Claiming Spaces: Tactical Tools for Human Rights Defenders 15-17 November Juba, South Sudan Final communiqué
- DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project), in collaboration with the South Sudan Human Rights Defenders Network (SSHRDN), hosted the 13th edition of Claiming Spaces: Tactical Tools for Human Rights Defenders from 15 to 17 November 2023 in Juba, South Sudan. Ahead of schedule, we commemorated the International Human Rights Defenders Day and International Human Rights Day (9 and 10 December, respectively). The opening ceremony was moderated by Ms. Memory Bandera, Director of Programs and Administration, DefendDefenders.
- In his welcome remarks, Mr. James Bidal, Head of Secretariat SSHRDN, conveyed his appreciation to the distinguished guests, including human rights defenders (HRDs) and development partners. He noted that their active participation in SSHRDN work serves as a testament to their collective dedication to the noble cause of safeguarding human rights. Mr. Bidal appreciated the presence of government officials and diplomatic missions at this event, which signifies a collective commitment to protecting and promoting universally recognised rights and freedoms. He also acknowledged DefendDefenders for their invaluable contributions since the inception of the Network in 2012. Their mentorship and diligent capacity building provided to the SSHRDN secretariat, and its members have greatly strengthened their leadership and interventions.
- During his opening statement, Mr. Edmund Yakani, Chairperson of the SSHRDN, acknowledged the invaluable contributions made by HRDs and esteemed development partners. He articulated certain apprehensions regarding the perception of HRDs as “opponents” in nations with feeble political opposition – this labelling makes them vulnerable to arrest and detention. Mr. Yakani passionately implored HRDs to fulfil their duties and assume their responsibilities to claim their civic space to assert their rightful place in society. He further noted that to effectively safeguard human rights, it is imperative for HRDs to adopt a citizen-centered approach. He additionally emphasised the importance of HRDs embodying the qualities of being genuine and authentic defenders of rights and freedoms. In his concluding remarks, he noted that a democracy without involvement of and assistance to HRDs is inherently unsustainable.
- In his opening remarks, Mr. Hassan Shire acknowledged the resilience of South Sudanese HRDs, particularly women human rights defenders (WHRDs). He noted that because of their resilience and critical work, WHRDs face unique challenge and therefore need to be protected. Mr. Shire also recognized HRDs as active watchdogs for the implementation of the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS), which remains the best hope of peace, progress, and respect for the rule of law for South Sudanese citizens. He further recognised the instrumental roles played by United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), donors, partners, and all stakeholders in protecting HRDs. He applauded the seasoned leadership of SSHRDN spearheaded by Mr. Yakani and Mr. Bidal for steering the Network during its turbulent infancy.
- Mr. Shire welcomed the calmer situation and relative peace in Juba but called upon the government to continue the reconciliation and transitional justice efforts and end the myriad local-level conflicts across the country. He pledged DefendDefenders’ continued support to the SSHRDN. Mr. Shire noted that this year the world commemorates 25 years of the UN Declaration on HRDs and 75 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – important milestones for the human rights movement. He urged all participants to pledge to protect and promote fundamental rights and freedoms.
- In his remarks, Mr. John Onziegbe, representing Mr. Musa Gassama, the Director of Human Rights Section UNMISS, appreciated the role of Mr. Hassan Shire as a formidable advocate for HRDs. He further acknowledged the remarkable resilience demonstrated by the HRDs noting their role in bringing human rights issues to the national, regional, and international limelight. The establishment of a free civic space serves as the fundamental cornerstone for the complete realisation of human rights. The South Sudanese government has formally expressed its request for the civil society to undertake the crucial task of monitoring the implementation of the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS).
- Mr. Onziegbe noted that the issue of upholding freedom of opinion and expression remains a persistent challenge in the context of South Sudan. He pledged that UNMISS remains committed to diligently documenting instances of violations and abuses. He noted that Claiming Spaces was timely considering reconstitution of the Elections Commission and the Political parties Council ahead of the upcoming election, planned for December 2024. This presents a unique opportunity to chart the path to adopt the national constitution. As part of Claiming Spaces, there is a need to consistently use regional and international human rights mechanisms to enhance the civic space for HRDs especially during the periodic reviews. Civil society should urge the government to bring their commitments and recommendations home to provide a benchmark of the progress.
