and capacity building sessions. In 2019, we received approximately 321 protection grant requests – illustrating the need for protection mechanisms for HRDs in the sub-region. In total, about 137 protection grant requests were approved over the course of the year, whereas the remaining requests were either referred to like-minded organisations, withdrawn, rejected, or still pending. Moreover, we also published our security guide Stand Up! into four Ugandan languages for better use and access in the country.

To ensure preventive HRD protection, a series of trainings were conducted to build the capacities of vulnerable HRDs. In total, 175 HRDs – 86 females, 63 males, and 26 transgender HRDs – were trained in physical security throughout the East and Horn of Africa sub region, in addition to eight follow-up engagements whereas 130 HRDs and three organisations were mentored. Additionally, we are very pleased to announce that a new pool of security trainers was created in Uganda and South Sudan, whereas 12 and 25 HRDs, respectively, underwent our Training of Trainers program. Most 2019 trainings incorporated artistic therapy to support HRDs to cope with mental stress and trauma linked to their human rights work, which is very prevalent among HRDs. In 2019, DefendDefenders’ Artistic Therapy program supported 169 HRDs – 66 females, 70 males, and 33 transgender persons.

Every year, many HRDs are forced into exile. This year, DefendDefenders and AfricanDefenders convened the second interactive dialogue between protection service providers and HRDs in exile in Uganda. The meeting re-assessed the state of protection services for HRDs in exile in Uganda, and their resilience strategies.

Our DefendersTech program continues to run innovative programs in the sub-region which help HRDs and civil society to get the best from, and avoid the worst risks of, digital and internet technologies as the world becomes ever more connected online. In 2019, we raised the capacity of 163 HRDs in digital security, as well as conducting 13 audits or organisational security assessments, including SAFETAG digital security audits. Furthermore, 86 HRDs underwent training of trainers (ToTs) training, including 20 women in the Safe Sisters program, DefendDefenders’ digital security fellowship for women HRDs, and 12 people in our SAFETAG auditors’ program.

We also ran a cycle of our Ttaala program, previously called Doc-IT, which helped 12 organisations to revamp their data collection systems with digital tools and built skills to analyse and present their findings with multimedia and high-impact visual design.

Through DefendDefenders’ Great Lakes Project, we continue 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 protection, advocacy, research, communication, and organisational development. These skills will be of increasing value as the country approaches controversial elections planned for 2020, which will in many ways decide the future of the troubled nation.

Throughout 2019, we came up with new and innovative ways of spreading our message and highlighting the amazing work of HRDs from across the continent. For example, DefendDefenders’ and AfricanDefenders’ The Three Women campaign, which includes a podcast series, in relation to 16 Days of Activism, articulates the courage demonstrated by women HRDs, and the intersectional challenges they face. To shine light on the outstanding work carried out by HRDs, we continued to, every month, profile a Human Rights Defender of the Month. We plan to continue this trend in 2020; to identify new methods and tools of communication to increase our audience and raise awareness about HRDs. As one HRD from Ethiopia told us this year: “human rights are inherently African. These ideas exist in some form in almost every culture, but you have to teach it in a language people understand.”

We continue to do our utmost to protect and promote HRDs, as we consider HRDs the cornerstone of a fair, free, and human rights compliant society. To this effect, we convened a meeting on 7 October 2019, to provide our development partners with an update on the implementation of our strategic plan and budget. We further discussed mechanisms to support better coordination and implementation of our activities. To evaluate the year and identify approaches for 2020, we convened a staff retreat in Entebbe, Uganda, which, in addition to identifying avenues for enhanced impact, reaffirmed our dedication and determination to safeguard human rights and ensure tailor-made support to HRDs in the region.

However, there can be no denying that despite our efforts and those of our partners and HRDs, forces beyond our control have sought to violate human rights and restrict civic space across the continent in 2019. While we celebrate our achievements, we must also be cognisant of the upward battle ahead of us. The fight for respect for human rights has never been easy, but we pledge to continue our efforts to support HRDs by reducing their risks, vulnerabilities, and challenges in the face of this momentous task. In return, we ask for your continued support, and hope for a 2020 filled with achievement and constructive responses to our shared challenges.

I wish to extend my heartfelt gratitude to national coalitions of HRDs and sub-regional HRD networks for their hard work and dedication – their presence on the ground and extensive networks act as the backbone of so much of our work.

Finally, I thank my incredible team for their time and tireless dedication during a year wrought with changes and events that were always challenging to anticipate and mitigate. Moreover, their selfless efforts allowed HRDs throughout the continent to more effectively carry out their necessary work. It is the mutual support of these phenomenal people that allowed human rights, optimism, and hope to flourish over 2019. Additionally, I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to all our development partners, without who it would be difficult to meet the needs of HRDs.

Our offices close on 18 December 2019 and re-open on 6 January 2020. However, our emergency line +256 783 027 611 for HRDs at risk will remain operational throughout the holidays.

All the best during this festive season,


Hassan Shire

Chairperson, AfricanDefenders
Executive Director, DefendDefenders