HRD Cluster 2015

The first sight of the lido, places to grab an espresso, the line of bikes at the entrance to the monastery….. returning to Venice triggers lots of memories of an intense few months and lots of friends now scattered across the globe.

Four of us returned to Venice in November to teach the Cluster on Human Rights Defenders (HRDs). The topic was particularly live given the numerous restrictions that have been placed on civil society and individual human rights defenders over the last years: Civicus, an organization that monitors civic space, documented restrictions to civic space in 96 countries; the International Centre for Non-Profit Law reviewed 120 laws that limit freedoms of association or assembly; and Frontline Defenders reported the deaths of 130 human rights defenders during a 10 month period in 2014. Thus new E.MA graduates will be entering a field that is more threatened and contested than in previous years.

The four of us are currently working for civil society organisations across Europe in Berlin, Brussels, Copenhagen and York with experience from across different regions. Kersty McCourt who works for the Open Society Justice Initiative in Brussels introduced the cluster, the legal and policy frameworks and current trends and advocacy initiatives and Sanna Erikson who coordinates the human rights defenders programme at York University looked at protection and relocation programmes drawing on the experiences of HRDs hosted at York. Patrick Berg and Giorgio Caracciolo took the students through two case studies on Ethiopia and Egypt both countries that have imposed some of the most severe restrictions on civil society. Patrick was head of the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Ethiopia when they took the difficult decision to close their office and asked students to debate the decision making process and assess the implications of the Ethiopian NGO law. Giorgio drew on his work for Dignity: Danish Institute Against Torture in Egypt and worked with the students to analyse the Egyptian context and develop a problem tress analysis on specific challenges faced by human rights defenders.

We had 14 students in the cluster which was a great number for interactive discussions. It was interesting to hear their experiences from past work, voluntary experience and their national contexts and for us to provide insights from our own work. It was a hectic week for the students as the deadline for their thesis topics was approaching – another familiar memory!

Kersty, Sanna, Patrick and Giorgio