BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE: A Preliminary Inquiry: Tangible Protection Mechanisms for Women Human Rights Defenders in the MENA Region and Beyond



span style="color: #000000;">Executive summary

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and beyond is rife with political instability, a legacy of conflicts, and human rights violations. In 2016, it continues to suffer one of the worst humanitarian and human rights crises since the World War II. The recent events of the so-called “Arab Spring” opened a window of hope for the human rights activists, groups, and organizations for an opportunity to enact widespread systemic change. However, current geopolitical wars, policies and violent government regimes have increased the volatility in the MENA region and beyond: human rights violations are committed and permitted under tactics of ‘counter terrorism’ and ‘national security’. During peaceful public protests and uprisings in the region, women have taken leading roles in defending the human rights of their own and wider communities. The centrality that Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) have played in each of these movements and protests cannot be understated. Their methods of activism have taken a variety of forms: research, direct action and activism, roles in public communication, direct assistance etc. that have all played crucial roles in holding governing bodies accountable as well as in demanding change. As WHRDs in the MENA region and beyond bravely face and challenge many societal norms by their very manifestation as women who simultaneously defend human rights, they are frequently subject to threats such as judicial and online harassment, arrests, detention, abduction, kidnappings, torture, enforced disappearances and even killings. Women face particular challenges compared to their counterpart male activists; threats that take extreme forms of defamation, stigmatisation, social pressure, gender and sexual-based violence as well as marginalization and discrimination.

In the last couple of years, the crackdown on WHRDs in the MENA region and worldwide reached a peak and exposed an urgent need to: 1) reassess the current international protection mechanisms, 2) identify the gaps in impact and protections, 3) work on preventative measures to ensure the sustainability of protection, 4) shift from a post-violation to pre-violation methodology of actions on violations against WHRDs, and 5) enable a defensible environment for WHRDs to carry out their legitimate activities in defending their rights and the human rights of all. The work of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and other NGOs have documented and reported violations against WHRDs in various countries under their mandate. Protection has been demanded for WHRDs largely in reaction to a particular violation or event, on an individual case-by-case basis. This report investigates current trends and threats facing WHRDs in the MENA region and beyond by drawing on individual accounts of WHRDs, reflecting on their experiences, their daily struggle in defending  human rights, and by focusing on the adaptability and mitigation measures often taken by these women to protect themselves within restrictive spaces and hazardous domains. Based on these accounts, the researchers of this report attempt to find alternatives to reactionary measures, by suggesting new tools and mechanisms to help WHRDs be protected, secure, safe and enabled.          

Introduction. This report aims to initiate a discussion around various thematic areas, including the definitions of WHRDs and how these relate to definitions used by United Nations mechanisms, including by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of HRDs.

Objectives. This section encompasses several components. It introduces the researcher and co-authors’ backgrounds, and reflects on the project’s objective to establish a collective and participatory research based on objective investigation and analysis. The report establishes a feminist methodology for this research, mainly in terms of claiming the authority of designing the research processes, components and outcomes. The report also aims to address and unpack common problems in definitions, as well as to reflect a culture of reaction, while seeking to use women’s voices as main source of report narratives. The report’s main objective is to find alternatives to reaction, as in protection and proactive measures, and finally to set up a roadmap with recommendations.

Methodology: A feminist perspective. The section presents the research methodology, the research ethic and highlights the security protocols and precautionary measures taken into consideration when working with WHRDs inside or outside the region. The section also presents limitations, obstacles and time constraints, and how they were addressed.

Context. Displacement, Secrecy, Constant Assault and Disrupting Identity, characterize the general situation of WHRDs in the region, and the systematic targeting of WHRDs by both states and non-state actors. The section highlights two types of targeting. The conventional methods usually include legal approaches and their consequences, as well as social pressure. However, unconventional methods are mainly the more recent types of targeting. Those cover new modes of technology, restrictions on movements and other methods that affect the social and financial situation of the WHRDs, denial of legal and family rights, and statelessness. The accounts of the WHRDs highlight both physical and psychological harm associated with threats caused by both types of targeting. They also support the narrative of cases studies documented by the GCHR and other NGOs. The interviews provide a better understanding of certain cases through WHRDs voices, as they give a sense on how these techniques feel, impact and traumatise their well-being, and their ability to survive the struggle and to protect themselves.

Problems in Definition: Who is a Woman Human Rights Defender. The section comes as an important intervention to shed light on the dilemma of WHRD definition. The aim of the report involves identifying preventative protection mechanisms for this specific category of HRDs. Therefore this category needs to have a set of rules and/or clear criteria to be inclusive and not discriminatory. Also, it is important to distinguish and understand what it entails to be a “WHRD”, which is not the same as being a “feminist”, especially within a conservative society. The discussion highlights an evidential gap related to “neutrality” between the local and international circles in regards to who can identify as a defender in general. Lack of awareness and knowledge of these concepts also seems to be problematic. The WHRDs identify several issues related to WHRD definitions that might contribute to excluding a wide range of women from being WHRDs. For instance: gender or womanhood, elitism, high profile, knowledge of languages or use of technologies, being subjected to threats, documentation of series of targeting, the level of education, and being well-connected. The definitions of who can conceptually or theoretically constitute a WHRD are very restrictive, and contribute to excluding a lot of women who are part of these global movements, based on narrow understandings and technicalities.

Existing mechanisms and systemic barriers. This section examines UN and other international mechanisms to protect WHRDs. Existing mechanisms have linked the role of women to peace, security and development.  UN resolution/2013 on the Protection of WHRDs is described as “a monumental step” to establish an urgent need to address protection of WHRDs in recognition to the risks their work entails. This segment also refers to the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) 59/2015 failure to refer to WHRDs. The same section details resources available to provide protection for WHRDs in different ways and forms.

Step one: Building a holistic strategy. This section intends to set the initial pillars for a holistic strategy, by focusing on the main components of the strategy such as; communal approach, communal research, tackling the urgent issues with time, technology, access to privacy and safe spaces, access to rehabilitation, and establishing a culture of well-being, acknowledging that no woman should be expected to bear responsibility for providing all protection mechanisms.

Recommendations. The section presents a set of comprehensive recommendations, addressing stakeholders on various levels including the UN, its member states and allies, donors and funding agencies, International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs). By identifying the main audiences for each set, the recommendations complement the report and to provide practical and focused suggestions to take the suggested mechanisms forward. Prevention is at the core of these recommendations, derived from the accounts, suggestions and the discussions with the WHRDs interviewed for this research. The proposals  focus on maintaining and sustaining collaboration between different agencies to achieve the anticipated results through various tools, such as legal mechanisms, research, long term programing with a concentration on well-being, access and dissemination of information through safe digital spaces.   

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