Young people in the streets in Malawi
Photo credits: HRDC. Young people in Malawi took to the streets for 9 months challenging the presidential election held in June 2019

Globally, the tide of pro-democracy youth movement seems unstoppable. Young human rights defenders (YHRDs) across the globe are taking conscious decisions to boldly stand up for human rights, social justice and progressive values. From confronting injustice, corruption, man-made poverty, inequality to challenging climate and environmental injustice and political repression, YHRDs are playing a prominent role in major pro-democracy and accountability global movements. In the last two years, in many places, failed political establishments have struggled to hold, meeting intense resistance and many have fallen. From streets of Khartoum in Sudan, Banjul in The Gambia, Harare in Zimbabwe, Hong Kong, Beirut in Lebanon to El Alto in Bolivia, young people have been asking difficult ‘social-contract’ questions and defending democracies. The demand for inclusive, accountable and just societies is unprecedentedly rising. The quest for jobs, better education, health care, portable water, and better governance continue to trigger democratic revolutions. Failed regimes are not only being challenged, but in many cases dismantled and the clueless ruling elite are being kicked out. It seems, to me, that in many places of the world there is unprecedented convergence of civil and political urgencies among young people of diverse backgrounds who seem united in breaking the barriers to a dignified life. Through informal and established spaces, youth are confronting and tackling difficult questions to justice, democracy, good governance and development. Demand for political accountability continues to trigger extra ordinary democratic revolutions in many places. In April 2019, the world witnessed the fall of a notorious Sudanese dictator Omar Al-Bashir following a historic wave of protests by the pro-democracy movements. The protests erupted over food prices, violent and incompetent rule before morphing into broader demands for political change. The despot has been charged of war crimes, corruption and ordering the killings of pro-democracy protesters. In a small West African country, The Gambia, after 22 years in power, Yaya Jammeh was forced to exile. This is a man who in 2013 vowed to stay in power for “a billion years if God wills”. In Lebanon, the entire government collapsed in 2019 following 13 days of mass protests demanding resignation of entire political elite amid growing anger over corruption, poor public service, and years of economic mismanagement. Thus not the last one, on November 10, 2019, the Bolivia’s longest serving President, Evo Morales succumbed to pressure and resigned after weeks of intense protests sparked by a dispute over election results. Impressively, Hong Kong seems to have become an adorable symbol of resistance against repression. in 2019, tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters took to various centres across Hong-Kong demanding democratic reforms. These are but a few patterns of victories and critical inspiring moments for the pro-democracy movement in which young people are dominant. This revolution seems contagious and many failed establishments are panicking and fast realizing they will soon fall prey – it’s just a matter of time.

However, as young human rights defenders and ordinary youth courageously seek the creation of a just, peaceful, inclusive and sustainable world, repressive states are fighting back and continue to manipulate the institutions of democracy to perpetuate their power and advance narrow self-interests. They persistently frustrate victories of sustainable development. In many countries, youth activists are subjected to legal, policy and operational threats and attacks online and offline. For many YHRDs, the civic space is fast closing and they are at risk. Thus, the environment for operations of YHRDs is being heavily contested and in many cases closed by repressive power holders, who impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights. Attacks on the YHRDs and their work and core civic freedoms – of expression, association, and peaceful assembly – have become more brazen. Power-mongers are employing sophisticated new and forms of repression including targeted violence, unlawful and arbitrary arrests, lengthy imprisonment, torture, abductions, extra judicial killings, surveillance, enforced disappearances, and smear campaigns against YHRDs. There is also a consistent use of laws and the criminal justice system to deter YHRDs, including through detentions without charges, prosecution on false charges, or the unwarranted use of criminal laws against YHRDs.  The 2018 report of the FrontLine Defenders shows that 321 HRDs in 27 Countries were targeted and killed for their work. This includes youth activists. The Civicus 2019 Global report on civic space astutely observes that “it seems that the enemies of human rights and social justice have grown more confident. Perhaps they think they are winning”. Civicus further observes that there is another emerging force against civic space, operating from within civic space, the ‘anti-rights groups’. These are “non-state groups that position themselves as part of civil society but attack fundamental and universal human rights, and are now a key partner of the repression” of civic space. They are bedfellows of political power and “both amplifying the voices of and being legitemised by repressive political leaders”. In southern Africa, for example, we see a rise of traditionalists claiming to represent national levels – “their tactics are based on politicizing culture and traditional beliefs”. In some cases, they use religious standpoints to discredit the work of HRDs.

