Since 2008, the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights (CAHR) has welcomed 75 human rights defenders (HRDs) from across the world under its Protective Fellowship Scheme. Through the scheme, up to 10 HRDs a year join the Centre for up to six months. While at the University, they conduct research, network, and take time to rest from their challenging work. I was fortunate to speak to Nea’ma Allah Hisham and attend her talk about the scheme and her work documenting human rights in Egypt.
HRDs risk their lives in order to promote and protect human rights. Their work is unforgiving, and often they are tortured or imprisoned. It is crucial that these people are supported as much as possible so that they can continue their work, and this university is doing a great job at doing so.
Nea’ma said that “when we joined the fellowship, we thought it was like any fellowship; going to lectures, learning, reflecting, reading.” However, there is more to the programme than meets the eye. The HRDs are given access to 10 free sessions of private therapy with a specialist. They are taught how to deal with the stress of their work on their own through yoga, meditation, talking, reflecting, music, and reading. CAHR even takes the defenders to a cottage in Yorkshire for a retreat.
The fellowship scheme allows HRDs to finally breathe without constantly fearing for their lives
Nea’ma revealed, “We attend conferences on art and activism and go to meetings with NGOs who are interested in our country or the same subject we are working in, like Amnesty.” There are also extensive connections with volunteers. Volunteering groups care for the defenders by taking them to dinner and showing them the city, as well as some volunteers teaching English conversation and other skills. Nea’ma said that the aim is “to support you, to take a break, and to be stronger when you go back to your country.”
Cecilia Andrei, an LLM International Human Rights Law and Practice student, told me about her experience with the defenders. They participate in her LLM program, and the MA in Applied Human Rights, thus helping the educational process be truly applied: students and defenders learn from each other.
She told me: “HRDs often get idealised as heroes or even martyrs. We ignore their daily struggles, the inner battles, the human behind the face of the revolution. It is important for them to look after their personal safety, mental health and wellbeing, which are often sacrificed for the sake of the cause. HRDs deserve somebody to fight for their rights as they do for others. The fellowship scheme allows HRDs to finally breathe without constantly fearing for their lives.”
Aside from their work within the Centre, each defender gives a talk, open to all students and the wider community, on their work and the situation in their country. I have attended a handful of the talks, and they have all left me moved by their dedication to the fight for human rights.
In her talk, Nea’ma outlined her trajectory into activism. She began as a community architect in Egypt, where she was met with government intervention, as visitor centres and low cost schools were prevented from completion. Then, the revolution of 2011 happened, and after 30 years of emergency law, corruption, electoral fraud, worsening economic conditions, and lack of freedom of speech, President Hosni Mubarak was deposed.
For Nea’ma, participating in the revolution signalled a new beginning. She was part of the foundation of the first youth political party in Egypt, the first parliamentary election campaigns, and the first presidential election. Her work focused specifically on supporting the human rights committees in the party she worked with. Mohamed Morsi became President briefly, before the military coup of 2013 put Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in power. By then, Nea’ma had become involved with the group No Military Trials for Civilians and joined the Front of Revolution Road, developing an interest in documenting human rights.
Nea’ma explains, “you can use documentation to support legal cases, to preserve the people’s memory and history, and if there is a move for justice in the future, then it can be used for getting the people rights. It also shows the gaps in the laws and international conventions, and proves that there are systematic patterns of violations, not only individual incidents. Also, it is important to raise awareness for the community, as the media keeps denying it is happening.”
One of Nea’ma’s key achievements was adapting the UN manual for monitoring human rights violations to the situation in Egypt, and she has trained other human rights defenders in how to act accordingly. She told me that this was essential as there is not much information available on documenting for activists. She said “we have the Istanbul Protocol against torture, which deals with countries where there is much more freedom than in Egypt. Also, there is a monitoring manual for the UN that applies to poorer countries. But often, it refers to being a UN employee, and having to talk with the local authorities before advocacy. This is not the case in Egypt. We are working underground. It is not safe for us. Even lawyers are sometimes arrested. We needed to make it more applicable for the Egyptian situation.”
We take our human rights for granted, so it can be hard to know how to react to oppressive regimes
Unfortunately, since the military coup, the human rights situation in Egypt has worsened, with illegal detention, enforced disappearances, torture, and the closing down of human rights organisations becoming commonplace. Under these conditions, Nea’ma made the decision to focus her full attention on the fight for human rights, and left her job as an architect.
Her work is focused on documentation, so it was fitting that the mode of presentation in her talk was short clips of victims’ stories. Included was a 14-year-old boy who was arrested and beaten by police for attending a demonstration. They fabricated a crime and filmed it for evidence. A 17-year-old girl also told her story about how she was kept in a police station cell for months, before being sent to a children’s centre. The girl was tested by the authorities to see if she was a virgin. In her testimony, the girl kept saying to Nea’ma: “they know we are not like this, they know we are respectful girls. So why do they want to humiliate us?”
Despite the dire circumstances in Egypt, Nea’ma finished her talk on a positive note. Abd Elrahman is a 17-year-old student who was sentenced to 15 years in prison after driving past a protest with his father. Students have expressed their sup-port for him through letters, and he has replied by making a video about the injustice of his treatment in prison. In a country where freedom of speech is punished, that his voice is being heard is a sign of hope.
Recently, through her work with the Adalah Center for Rights & Freedoms (founded by Mohamed Elbaker, an Egyptian human rights lawyer, and another current HRD on the scheme) and now here in York, Nea’ma has turned to supporting minorities and refugees. There are many NGOs in Egypt working on documentation but only one or two working on violations against refugees. The UN association responsible for the refugees in Egypt cannot work on the documentation of the violations without approval from the Egyptian government. Furthermore, Nea’ma remarked that “the refugees are afraid to talk about what is happening to them and the violations, be-cause they are afraid they will be told to leave Egypt if they speak out.”
Although the human rights situation in Egypt is far from resolved, Nea’ma’s passion and determination is palpable. As long as there is hope, and HRDs such as herself keep working, it can only improve. She and the other human rights defenders face life-threatening risks in order to protect human rights, and yet they still continue.
Upcoming talks will be given by a Kenyan LBGTQ activist, Gerald Hayo, on 16 February; and Arwa Elrabiea, who works in human rights education in Sudan, on 16 March. Gerald has suffered immeasurably in life, due to her identification as a masculine and lesbian woman. This struggle has driven her to fight for the basic needs of women in the LBGTQ community through the organisation Rain
bow Women of Kenya. She seeks to improve access to proper healthcare for women who suffer from LBGTQ-specific diseases.
Here in England, we take our human rights for grant-ed, so it can be hard to know how to react to oppressive regimes. It makes me immensely proud that my university has supported human rights defenders and helped strengthen their fight for rights. These talks are the perfect opportunity to raise awareness of human rights violations around the world and the individuals who are fighting back. By listening to them, we can show our respect for their invaluable work. M