Home » 50 Years Justice and Peace: Yvonne Donders, Defending the Human Rights Defenders
Yvonne Donders: Defending the Human Rights Defenders
LGBTI rights activists from Uganda, Kyrgyzstan and Senegal, lawyers from Russia and Congo, journalists from South Sudan, and human rights activists from Zimbabwe, Ukraine, Burundi, Somaliland and Palestine; this is just a sample of human rights defenders who have been welcomed for a temporary stay in the Netherlands within the Shelter City programme. It is one of the flagship programmes of Justice and Peace, supported by the Dutch Foreign Ministry.
Who is a human rights defender?
There is no specific definition of who is or can be a human rights defender. They are broadly all persons or groups of persons working to promote and protect human rights. They can be individual persons or persons within an organisation or the organisations themselves. Human rights defenders can be women and men, of all ages, from all sorts of professional or other backgrounds. They can be working at local, national, regional, or international level. Their work concern the support for certain vulnerable groups, such as promoting the rights of women, LGBTI, persons with disabilities, workers, or persons in political opposition. Their area of work can be the media (journalists, bloggers), law (lawyers, judges), education (teachers) or health (doctors, nurses). Human rights defenders can be paid for their human rights work, but they can also do it voluntarily. In other words, human rights defenders include a large collection and variety of persons, groups, organisations and institutions that promote and protect human rights. The identification of the most vulnerable human rights defenders is however sometimes hindered by the fact that many human rights defenders refuse to call themselves as such, because this title puts them more at risk than if they call themselves a health worker or a teacher.
Protecting human rights defenders at risk
Human rights defenders often find their own rights violated, for instance their rights to freedom of expression, association and movement, as well as their rights to be protected against discrimination, torture, illegal arrest or arbitrary killing. At the same time they precisely make use of their own human rights, including access to justice, freedom of expression and information, freedom of association, as well as the right to education and the right to form and join trade unions, to defend the rights and freedoms of others.
Since 2012, Justice and Peace coordinates the Shelter City programme. The City of The Hague was the first Shelter City in the Netherlands. Now, apart from The Hague, the cities of Amsterdam, Deventer, Groningen, Haarlem, Maastricht, Middelburg, Nijmegen, Tilburg, Utrecht and Zwolle have become Shelter Cities.
Shelter Cities offer temporary rest and respite to the human rights defenders, who can continue their work in a safe environment. They are temporarily freed from a heavy burden by not having to look over their shoulder continuously and by leading “normal” lives during their stay. The human rights defenders participate in training courses on safety and privacy, lobbying, human rights law and advocacy, as well as practical training courses in for instance writing and presenting. They also enlarge their professional network of civil society organizations and political connections in The Hague, Brussels and at local level. Moreover, through public events they raise awareness about human rights among the citizens of the Shelter Cities. Such public events can, however, only take place if the visibility of the human rights defender does not have negative consequences for the safety of the human rights defender or her/his family, and for the possibility of return.
Justice and Peace has built a tremendous experience in the project of Shelter City, one that is unique in the world. Justice and Peace works closely with the participating cities as well as with local organisations, such as NGOs and universities. The selection of the human rights defenders is done by an independent committee. Candidates for the programme are sought via the international network of Justice and Peace and other human rights organisations, as well as the network of Dutch embassies and EU representations. A steadily growing number of applications is received each round.
I have the honour to chair the selection committee. The selection of candidates is a very difficult task. The most important criteria are that the candidate should be a real human rights defender who is severely threatened because of her or his work. Another important criterion is the willingness and ability to return to the home country after the temporary stay in the Netherlands. Of final importance are the possible activities that the human rights defender can do in the Netherlands and the existence of relevant networks here.
In particular the first two criteria pose serious challenges to the selection. A large number of applicants fulfills the criterion of being seriously threatened or harassed. Since the programme can only host a limited number of persons, the selection committee ends up comparing levels and forms of threats and harassment. Even though extensive information is provided by the candidates and additional information is given by embassies and partner organisations, it is very hard if not impossible to judge whether and to what extent someone is threatened or harassed. More importantly, from an ethical perspective: who are we, as members of the selection committee, to judge this severity? Less severe or prompt does not make the situation of an individual human rights defender less serious. Reality is however that this programme cannot relocate all persons who may need or deserve it.
Most of them went back to teach and train others in their organisation or country. This is perhaps the most important part: by defending individual human rights defenders there is a flywheel effect in that these persons can train and support their colleagues and together they can help again others to enjoy their human rights.
So far, 78 human rights defenders have been welcomed in the Netherlands from 41 countries. From recent evaluations it can be shown that their stays were overall very successful. They very much appreciated the break from their difficult situation and managed to get some rest. They built up or strengthened their network with other human rights defenders and increased their knowledge on security measures, lobbying, advocacy and legal aspects of human rights. Most of them went back to teach and train others in their organisation or country. This is perhaps the most important part: by defending individual human rights defenders there is a flywheel effect in that these persons can train and support their colleagues and together they can help again others to enjoy their human rights.
Justice and Peace has really shown to do a tremendous job in coordinating the Shelter City programme. I therefore congratulate you on this work and hope to continue to work together, in order to defend the human rights defenders.
Yvonne Donders is a professor at the University of Amsterdam, and chair of the Shelter City independent selection committee. This speech is from the 50th Anniversary of Justice and Peace Netherlands.