Ten years ago, I was a human rights defender in exile. Away from my native Somalia, outside of Africa, I was living in Canada, making the most of my time by volunteering with Amnesty International. At Amnesty I interacted with other members of the human rights defender diaspora. Through discussions with them, I came to appreciate the hospitality and service offered by asylum-offering countries like Canada, but at the same time deeply regretted the human tragedy unfolding every time a voice for peace, justice, and freedom disappeared from their society.
Fast forward 10 years and I am sitting in leafy Kampala, in the Directorship of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, an organisation which has touched the lives of thousands of human rights defenders from across the region. This organisation was launched at Lake Victoria Hotel in Entebbe, Uganda on 4th November 2005, and in November of this year we will mark 10 years of operation.
I arrived in Kampala in 2005 with little more than a suitcase and a laptop. Now we operate with 24 full time staff members constantly moving in and out of the office, travelling to the countries of our region providing protection for human rights defenders, advocating against repressive laws, and building capacities to strengthen regional civil society.
There are many stories I want to share with you from the past 10 years. I want to tell you about the Somali human rights defender who stood up against Al-Shabaab forced into exile and separated from his wife and children for over 5 years. I want to tell you about the look on his face when our Protection Officer stepped off of the airplane with his entire family trailing behind her.
I want to tell you about the Eritrean journalists and dissidents disappeared under unknown condition, all but forgotten by the international community, whose cases will have their day at the United Nations thanks to the work of our advocacy team and the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea and the newly formed Commission of Inquiry on human rights in Eritrea, two mandates this organisation was instrumental in forming.
I want to tell you about the robust civil society network dedicated to the protection and security of human rights defenders in Kenya – the Kenyan National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders, one of several national coalitions handling threats and emergencies within communities as they arise, without needing recourse to international support or to the loss entailed by going into exile.
I want to tell you about our collaborations with human rights defenders protection organisations in Egypt, Cameroon, Togo, and Zimbabwe, working together to build protective capacity across the entire continent through the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network.
And I want to tell you about the thousands of human rights defenders who now have the tools to avoid exile through our security management team interventions, promoting better protocols and strategic actions by human rights defenders, allowing them to continue their work while increasing impact via skills building in areas of digital security, advocacy, documentation, financial management, and more.
These are some of the everyday stories you will find this team working towards at the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project. But let me not tell you about these stories, when instead I can show you.
Over the coming months we will be releasing a series of video, photographic, and testimonial media to share the stories of human rights defenders in the East and Horn of Africa and the stories of our work with this community. In November we will hold our 10 year-anniversary celebration in Kampala and also release a commemorative publication looking over the turbulence, challenges, and accomplishments of our work in the region over the past 10 years.
As always, we stand committed to serving human rights defenders in our region. If you have been affected by the work we have been doing, we want to hear from you and share your story during this celebration. We will be tweeting and sharing material in this campaign under the hashtag #10yearsdefendering and #wedefend and I invite you to join us!
I would like to thank the staff, partners, donors, governments, educators, and individuals– the thinkers, dreamers, and doers who bring that special spirit that moves the global community towards the enjoyment of human rights entitlement.
We look forward to the next ten years together!
Executive Director – East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project