Defenders' Days – Empowering Human Rights Defenders at Risk

Defenders' Days, an annual conference in Stockholm, is dedicated to recognizing the work of human rights defenders at risk. Its 2015 award for top defender went to a Vietnamese blogger who openly criticizes human rights abuses in her country.

Civil Rights Defenders's annual Defenders’ Days conference, held this year from April 7 to 10, is dedicated to empowering human rights defenders at risk. Now in its third year, the conference welcomed over 250 participants— including 160 human rights defenders—from 35 countries and four continents to this year's event.

From Cuba to Cambodia

They came from some of the most oppressive societies in the world for a week of training, empowerment and networking opportunities. We welcomed guests from the all over the world, including Cuba, Albania, Belarus, Russia, Cambodia, Myanmar, Somalia, Uganda and Venezuela, to name but a few.

Throughout the four days of the conference, our guests had the opportunity to take part in a wide range of training workshops directly tailored to the hazardous work they face and attend panel discussions where top experts from around the world shared their knowledge on issues affecting the human rights community. The trainings over two of the days of the conference covered numerous topics such as digital security, strategic litigation, video campaigning and integration of gender perspectives in human rights work.

The trainings were hosted by some of the top experts in their respective fields. The long list included Sam Zafiri, regional director for Asia and the Pacific at International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Andre Banks, co-founder and executive director of All Out, and Borey Pen, technical and outreach coordinator at LICADHO Canada.

High-profile guests

Civil Rights Defenders also welcomed two UN special rapporteurs to Defenders' Days to share their valuable experiences: Michel Forst, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, and Maina Kiai, UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Featuring some of the most prominent human rights experts in the world, the panel discussions provided a wealth of experience to all who attended.

The panel discussions covered all pertinent topics related to human rights, including: repressive trends for human rights defenders worldwide; Russian repression on export; female human rights defenders and the specific challenges they face; and perspectives on relationship between business and human rights.

Keynote speeches were provided by Ales Bialiatski, the 2014 recipient of the Civil Rights Defender of the Year Award and head of the Viasna Human Rights Center, and UN Special Rapporteur Michel Forst.

On International Roma Day (April 8) Robert Hårdh, executive director of Civil Rights Defenders, and Adi Sinai, program officer for Roma rights at Civil Rights Defenders, hoisted the Roma Flag at the conference venue to commemorate the day, which was a moving experience for all the participants who witnessed it.

Defender of the Year Award

Throughout the conference an empty chair purposely placed on the stage where the majority of the presentations took place reminded us of all of our colleagues who could not attend due to imprisonment or travel bans. We remembered three outstanding colleagues from Azerbaijan and Ethiopia who attended Defenders’ Days in 2014, but could not attend this year’s event because they are behind bars for exercising their right to freedom of speech. Prominent Azerbaijani human rights defenders Rasul Jafarov and Khadiya Ismayilova are currently held in pre-trial detention, as is Ethiopian blogger Natnail Feleke.

Defenders’ Days culminated in an impressive award ceremony at Eric Ericsonhallen in central Stockholm, where the 2015 Civil Rights Defender of the Year Award took place. This year’s award went to Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, coordinator of the Vietnamese Bloggers Network who operates under the pen name Me Nam (Mother Mushroom).

Keith Begg