- In his keynote Address, Mikael Boström, Coordinator of Development Cooperation at the Embassy of Sweden Office in South Sudan, expressed his delight to represent the Embassy. He noted that UNMISS continues to receive reports of targeting of civil society actors, opposition politicians and people with divergent opinions from the government, noting that this constricts the civic and democratic space. He reiterated the UN call on all South Sudanese to work collaboratively to shape the destiny of South Sudan. Mr. Boström noted that the Claiming Spaces forum is a good example of what the UN Secretary-General recommends in sustaining democracy and human rights. In the efforts to contribute to human rights realisation in Africa and across the world, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) focuses on the establishment of HRD networks. Mr. Bostrom noted that the partnership between SIDA and DefendDefenders has borne fruits at the national level, including in South Sudan, and at the sub-regional level. He concluded by appreciating the workshop as a platform for HRDs to re-tool themselves and to network for protection.
- Following the opening session, a joint report of DefendDefenders and SSHRDN, ‘Against All Odds: Assessing the Consequences of Shrinking Civic Space on Women Human Rights Defenders’, was launched. The report recognises the pivotal role played by WHRDs in the pursuit of peace in South Sudan from the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 to the subsequent agreements leading to the 2018 R-ARCSS. It examines the hostile operating environment and highlights key challenges ranging from ingrained patriarchal values, gender-specific threats, sexual violence, to marginalisation and social stigma. The report provides a comprehensive account of their situation and offers key recommendations to various stakeholders to address the unique obstacles and risks they face.
- Following the report launch, a panel discussion on the impact of the closing civic space on WHRDs was convened. It was moderated by Estella Kabachwezi, Advocacy, Research, and Communications Manager, DefendDefenders. The panelists included Ms. Julia Nyakoth Onyoti, Coordinator of the Justice Advisory Group, Ms. Zabib Musa Loro, Executive Director, Women for Justice and Equality, Ms. Veronica Lucy Gordon, Executive Director, Association for Media Women in South Sudan, and Elizabeth Daniel Lubanga, Program Officer, Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation (CEPO).
- Ms. Musa Loro discussed women participation in politics and governance of the country with a focus on the peace and security processes. Ms. Nyakoth Onyoti discussed the widespread conflict-related sexual violence, highlighting the pros and cons of government interventions, including establishing of mobile courts and the ensuing military prosecutions. Ms. Lucy Gordon discussed the media operating environment for female journalists and the strategies to address the challenges they face in the course of their work. Finally, Ms. Lubanga discussed the role of the SSHRDN in advancing the rights of WHRDs.
- To recognise the crucial work of HRDs in South Sudan and HRDs who stood out in 2023, SSHRDN hosted a ceremony to award outstanding HRDs including WHRDs in their respective areas of focus. The following laureates were recognised: Patrick Oyet (Outstanding Human Rights Defender of the Year), the late Emeritus Bishop Paride Taban (Lifetime Achievement/Veteran Award), Zabib Musa Loro (Woman HRD of the Year), Abacha Ahmed (HRD of the Year for Persons with Disabilities Rights), Ter Manyang Gatwech (Greater Upper Nile HRD of the Year), Daniel Laat Kon (Greater Bahr El Ghazal HRD of the Year), and Yoal Gatkuoth (Upcoming Youth HRD of the Year).
- From 16-17 November 2023, South Sudanese HRDs took part in capacity-building workshops focusing on strategic advocacy at national, regional, and international levels; protection mechanisms and safety; and well-being. They spent time learning from these sessions, sharing their experiences and best practices, and creating stronger networks.
- In her closing remarks, Ms. Bandera appreciated the HRDs for their active involvement over the last three days, requesting them to continue their nation building initiatives especially as the country prepares for its elections. She pledged DefendDefenders’ continued support to South Sudanese HRDs in the course of the work.
- Mr. Yakani recognised and appreciated the presence of Hon. Fidensia Charles, Ag. Chairperson of South Sudan Human Rights Commission. He urged the participants to translate the knowledge they received to other HRDs. He further cautioned that the protection services provided by the Network to HRDs is intended for vulnerable HRDs who face risks arising from the course of their work, especially as we enter an election period. He concluded by reminding HRDs to claim their space and stand for the truth and appreciated the support received from DefendDefenders.
- Hon. Fidensia Charles delivered closing remarks appreciating all stakeholders for organising the Claiming Spaces workshop. She reiterated concerns that as the country moves towards the end of the road map with the upcoming elections, there will be challenging times. Hon. Charles called upon HRDs to continue sensitizing South Sudanese on their human rights and fundamental freedoms. She concluded her remarks by congratulating the HRDs recognised for their outstanding contribution in 2023.
- The workshop was concluded with all participants receiving certificates acknowledging their active participation over the last three days.