Human Rights Defender of the Month: Vanessa Tsehaye

Vanessa Tsehaye started her work as a human rights defender (HRD) 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. 

The man for whom it was founded, Seyoum, is Vanessa’s uncle. The journalist was arrested in 2001 during a crackdown on critics and non-governmental media. For 19 years now, Seyoum has been a prisoner of conscience, held without trial and under inhumane conditions, like so many others. “The Eritrean situation is very unique. In these past 19 years, very few things have changed for the better, if any,” says Vanessa. “Maybe it’s comparable to North Korea, this situation where opposition and civil society are completely banned and unable to operate within the country. Only people on the outside can mobilize and campaign. It’s very tricky, because it’s much easier to mobilize people within a country to organize mass protests.”

The Eritrean situation is very unique. In these past 19 years, very few things have changed for the better, if any. Maybe it’s comparable to North Korea, this situation where opposition and civil society are completely banned and unable to operate within the country. Only people on the outside can mobilise and campaign. It’s very tricky, because it’s much easier to mobilise people within a country to organise mass protests.

Yet, One Day Seyoum has evolved from a Swedish high school group to one of the leading Eritrean human rights organisations. “We can’t wait for things to open in Eritrea to start. There is value in doing things from outside the country as well,” says Vanessa. “Building capacity outside of the country is the most important thing we can do.”

One Day Seyoum’s main aim is to raise awareness about human rights violations in Eritrea and mobilise people to get involved. Recently, One Day Seyoum called on the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) to extend the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea and maintain its scrutiny of the human rights situation in the country, together with DefendDefenders and partners. This follows years of international advocacy. In March 2019, the HRC invited Vanessa to speak on a panel during a debate on Eritrea’s human rights situation.

Currently, One Day Seyoum is working on different initiatives, including a refugee clinic supporting Eritrean refugees worldwide and campaigns on Eritrean issues targeting institutions or individuals. They will also soon launch a media channel to inform about the situation in Eritrea, targeted at non-Eritreans, Eritreans born in the diaspora and Eritreans born after independence. Especially the younger generation – those born after Eritrean independence in 1991 – often only have limited knowledge of their own country’s history. “This is a generation that knows barely anything about what happened with the democracy movement – that was killed very quickly in 2001 – or generally about the nature of the Eritrean regime outside of their own experiences. Their generation was deprived of that, because of the regime’s extreme censorship,” Vanessa says.

People are very scared to speak out against the Eritrean government. They are scared of the consequences for their families back home, but also of losing their position in the exiled community. The government has quite a strong grip on local communities across the world. Even if you’re not in Eritrea, you can still feel this grip, and you can get isolated.

The government’s power reaches far beyond the borders of Eritrea. Even in the diaspora, Vanessa is regularly confronted with online hate speech on social media because of her human rights work. These hate messages often come in waves, making it likely they are part of a larger strategy, though it is unclear who is behind them. It could be the Eritrean government, but it could also be other exiled Eritreans. “People are very scared to speak out against the Eritrean government. They are scared of the consequences for their families back home, but also of losing their position in the exiled community. The government has quite a strong grip on local communities across the world. Even if you’re not in Eritrea, you can still feel this grip, and you can get isolated,” Vanessa explains.

But the severity of the situation keeps Vanessa going: “I was lucky to be born outside of Eritrea, the situation of Eritreans within the country and of those who are fleeing is just unbearable. I really feel like the least I can do is raise my voice and try to help.”

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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