12 June 2015
Kampala, 12 June 2015 – The African Great Lakes Human Rights Defenders Protection Fund (the Fund) is finally official! This innovative financial mechanism, the first of its kind in the region, was championed by ASF, the East Africa Law Society and regional partners. It has been designed to protect the rights and freedoms of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) in the Great Lakes region of Africa (comprising Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda).
“HRDs” refers to those who work to defend human rights for and on behalf of the most vulnerable people and communities. In the Great Lakes region of Africa, however, the rights of HRDs to protect and promote the human rights of others, as developed in national and international laws, are too often denied or unprotected. The work of HRDs often exposes them to risks of persecution: threats of physical harm, criminal or administrative prosecution, harassment, and even violent crimes. Although “Risks cannot be eliminated from rights work”, as one defender has commented, the way forward is to provide protection and support to HRDs to enable them to continue their important work.
Several studies conducted in the region helped to assess the specific needs of HRDs for protection and to establish the mandate of the Fund. One of the key findings was the need for legal support for HRDs. As a result, the Fund was specifically designed to respond to such legal issues as gaps in the current legal framework, the absence of specific laws to protect HRDs, the abuse of existing laws, and access to legal counsel and representation for HRDs and human rights organisations.
Ms. Margaret Sekaggya, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, summarised the impact of such a specialised response in the HRD protection landscape as follows: “The Fund will go a long way in contributing to or complimenting other already existing initiatives“.
The many HRDs and all those in working for human rights in the region also welcomed the initiative. As Gerald Kankya, the HRD who won the 2012 European Union HRD Award put it: “Most times I draw my courage to keep going from the fact that someone is willing and able to offer practical support during times of risk, threats or attacks resulting from my human rights work. The Fund offers me the hope that once targeted as a result of my work, I have the opportunity to challenge those charges. Though risky, I feel insured from risks, in some sense. Bravo ASF!”
As Gilles Durdu, ASF’s regional coordinator further explained: “The Fund is the first of its kind because it is a partnership of key HRD organisations in the region*. It comprises organisations with long standing experience and expertise in both the legal and protection sectors in the region. Such a partnership ensures national representation while avoiding duplicating efforts already in place and combining expertise to ensure the implementation of high quality strategies”.
Gilles Durdu also added that the Fund would be managed by a regional Fund Manager, but that focal points in every country would connect local networks to the Fund. These focal points will act as hubs that identify, verify and evaluate specific requests to access the Fund.
Since the launch of the Fund, the ASF team has been working hard to ensure current HRDs, as well as prospective HRDs, are aware of how it can help them. The Fund will only be able to achieve its objectives through the continuous support of all stakeholders who are committed to this vision.