Memory Bandera from DefendDefenders reflects on the importance of the Human Rights Commissions Network (HRCnet) partnerships and its achievements.
Memory Bandera is the director of programmes and administration at DefendDefenders. She is in charge of programmes, and deals extensively with organisational development and human resources management. Memory is also a founding member of the Girl Child Network Zimbabwe, co-founder of Tariro: Hope and Health for Zimbabwe’s Orphans, and the Girl Child Network Uganda.
On the occasion of its 15th anniversary, DefendDefenders reflected on its achievements. These cover virtually all areas of human rights work. While our mandate focuses on the promotion and protection of human rights defenders in East Africa and the Horn of Africa, our programmes and projects cover capacity-building, protection and security management, digital safety, advocacy and research.
However, DefendDefenders would not be what it is today without networks. Bringing human rights defenders and organisations together, pooling resources, exchanging information, and sharing good practices are central to our activities. We would be much less effective without these. In fact, we would be unable to do a lot of the work we do.
In Africa, DefendDefenders hosts and coordinates the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network (AfricanDefenders), which itself is made up of five sub-regional networks – one for each sub-region of the continent. AfricanDefenders is responsible for initiatives that make a difference for African human rights defenders, including the ‘Ubuntu Hub Cities’ relocation initiative.
DefendDefenders is also part of HRCnet. Established in 2006, HRCnet brings together 17 NGOs that engage with the United Nations Human Rights Council. Collectively, we push the Council to do more and to do better. We push the Council to strengthen its impact on the ground – that is, to strengthen respect for human rights and advance the protection of human rights defenders everywhere. HRCnet members work in a coordinated manner and in solidarity; and as a network, we have contributed to some of the most important initiatives of the Human Rights Council, for instance investigative mechanisms such as commissions of inquiry.
Friends more than partners
Fellow HRCnet members include other regional NGOs from the Global South. Over the years, they have become more than partners; they have become friends. They work in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and globally. We face similar challenges. We engage in shared struggles, at the Human Rights Council and beyond. We share a sense of belonging. Thanks to HRCnet, we
are part of a global community of human rights lovers – people who want to see human rights upheld, and every human being respected and their rights and dignity upheld. HRCnet is a unique network. It is focused on making the Human Rights Council more effective, but it is much more than that.
When we meet with fellow HRCnet members, we learn about their struggles, the human rights violations they fight, and the people they work with. We realise that the issues facing human rights defenders in East Africa are similar to the issues facing defenders in Brazil, Indonesia and Zimbabwe. Individual cases are different, but the issues are the same. We all fight against power abuse, injustice and impunity.
These days, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, meetings tend to take place online. But in 2018, the HRCnet annual meeting took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We went there knowing little about the country. Thanks to CELS (a fellow HRCnet member), an amazing human rights organisation, we learned about Argentinian history, the Argentinian people’s struggle against dictatorship, and the victims’ and survivors’ quest for justice. We were lucky to meet with the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo), who have been trying to locate the children of their children, who the dictatorship (1976-1983) abducted and who disappeared without trace. The Abuelas contributed to taking down the dictatorship.
Everything we learned about the Argentinian people’s fight for accountability and justice in that week resonated with our work on the African continent. We were able to learn this because of HRCnet. On a daily basis, HRCnet is a platform for exchanging information. We receive information on human rights issues in Egypt, the Philippines, the US, Russia and China. We share information on developments in Ethiopia, Burundi and Tanzania.
We get to know what our colleagues and friends do, and they get to know what we do. Because HRCnet exists, people in Thailand, Norway and Brazil know how Sudanese human rights defenders organise. Because HRCnet exists, people in Uganda know what issues Belarusian defenders face, how the Chinese state cracks down on lawyers, and how a judicial decision in a
Latin American country led to better protections for local indigenous people.
A sense of solidarity
In terms of Geneva and the Human Rights Council, HRCnet’s value is clear. HRCnet members constantly share information and analyses on developments at the Council. They also join forces and act in solidarity, and by example. Ahead of Council sessions, NGOs routinely prepare calls and letters – documents that outline what we want the Council to do with regard to a specific country.
HRCnet brings a sense of solidarity to everything its members do. Because HRCnet members have built solidarity over the years, calls and letters are truly global. Organisations that are not African sign on to letters on human rights in South Sudan. Organisations that are not Asian sign on to letters on human rights in the Philippines. Organisations that are not from the Middle East sign on to letters on human rights in Saudi Arabia.
And state representatives now routinely see letters that many organisations support, and not just organisations from the country concerned. And it matters. It shows states that people all over the world care about South Sudan, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia, and want to see human rights improvements in these countries. When an Argentinian organisation such as CELS endorses a call for the release of unjustly detained human rights defenders in Egypt, it outlines an expectation that the Argentinian government will act to try and secure the release of these defenders.
As all regions of the world have experienced a human rights backlash since the rise of authoritarian populists in the 2010s, human rights actors have experienced a similar set of challenges. At this turning point for human rights and the rule of law worldwide, no human rights organisation can work alone. We need to join forces, and share information, strategies and
resources. Beyond formal and informal networks, we need to build partnerships with like-minded actors in the human rights field and beyond.
We need journalists to debunk disinformation and misinformation. We need organisers to help communities affected by human rights violations to claim their rights. We need human rights defenders from all continents to realise that they are in the same boat – and that they have friends and supporters everywhere.
In 2021, as the world struggles to leave the Covid-19 crisis behind and as we advocate for human dignity (universal access to vaccines should be a key policy priority), we will need more partnerships, more networks, and an ever-more-interconnected civil society.
1 March 2021