ProtectDefenders.eu: A safety network to save lives

protest against the lashing in vedio 2010-1495627088

Article by Noor Ali, pen name of a WHRD benefiting from the ProtectDefenders.eu temporary relocation programme — For security reasons, information allowing her identification is not disclosed.

As a woman human rights defender, I have been living in constant state of danger for the last six years. A new war erupted in my home country of Sudan following five years of fragile peace. Alarming signs of potential genocide became hard to avoid, so I found myself doing what I can to report about these signs for international human rights organizations. Within few months my house was under surveillance, my phone was tapped and then was cut off by security, because I was making calls into the war zones… 

Within 8 months I was arrested and detained several times, and finally my house was raided by 14 armed men with machine guns.  I was accused of espionage among other serious charges, and threatened to be prosecuted. With the help of some friends, I managed to flee the country to escape prosecution of charges that could lead to execution.

My story didn't end there, although that could be the end of the journey for so many human rights defenders, especially women. When I arrived in exile, I found help from colleague human rights defenders, who guided me to apply for support from regional human rights defenders network EHAHRDP. Through their help I managed to start again and reorganize my life and resume my work. But most importantly I had confidence that, whatever troubles I might find myself in, I will find a safety network that can protect me and help me restart again. My own experience led me to start thinking about other women and colleagues in my home country who are at the same situation, but they did not have access to direct connection with human rights defenders protection mechanisms, either because of the language barriers or the lack of internet or safe communications in remote areas. So I started helping other women defenders at risk through coordination with human rights defenders safety networks such as Urgent Action Fund for Women/Africa. What I understood from helping those colleagues; that saving one life of human rights defender means saving the lives of so many other people.

Working from exile in helping other defenders at risk was not safe enough in the hosting country. Within couple of years I found myself once again at danger, when the country I fled to became more hostile against civil society organizations, and decided that my work and other NGOs or HRDs in general was not legal anymore. This time ProtectDefenders.eu came at my rescue. When I applied to them I was surprised by the fast response and close follow up, especially that such mechanism is covering applications from all over the world. In my case that fast processing of my application was timely needed, because I was at serious danger and I needed fast relocation. What made me more comfortable throughout the process with ProtectDefenders.eu, is the flexibility in the period of support provided and the wide covering of HRDs needs which is not always covered by most of other mechanisms. Within few weeks I was able to engage again in my work, but through secured communication channels, while I felt safer in my new location.

Working as human rights defender could be seen by some people as not quite a serious work, or more of a volunteering job. The spirit of volunteering is at the core of every human rights defender, but we must remember that; HRDs do not just volunteer or give up some of their time or money. They give up their security, their family safety and unfortunately in too many cases, they also give up their lives. When I say "they give up their lives", I literally mean it. In our days HRDs lose their lives while doing their work, either tortured in detentions or assassinated or executed. But they also lose their lives in other ways, although they remain physically alive.  Human rights defenders who are forced to flee their countries, they are also forced to leave behind their families and their old lives, usually for indefinite periods of time; they are basically forced to start a new life in exile. Other HRDs are enforced to stay in prisons for years or live in hiding for months and sometimes longer. Therefore, a safety network like ProtectDefenders.eu, not only insure the security of the defenders at risk, but it also give them opportunity to reclaim their lives back or to start a new one.

Equally important to saving human rights defenders lives is helping HRDs to resume their work, which enable them to save the lives of so many other people. When HRDs defenders feel safe and have access to protection networks, they are also feel empowered to do better work and provide help to those most at need. HRDs who work in war areas providing aid or documenting violations are at risk of detention and sometime death during their work. One of the WHRDs from the war area of Nuba mountains who used to help displaced families inside Nuba mountains and in Khartoum, she was detained and sexually abused by the Sudanese security. We managed to help her and she had been supported to relocate her family and have access to medical and psychological treatment.  After her relocation to safe place, and within few months, she started her work again. She campaigned to collect food, clothes and education materials for displaced children and sent them back to Sudan. Investing in supporting and protecting HRDs is an investment that empowers vulnerable communities; it's an investment that strengthens peoples' access to justice and builds foundation for sustainable development and peace. When human rights defenders have reliable and strong safety networks, they become able to create different safety nets for other people and make our world more humane.