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: Ana Taban

Ana Taban, which means ‘I am Tired’ in Arabic, was established in 2016 in Nairobi, Kenya out of frustration of South Sudanese artists with several issues related to the civil war in the country. This was after another conflict broke out at the Presidential Palace in Juba a few months after the signing of a peace deal.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Jaqueline Mutere

Jaqueline Mutere’s motivation to establish Grace Agenda was a response to the post-election sexual violence of 2007 and 2008 in Kenya. Additionally, as a survivor of sexual violence which resulted into conception of a child, and following the experience of other survivors, Jaqueline identified the need to form an organisation that advocates for reparations for survivors of sexual violence.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Ocen Ivan Kenneth

Ocen Ivan Kenneth is a Program Director at Foundation for Development and Relief Africa (FIDRA), with more than 10 years’ experience working in the human rights field. Ivan’s ambitions for change focus on building inner peace, defending human rights and empowering local communities using theatre and storytelling. He creates a space where people from the community share their personal stories of trauma and resilience as well as identify mechanisms of healing.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Sandra Aceng

Sandra Aceng is an outspoken and energetic woman human rights defender (WHRD). She is a gender and ICT researcher and policy analyst for Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) where she coordinates the Women ICT Advocacy Group, advocating for internet access for all. In addition, she writes on various platforms such as Global Voices, Freedom House, and Impakter Magazine. Her regular contributions to Wikimedia Uganda often focus on profiling WHRDs, female politicians, and journalists.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Chantal Mutamuriza

Chantal Mutamuriza does not wait for problems to be solved. When the Burundian woman human rights defender (WHRD) encounters a problem, she will seek a solution there and then. When hundreds of thousands Burundians had to flee from political unrest in 2015, many of them were stranded in refugee camps with little economic opportunity or access to education. In her problem-solving spirit, Chantal felt compelled to act: she quit her job to put her skills and network to use and founded the NGO Light For All.

Human Rights Defender of the Month: Foni Joyce

Foni Joyce has engaged in humanitarian work since the age of 20, when she joined a refugee student organisation to amplify the voices of refugees. Originally from South Sudan, Foni grew up as a refugee in Nairobi, Kenya, but she makes it clear that ‘refugee’ is merely a legal definition: “I firstly define myself as a human being who has been uprooted.”

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, teachers, her 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.”

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