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2016: End of Year Message

Dear friends and colleagues,

2016 has been a challenging year for human rights defenders across the African continent, where tectonic shifts on the global political landscape have directly impacted the work of human rights activists on the ground. DefendDefenders has been busier than ever, working to protect the space for human rights defenders (HRDs) in some of the world’s most repressive countries by equipping them with the tools they need to work safely and effectively, and providing emergency support where these risk can’t be mitigated.

Throughout the year, civic space in the East and Horn of Africa has been relentlessly, and often violently, attacked. As HRDs are confronted with an increasingly dangerous working environment, from the adoption and use of draconian laws to curtail civil society to soaring levels of impunity harassment, intimidation, arbitrary detention, and physical attacks by state officials, we have never faced a more challenging time in our eleven years of existence.

I am saddened to see that we end the year with two countries in our mandate, Burundi and South Sudan, on the brink of catastrophe, with rampant human rights violations taking place and experts warning of impending mass atrocities. At DefendDefenders, we directly felt the impact: although we provided support to HRDs from 19 different countries, 37 per cent came from Burundi, and another 16 per cent from South Sudan. In other countries, such as Sudan and Ethiopia, governments continue to clamp down on HRDs rather than address the protracted and worsening crises they face as a nation, or recognise the valuable contributions civil society can make in addressing these problems.

The challenges confronting us have never been greater, but civil society’s resilience and ability to coordinate, join forces, and send out strong messages have also been galvanised. I am proud to have seen DefendDefenders grow into its role as an international player in the realm of HRD protection as part of a Consortium of 12 NGOs working together under the umbrella of In the first year of the project, more than 330 emergency grants have been disbursed to HRDs under this European Union-funded initiative, and our Protection team has been working closely with global partners to strengthen our ability to reach and help HRDs at risk in a timely and efficient manner.

DefendDefenders has also taken a step further towards strengthening its programs and building a sustainable future. Thanks to the support provided by our donors, DefendDefenders moves into the next stage of its life with core funding that will allow us to more consistently provide support to HRDs for the coming years.

In 2005, we founded DefendDefenders with the aim of enabling HRDs in the East and Horn of Africa under threat to continue their activism by staying in the sub-region, as many African HRDs facing displacement and cultural and language barriers find themselves unable to actively continue their human rights work when relocated outside of the continent. This year, the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network (PAHRDN) took this concept to the next level, and carried out a series of consultative meetings with State and non-State actors on the establishment of HRD Hubs, or Shelter Cities, in Africa, and identified Abidjan (Cote d’Ivoire), Tunis (Tunisia), Kampala (Uganda), and Johannesburg (South Africa) to pilot the project. .

Throughout the year, PAHRDN has supported over 200 HRDs and four organisations across the continent. Through our capacity building activities, we have created a pool of trainers who are able to deliver digital and physical security management trainings in all five sub-regional networks. The Network has been engaging HRDs in difficult situations and equipping them with tools and tactics to bolster their own safety and protection, especially ahead of elections in Chad, Congo, DR Congo, Central Africa Republic, and continued to support HRDs facing clampdowns in North Africa.

Meanwhile, important progress is also being made outside of Africa. This month, Canada adopted new guidelines to support HRDs around the world. Having found a safe haven in Canada myself after I was forced to leave my native Somalia, I was proud and grateful to now be among the international experts consulted for the development of ‘Voices at Risk’. However, this milestone can’t distract us from other worrying developments elsewhere.

Against the backdrop of growing Western complacency towards human rights, the pernicious influence of authoritarian leaders has slowly but surely eroded the hard-earned progress made since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. This year, on International Human Rights Defenders Day, DefendDefenders and the West Africa Human Rights Defenders Network, in partnership with PAHRDN, launched the #OurRightsOurSpace campaign to fight back against attempts to restrict the space for civil society to work, question, criticise, and scrutinise the actions of their governments.

Finally, as we continue to grow, we decided it was time to give the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project a makeover! During our ten-year anniversary, we adopted DefendDefenders as our new name. I’m very pleased to announce that we will officially make this transition during our General Assembly in February 2017, where we’ll be launching our new, rebranded image to reflect the progress we have made. The process is in its final stages, and I look forward to seeing our new website and brand up and running in the coming months.

On behalf of the entire DefendDefenders’ team and our network members, I would like to extend our sincere gratitude to all our partners who have supported us throughout the year.

For further developments from DefendDefenders and the sub-region, please sign-up for our newsletter, or follow us through social media on Facebook and Twitter

Our offices will close for the festive season on Friday 16th December 2016 and will re-open on Monday 2 January 2017. However, as always we will be there for HRDs at risk with our emergency 24/7 protection line, +256-783-027-611, staffed throughout the holidays.

I wish you happy holidays and a prosperous new year!

Hassan Shire


Department highlights:

Protection and Security Management

  • Provided 114 protection grants to human rights defenders and civil society organisations at risk tailored to their needs, including security, medical, capacity building, family, and relocation support;
  • Referred 43 protection cases to partner organisations;
  • Adopted a new database to document all interventions and activities by DefendDefenders;
  • Successfully placed five HRDs in exile on internships and fellowships;
  • Trained 235 HRDs in digital and security management.

Advocacy and research

Technology Program

  • Directly worked with 485 human rights defenders to improve digital security skills and practices, organisational security postures, documentation practices, and social media abilities throughout the course of 41 trainings, assessments, and support visits as well as one-on-one assistance;
  • Developed a new program called “Doc-It” to support human rights organisations to implement and improve electronic documentation systems for human rights monitoring and advocacy in Uganda;
  • Hosted the websites of 14 human rights organisations and began protecting them with HTTPS using the open source certificate authority LetsEncrypt;
  • Began piloting a digital security helpline on WhatsApp, Signal, Viber, and Telegram.