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Human Rights Defender of the Month: Meskerem  Geset Techane

Meskerem Geset Techane has fought injustice since she can remember: as a child she was known to stand up for herself and others, whether against bullies, teachersher parents or church. Fighting injustice and promoting human rights is a common theme in the lawyer’s life. “It’s a passion, promoting human rights is not something you choose to do for a living or as a career opportunity. It’s more of a calling for me.”  

A calling that has led Meskerem to impressive places. In Ethiopia, she served as a High Court Judge, worked as a pro-bono lawyer, and founded or spearheaded several civil society initiatives, most recently Lawyers for Human Rights and TIMRAN (She Leads). At the African level, she worked with African Union human rights bodies and African human rights lawyers. She initiated a continent-wide effort on human rights lawyering and strategic litigation. Meskerem is also active at the international level: she is currently a UN Human Rights Council’s distinguished Rapporteur mandate holder appointed with a global mandate in the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls. Meskerem does it all: not only does she simultaneously work on the national, African, and international level, she also works on a multitude of human rights topics. The rights of women and children and their intersectionality with various topics have become a red thread in her work. 

Any opportunity to discredit me is used. When I assert my leadership and demand excellence, men complain that I’m insulting them. They would never say that to the other men in their ‘boy’s club.’ It’s very subtle, but it’s bullying and intimidation attempting to discredit me. Many women human rights defenders face such experiences.

Working in a male-dominated environment, Meskerem is often the only woman in many of the high-level discussions she attends – whether in Addis Ababa, Banjul, or Geneva. Like so many women, she has had to face misogyny: “Any opportunity to discredit me is used. When I assert my leadership and demand excellence, men complain that I’m insulting them. They would never say that to the other men in their ‘boy’s club.’ It’s very subtle, but it’s bullying and intimidation attempting to discredit me. Many women human rights defenders face such experiences.” 

Meskerem finds it particularly disheartening to see this happening within the human rights field: “I like to do value based human rights work where rule of law and accountability begins with us – the HRDs. How can I assert myself as a defender if I don’t live by the values I defend? Human rights need to become our personal values. Accountability starts with us. We can’t ask states for accountability, if we’re not accountable ourselves. We need this integrity as HRDs: we have to do value-based work, value-based advocacy, value-based lawyering to achieve a sustainable culture of human rights.” 

I like to do value based human rights work where rule of law and accountability begins with us – the HRDs. How can I assert myself as a defender if I don’t live by the values I defend? Human rights need to become our personal values. Accountability starts with us. We can’t ask states for accountability, if we’re not accountable ourselves. We need this integrity as HRDs: we have to do value-based work, value-based advocacy, value-based lawyering to achieve a sustainable culture of human rights.

Dealing with human rights violations from around the globe on a daily basis takes its toll on Meskerem. Not only does she take injustice very seriously, she also takes it personally, causing pain and anger. But sometimes it is exactly this anger that energises Meskerem and motivates her to continue. Seeing how other HRDs are silenced and repressed encourages her to use her platform to promote human rights for as long as she can. Her main demand from national, regional, and international actors is to strengthen protective and supportive systems for HRDs – their contribution to society’s collective well-being and safety needs to be respected and protected. 

See more HRDs of the Month

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.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Rita Kahsay

When the Ethiopian Federal Government representatives and those of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed a peace agreement in Pretoria, in November last year, the two parties were hailed for ending arguably the deadliest conflict of the 21st century, in which over 600,000 people had died.
But long before the negotiators for peace got around to an agreement, there were many other unsung heroes, who, through individual and collective efforts helped sustain the world’s gaze on the dire situation in Tigray, despite the Ethiopian Government’s determined efforts to hush it up.

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