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Human Rights Defender of the Month: Edmund Yakani

Edmund Yakani is one of South Sudan’s most prominent human rights defenders (HRDs) and Civil Rights Defender of the Year 2017. Edmund has worked on an array of topics – the rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs), transitional justice, and the protection of HRDs in cooperation with DefendDefenders – that are all connected by the common thread of human rights promotion and protection.

So, when South Sudan’s government started planning a COVID-19 response, Edmund made sure that human rights were part of the equation. Edmund’s NGO, Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation (CEPO), released a checklist for human rights considerations in the response to COVID-19. Together with Global Peace Partner, CEPO also developed a national framework for the COVID-19 nexus with human rights. 

All focus was on dissemination of information around COVID-19, on awareness raising. But for example immunization of children from other medical sicknesses – it’s not been taken seriously, not been budgeted for.

Prevalent human rights issues suddenly lacked attention and resources, says Edmund: “All focus was on dissemination of information around COVID-19, on awareness raising. But for example immunization of children from other medical sicknesses – it’s not been taken seriously, not been budgeted for.” On top of that, new human rights issues are arising due to the pandemic. The economic effects of the lockdown have left many individuals financially vulnerable, resulting in a steep rise of sexual exploitation and rape cases, and police are enforcing the lockdown heavy-handedly. According to Edward, “the police are not taking into account elements of human rights protection…they can be aggressive, intimidating and harassing civilians.”

Intimidation and harassment are well-known to Edmund. In his 20-year long commitment as an HRD, he has received numerous death threats. He was even abducted. “Normally what they do is that they either call me by phone or they write to me a letter. And in terms of kidnapping, three times I’ve been kidnapped. With an attempt of an assassination.” 

His family and friends struggle to understand his dedication to human rights, he says: “People are questioning whatever I’m doing: ‘What is the benefit? Because we don’t see a benefit in your life or in terms of returns of what you’ve been shouting for, writing about or campaigning for.’ They think I’m wasting my time on these issues.” Though the lack of support can be challenging, Edward is motivated by his strong belief in human rights. “No one has the right to take away my life, because we are born free, and we are born equal. I know my life may be taken away by somebody, but it should be taken away while I’m struggling, to make sure that the human rights of individuals and communities are protected,” Edmund says. 

No one has the right to take away my life, because we are born free, and we are born equal. I know my life may be taken away by somebody, but it should be taken away while I’m struggling, to make sure that the human rights of individuals and communities are protected.

The same passion pushed him to get involved in advocacy around the government’s response to the pandemic: “Within this COVID-19, as human life is under threat, I feel that the rights to health, to an adequate standard of living, and to life are under attack. Putting human rights at the centre of the response is the best approach in making sure that the safety of individuals and communities is taken into account by the authorities.”

See more HRDs of the Month

Human Rights Defender of the month: Aida Musa

In August 2011, Aida crossed into Uganda, pregnant, and barely able to communicate in another language other than Arabic. The transition was a difficult one, she says: “It was my first-time outside Sudan, and yet I did not know any other language. The first months were very difficult.”
In 2012, still struggling to find her footing in Kampala, Aida was introduced to DefendDefenders, where she was introduced to the organisation’s resource center, and assured, it (the center) would be at her disposal whenever she needed to use it.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Pamela Angwench Judith

For most of her life, Pamela Angwech’s existence has always been a defiant and simultaneous act of survival and resistance. In 1976 when she was born, the anti-Amin movement was gathering pace, and her family was one of the earliest victims of the then dictatorship’s reprisals in Northern Uganda. Her father, a passionate educationist in Kitgum district was one of the most vocal critics of the dictatorship’s human rights excesses, which made him an obvious target of the state’s marauding vigilantes.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Joseph Oleshangay

As a human rights lawyer and advocate with the High Court of the United Republic of Tanzania, Joseph Moses Oleshangay spends most of his time crossing from one court to another, litigating human rights cases, some with life-altering implications for ordinary people. It is a monumental responsibility, one he never envisaged growing up.

As a young boy born into a Maasai household in northern Tanzania, his entire childhood revolved around cattle: “Our entire livelihood revolved around cattle. As a child, the main preoccupation was to tend to cows, and my formative years were spent grazing cattle around Endulen. It a simple lifestyle,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Julia Onyoti

The situation of South Sudan’s women and girls remains one of those enduring blights on the country’s conscience. The country retains the unenviable reputation of having the world’s highest maternal mortality rate, and at 51.5%, one of the highest cases of child marriages. It is even worse with gender-based violence(GBV): A 2019 study by UNICEF found that one in every two South Sudan women have experienced intimate partner violence, while a recent UN study, alarmed at the widespread nature of conflict-related sexual violence in the country, in which women are tread as “spoils of war” described it as “a hellish existence for women and girls.

Human Rights Defender of the month:SHIMA BHARE

Shima Bhare Abdalla has never known the luxury and comfort of a stable and safe existence inside her country’s borders. When she was 11, her village was attacked and razed to the ground, sending her family and entire neighborhood scattering into an internally displaced People’s Camp, at the start of the Darfur civil war.

That was in 2002. Shima and her family relocated into Kalma refugee camp in Southern Darfur, where, alongside over 100,000 other displaced persons, they had to forge out a living, under the watch and benevolence of the United Nations – African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur, known as UNAMID. It is here that Shima’s human rights consciousness came to life. She enthusiastically embraced whatever little education she could access under the auspices of the humanitarian agencies operating in the camp, to be able to tell the story of her people’s plight.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Martial Pa’nucci

Martial Pa’nucci is a child of what is fondly known as Africa’s second liberation. In 1990 when he was born, the Republic of Congo, like many other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, was undergoing a transition from one-party rule to multi-party democracy, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yet developments in ordinary people’s lives were not as optimistic. Pa’nucci was born in one of Brazzaville’s ghettos to a polygamous family of two mothers and 19 siblings, where survival was a daily exercise in courage. When he was two, his father died, followed in quick succession by many of his siblings. Pa’nucci did not start school until he was nine, and he had to do odd jobs – from barbering to plumbing to earn his stay there, lest he dropped out like many of his peers.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Veronica Almedom

Veronica Almedom is a poster child of successful immigration. A duo Eritrean and Swiss citizen, she was born in Italy, and grew up in Switzerland where she permanently resides. Her parents are some of the earliest victims of Eritrea’s cycles of violence. When Eritrea’s war of independence peaked in the early 1980s, they escaped the country as unaccompanied minors, wandering through Sudan, Saudi Arabia, before making the hazard journey across the Mediterranean into Europe. There, they crossed first to Italy, and finally, to Switzerland, where they settled first as refugees, and later, as permanent residents.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Omar Faruk Osman

Omar Faruk’s career, and the passion that drove it, were the product of his circumstances. He was born in 1976, in the first of strong man Mohamed Siad Barre’s two-decade rule over Somalia, which was characterized by gross rights abuses and barely existent civic space. He came of age in the 90s when those abuses and rights violations were peaking, as his country was engulfed by a ruinous civil war following the collapse of the Siad Barre dictatorship.