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: Onesmo Olengurumwa

Protecting human rights is Onesmo Olengurumwa’s passion. When his secondary school lacked access to water and was threatened with closure, Onesmo successfully rallied his fellow students together and protested for their right to education. While at university, he was the human rights association’s president. Becoming a human rights defender was not really a conscious choice, but just the natural course of Onesmo’s life.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Malab Alneel

Malab Alneel was only 20 when Sudan’s revolution started in December 2018, but she knew it was the moment to get involved: “I grew up in a house that was very political. All of my sisters are activists, my parents are very involved. Activism has always been there. But for me it started with the revolution. It just felt like a time for change.”

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Karis Moses Oteba

Karis Moses Oteba is DefendDefenders’ Protection Officer and Well-being Lead, promoting self-care and effective stress management amongst human rights defenders. He started defending human rights at the early age of 11, as a member of the children’s parliament, convened to listen to the views of children concerning Uganda’s 1997 Children’s Act.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Vanessa Tsehaye

Vanessa Tsehaye started her work as a human rights defender at an early age: at 16, she founded a high school group in support of imprisoned Eritrean journalist Seyoum Tsehaye. Seven years later, the same diaspora organisation, One Day Seyoum, is one of Eritrea’s leading human rights organisations – spear-headed by the now 23-year old Vanessa.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Edmund Yakani

Edmund Yakani is one of South Sudan’s most prominent human rights defenders (HRDs). The Civil Rights Defender of the Year 2017 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.

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.

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