Human rights defender of the month (January 2019): Yared Hailemariam

Yared Hailemariam is an Ethiopian human rights defender (HRD), and the Executive Director of the Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia (AHRE), a non-governmental and non-partisan organisation based in Brussels and Geneva, founded by activists that fled the country and other members of the Ethiopian diaspora. He served as a lead investigator at the Ethiopia Human Rights Council (HRCO) for seven years before being forced into exile in the aftermath of the heavily contested 2005 election in the country.

The post-2005 period saw a massive crackdown on civil society through the enactment of draconian legislation, and the implementation of two states of emergency that allowed for the brutal repression of thousands of demonstrators, journalists, and HRDs. During this time, AHRE, based in exile, focused on advocacy, protection and capacity-building for Ethiopian HRDs, and producing research highlighting the deteriorating situation in Ethiopia.

However, when the reformist agenda of the new Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed began to manifest in 2018, Hailemariam decided it was safe to head home after more than 13 years in exile. In January 2019, he helped organise a civil society meeting and workshop in Addis Ababa which brought together national and international civil society organisations (CSOs) to forge a path forward after years of restrictions and repression.

“This is a huge chance for civil society. Because of bad laws and the previous government, our work was totally crippled and paralysed, but there are many good signs that our presence is welcome like it wasn’t before. It’s a bright future for civil society as a result of these changes.”

Hailemariam hopes to help rebuild civil society in Ethiopia by bringing together HRDs returning from exile with the few CSOs that were able to remain in the country and weather the storm. He says that while the new reforms are positive, these changes must trickle down to institutions and the general citizenry for them to be real and long lasting.

“The head is moving, but the legs are not. Civic reforms don’t affect the real day to day situations like unemployment or access to healthcare, so the government needs to act quickly to make real institutional reforms. Unless the whole body starts moving together, it will seriously affect the political reform.”

He acknowledges that the real struggle will be to rebuild the capacity of a civil society sector decimated by brain drain and financial insecurity. However, he hopes that with a bit of tenacity and good networking, HRDs in the country can come together before the planned 2020 elections and engage in civic education to prepare Ethiopia for a brighter, more democratic future.

The real challenge for civil society is now. It’s a new chapter.

See more HRDs of the Month

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Onyango Owor

In March 2020, Uganda’s Constitutional Court nullified the Public Order Management Act, 2013, a law that made arbitrary restrictions on freedom of assembly possible. One of the people behind the successful petition of POMA is Onyango Owor, a Ugandan lawyer with 15 years of experience in representing human rights defenders.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Kadar Abdi Ibrahim

Kadar Abdi Ibrahim is an outspoken human rights activist and journalist from Djibouti – a country where journalists are frequently harassed, subjected to government-orchestrated intimidation and reprisals, and prevented from pursuing their work independently. Yet, Kadar continues to use his voice and pen as tools to promote justice.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Aluel Atem

Aluel Atem is an ambitious woman activist from South Sudan who plays a vital role in the promotion of women’s rights in the country. However, life as an outspoken feminist in a patriarchal country is not a walk in the park. “It’s not only about being a female, but a young female. You get undermined for being a woman in all-man spaces, and for being young in older spaces,” Aluel explains.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Faiza Abdi Mohamed

The Somali activist Faiza Abdi Mohamed has promoted human rights in her home country for a decade, which has made her a target of verbal abuse, threats, and arbitrary arrest, forcing her to flee Somalia and seek exile in Uganda. Yet, she remains extremely vocal about human rights violations in her country. “I’ve lost so many of my friends due to cruelties, so I can’t keep quiet,” she says.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Omot Agwa Okwoy

In Ethiopia, land grabbing and villagisation has resulted in severe human rights abuses, however, being vocal about these abuses can be extremely risky. Omot Agwa Okwoy, our human rights defender of the month for December 2019, has fought for land rights and the rights of indigenous people in the Gambella region in Ethiopia for almost 20 years – leaving him with visible and invisible scars.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Brenda Kugonza

Brenda Kugonza has fought for women’s rights in Uganda for more than 13 years, and is currently the Executive Director of Women Human Rights Defenders Network-Uganda (WHRDN-U). “As a defender, you lose friends and family members – they don’t want to be associated with someone who brings them shame. We are viewed as women with bad manners and I struggle daily with discrimination,” she affirms.

Human Rights Defender of the Month:  Gladness Hemedi Munuo 

Gladness Hemedi Munuo is a journalist and an award-winning gender activist from Tanzania, with more than 20 years of human rights and media experience. “Shrinking space and crackdown on media causes huge problems in Tanzania – to me it’s a thing that needs serious and immediate action,” she stresses.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Moses Kabaseke

Moses Kabaseke, a talented hip-hop artist and activist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), was forced to flee to Uganda in 2013 – at only 16 years old. Kabaseke, known by his stage name Belidor, has produced music since he was a child. “I use music as a weapon – music has power. I use music to promote human rights.”

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