Courageous Human Rights Defenders

By Jo Allebone World YWCA Short-term Advocacy Intern, Jo is currently attending the 23rd Session of the Human Rights Council  (HRC) in Geneva, Switzerland. (Original source of blog:

Most Monday mornings I could happily forget. But this one was different, it was definitely one to remember.

Jo Allebone

Jo Allebone

The first session of the day was a side event on forgotten and ignored conflicts co-hosted by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), Femmes Africa Solidarité and the World YWCA.

The phenomenal Madeleine Rees, General Secretary of WILPF chaired the session and opened by reminding us that while the topic of discussion isn’t the most high profile, it’s important for the UN to be reminded that they have an obligation to track and monitor these issues.

The panel comprised some of the most courageous women I have ever encountered:

  • Aminatou Haidar, President of the Collective of Sahrawi Human Rights Defenders (CoDESA), Western Sahara
  • Eliane Naika, Senator, Madagascar
  • Brigitte Balipou, Board Member of Femmes Africa Solidarité (FAS) and Founding Member of the Women Lawyer Association of the Central African Republic, Central African Republic
  • Nyaradazayi Gumbonzvanda, General Secretary, World YWCA

Aminatou Haidar is an incredible Sahrawi human rights activist and an advocate of the independence of Western Sahara. She’s well known for her non-violent protests, has been imprisioned several times because of her independence advocacy. She’s the recipient of the Robert F Kennedy Human Rights Award.

She had the difficult task of conveying 40 years of conflict in 10 minutes, but she did it extremely well. She explained that women in the Sahara are still deprived of almost all human rights, including the right to public representation, and called for feminists to present their solidarity with Sarahran women.

Brigitte Balipou, founder of the Women Jurors of Central Africa, drew our attention to a conflict that has been going on for decades.

She spoke of recruitment of child soldiers, forced marriages, rapes, murders, and the violations of fundamental human rights, and added that in Central Africa:

  • 46,000 children don’t have access to education
  • many women are victims of sexual violence
  • there’s only 1 doctor for 80,000 people in the non-occupied territories and no doctors at all in the occupied territories

She said that all the structures of the Government have been dissolved since being overthrown by the rebels, which has contributed to a climate of insecurity not only in her region, but also in that of neighbouring countries such as Congo, Chad and Sudan.

She appealed to the international community and the Human Rights Council (HRC) to give humanitarian assistance in Southern Africa, saying that they want a strict applcation of the declaration of the human rights of women so the population can live in peace.

She said that at a local level agreements have been signed, but there’s no hope of solving this problem without additional support – even the churches are in the hands of the rebels.

Nyaradazayi Gumbonzvanda, one of our fearless leaders from the World YWCA then wrapped up the session by asking the question, who are these conflicts forgotten by? Because they’re certainly not forgotten by the women who are at the epicentre of the conflicts.

The media shifts its attention when it decides an issue will no longer make headlines, political attention shifts when there’s a lack of pressure, provision of resources diminishes, and as a result it is not at the top of the UN HRC council priority list. This limits our ability to mobilise assistance for these countries.

So what are the implications? The repression and impunity in these countries will continue without intervention. And where there is impunity there is fear, and there’s less opportunity for civil engagement.

So how do we protect peace advocates and human rights defenders in these countries?

Nyaradazayi made some recommendations for what you can do at a global level:

  • she stressed the importance of practically applying CEDAW, and looking at the region of a country that is being investigated, not just the country itself
  • she said special rapporteurs on various issues can play an important role in bringing visibility to issues of conflict, even when this isn’t their specific mandate
  • she talked briefly about citizen journalism and social media – so we ca give women living in these situations a voice, and get the real stories out there into the public sphere

Finally, she called for the delegates in the room to find ways to echo these womens’ voice and continue to fight for peace and solidarity around the world.

And then there were comments from the floor. This was the point at which the dynamic in the room changed.

Some of the delegates claimed that there wasn’t adequate attention given to their country’s situation, and others claimed that particular population groups such as men, have been left out of the equation.

Regrettably, the delegates presenting these views shouted them at the panel, talking over one another, and attempting to demand the floor from the Chair. The tension in the room was so thick you could’ve cut the air with a knife.

One gentleman left the session outraged, yelling in Arabic from the back of the room. Sadly there was no Arabic translator so we missed out there. I understand however that WILPF and the World YWCA will be meeting with these people in due course to better understand their position.

It was the first time here at HRC that I’ve seen people disrespect the assembled group and the Chair (who did a fantastic job of reigning people in).