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: Kasale Maleton Mwaana

Kasale’s human rights activism precedes his years. The son of pastoralist parents from Ngorongoro district in northern Tanzania, he grew up seeing his parents and entire community having to defend their land and way of life against authorities who thought their lands could be put to better use. Now, at 25, Kasale is already one of the most recognizable advocates of his people’s cause, much to the ire of Tanzanian authorities.
“Our people’s struggle goes back many generations. It started with the pushing out of our forefathers from Serengeti to gazette Serengeti National Park in 1959, and then further evictions from the Ngorongoro crater to gazette the Ngorongoro conservation area in 1975. Since then, every generation has had to resist further evictions. It’s now my generation’s turn,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Pierre Claver Mbonimpa

Arguably no single individual personifies Burundi’s human rights struggle like Pierre Claver Mbonimpa. Born 72 years ago in the small East African country, Claver’s quest for human rights and justice is as old as his country’s modern history.

When his country was plunged into a civil war that killed an estimated 300,000 people following the 1993 assassination of President Cyprien Ntaryamira, Claver was one of its earliest victims. Then a close confidant (he was also a former driver) of the assassinated President, he was framed, and arrested, and would go on to spend the next two years between 1994 and 1996 in jail.

It is in prison that the ulcer of injustice bit him hard. There, he met inmates who had either been wrongfully imprisoned or who had been remanded for long periods without trial, all living in dehumanising conditions. “I was strongly revolted by the injustice. Here were probably innocent people whose years were being wasted away by an unfair judicial system, with no one to stand up for them. I swore that I would try to do something about it once I got out myself,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Kamau Ngugi

On October 7, 2022, Kamau Ngugi was elected Chairperson of the East and Horn of Africa human rights defenders’ network (EHAHRD-net), a stirring affirmation for the Kenyan human rights defender’s efforts in defense of human rights that go back nearly 30 years.

But it was not always this promising for her. Born 37 years ago in Grand Kru, Southeastern Liberia, Margaret had to do with a childhood of abuse, neglect, and want, after her, her sibling and her mother were abandoned by their father at an early age.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Margaret Muna Nigba

A human rights lawyer per excellence, Margaret is also an indefatigable woman human rights defender (WHRD) who has won the adulation of millions in her country for her impassioned dedication to defending the rights of women and girls in her native Liberia.

But it was not always this promising for her. Born 37 years ago in Grand Kru, Southeastern Liberia, Margaret had to do with a childhood of abuse, neglect, and want, after her, her sibling and her mother were abandoned by their father at an early age.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Mohammed Adam Hassan

Mohammed Hassan has known mostly conflict, displacement, and war all his adult life. As part of Sudan’s black population in the country’s region of Darfur, they were for long the victims of oppression by Khartoum, then under now deposed dictator Omar Bashir. Then, in 2003, when Mohammed was 19, Darfur’s black population decided to fight back. Two rebel movements – Sudan Liberation Movement and the Justice and Equality Movement launched a rebellion against Bashir’s government, seeking justice for Darfur’s non-Arab population. The response by Khartoum was chilling: Bashir’s forces launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the region’s non-Arab population, and thousands of families were displaced and herded into refugee camps.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Issah Musundi

At first encounter, Issah Musundi is a coy, if not shy, mostly reserved lad. But behind that quiet disposition is a steely character and an enforced existence.
Born 27 years ago in Kenya’s border district of Busia, Issah belongs to Kenya’s sexual minorities community, who have had to win majority rights that other Kenyans take for granted.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Agather Atuhaire

In late May this year, Agather Atuhaire, via her twitter account, broke the story that the Parliament of Uganda had spent a whopping Shs. 2.8billion to purchase two luxury vehicles for the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker.

Aside from the fact that the expenditure was unnecessary – both the Speaker and her Deputy already have two luxury vehicles for their official duties, the purchase flouted all public procurement procedures, and when Parliament’s contracts committee could not approve the procurement, the members of the committee were fired and new ones immediately appointed to approve the purchase.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Esther Tawiah

In Ghana, Esther Tawiah is one of the loudest voices for women empowerment and gender. It is also why she is one of the most loathed. Born and raised in New-Tafo in the country’s eastern region, Esther grew up surrounded by a culture that frowned at the idea of women participating in public affairs, and witnessed firsthand, the backlash those who dared to challenge that cultural norm faced.

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