Members of the UN Association of Jyväskylä, UN Youth of Finland have attended a lecture by Mr. Hassan Shire, a pan-African human rights defender and director of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (EHAHRDP). He gave a lecture at the KIOS morning seminar in Helsinki on the situation of human rights defenders in the East and Horn of Africa and their role in the development of the area. KIOS is the Finnish NGO Foundation for Human Rights. It promotes human rights in the developing countries by granting funding to human rights projects.
The continent of Africa is a contradiction of failed and fragile states and vast natural resources and rich cultural heritage. In Eastern Horn of Africa, challenges include the way in which current and upcoming elections in various countries of the region (e.g. Sudan and Burundi) jeopardize and threaten the work and safety of human rights defenders (HRDs) and their families. The ruling elite in countries such as Rwanda, Uganda and Ethiopia highlight the importance of economic and social rights and yet restrict political and civil rights in order to stay in power. HRDs are being silenced and young African human rights activists are behind the bars because they are voicing the inconvenient truth that the leaders do not want the world to hear.
Mr. Shire and EHAHRDP raise awareness of the situation because not many know about the faiths of these activists in Africa. Moreover, Mr. Shire believes in the importance of the work of HRDs since these are the people who speak out for those who are silent or cannot voice their opinion. This is especially important in Africa where there is a high respect for authority and therefore challenging it is not as straightforward as it may be elsewhere. Raising the profiles of HRDs may also help to form coalitions and networks between regional groups in Africa and Europe for example. This is vital so that NGOs can reach out to HRDs in remote villages and support their work.
Mr. Shire prompted us to think who, in fact, these human rights defenders are. Those who fight a dictatorship, those who are violently oppressed? The answer is simultaneously yes and no. Everyone who supports human rights work is also a human rights defender, reminded Mr. Shire. Unfortunately, the support we give in the form of foreign aid does not always reach the rights hands. Some of it may go to governments who spend it on military and not to NGOs who support human rights work. According to Mr. Shire, the solution is not to cut development aid, as some might advocate, but to give targeted, conditioned, aid to where it is most needed. Ms. Anu Tuukkanen, policy officer at Amnesty International Finnish section, also added how important continuous work for human rights is; democracy and values embedded in it can be reversed if they are not actively upheld and nurtured.
The discussion session after the lecture brought up many interesting points ranging from the role of China as a potential ally for repressive governments in Africa to the question of universality of human rights and the dilemma of whether fighting poverty should be prioritized over investing in human rights promotion. Even though finding a long-term sustainable way of supporting oneself and one’s family is extremely important, Mr. Shire argues that it is not enough. He believes that economic and social rights and political and civil rights go hand in hand and must be equally respected because no country can flourish without respecting human dignity and freedom. This is a goal we can all work for. In the words of Mr. Shire: “There are more good than bad people in this world but bad things happen when the good people do not speak out”.
Article by: Janette Sorsimo, External Affairs Officer/UN Youth of Finland, UN Association of Jyväskylä