Globally, YHRDs are living dangerously and continue to operate in hostile environments. In many countries, the enabling environment legally is good on paper but remains a serious challenge in practice. Youth activists working on indigenous, land, environmental rights, democracy, peace, conflict, corruption, sexual orientation and gender identity face particularly high risk. on 20th November 2019, Almaas Elman, a prominent young Somali-Canadian peace activist was shot dead in Somali’s capital, Mogadishu.  he is believed to have been attending a meeting for Elman Peace Centre, founded in 1990 by her father, Elman Ali Ahmed. The Centre’s work includes a program called “Drop a gun, pick up the pen”, which encourages child soldiers conscripted by militia gunmen to return to peace. Ubah Ali tweeted “Somalia became a home of terror and spoilers. Anyone who is actively working hard to rebuild the nation is killed by warlords and other groups who are taking advantage of a failed system… we lost a heroine”. On 4th October 2019, the Russian court in Rostov-on-Don convicted two youth activists, Yan Sidorov and Vladislav Mordasov, to six months and six years and seven months respectively on trumped up charges of “attempted organization of mass disturbances” and “attempted participation in mass disturbances”. The two YHRDs were prosecuted for trying to organize a peaceful protest in November 2017 in support of residents who has lost their houses in mass fires in Rostov-on-Don. The Deputy Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Denis Krivosheev, described the sentencing of the two as “prisoners of conscience detained solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly…”. An Egyptian youth activist and founder of the now-banned “April 6 Youth Movement”, Ahmed Douma, was in January 2019 jailed to 15 years for allegedly violating a law that banned unauthorised protests. He was also fined $ 335,000 for his alleged role in 2011 mass protests in Cairo. These are not the only cases. Sarah Mardini and Sean Binder, volunteer rescue workers in Lesvos, Greece are facing up to 25 years in prison for their humanitarian work helping spot refugee boats in distress. Back on the African continent, on 29 July 2019, the Sudanese security forces used live ammunition against a group of unarmed student protesters in Obeid, killing at least five and wounding many. The protest was organized by high school students to protest military rule. Since the beginning of the Sudanese pro-democracy ‘revolution’, hundreds have been killed and thousands injured by the regime. Again, in November 2019, Mozambique authorities arbitrary detained 18 youth activists for over six weeks  for participating in protests following a disputed election held in October 2019 . Cidia Chissungo, a prominent youth activist in Mozambique wrote on her Facebook wall “this is no longer a fight between political parties because the elections are over. This is a resistance of all young people for their freedom and independence. We will continue to fight for them and for all who still believe that young people can and will continue to decide for themselves without it being confused with crime”. Just across the Mozambique border, a majority of Malawians had been protesting for over 9 months challenging a fraudulent election which would later in a historic moment be nullified by the Constitutional Court ordering a fresh election within 150 days.  Personally, in my front-line activism. I have suffered several forms of direct and bureaucratic attacks including defamation law suits and condemnation in costs for confronting the corrupt ruling elite. In June this 2019, for example, the Supreme Court of Malawi ordered punitive costs order amounting to $ 35,000 against me for pursuing a public interest litigation case in which I led the citizens in challenging a high-level corruption scandal involving a Cabinet Minister and some senior public officials. I was facing bankruptcy, seizure of property and possible imprisonment. In response, in June 2019, with the support of International Commission of Jurists (CIJ), Pan African Lawyers Union and Open Southern Initiative of Southern Africa (OSISA), I filed an appeal against the decision of the Malawi’s Supreme Court at the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). On 31st day of March 2020, the ACHPR granted a temporal relief restraining the Malawi authorities from enforcing the decision of the Supreme Court, pending full trial of the case. Reacting to the ACHPR decision in a joint statement, the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network, PALU and Youth and Society  observe that such organized and possibly collusive State crack down on activists have a “chilling effect on activists or citizens who in the future would want to use public interest litigation as a vehicle to not only pursue remedies for human rights violations, but also to enforce separation of powers and the rule of law by subjecting questionable executive conduct, omissions or commissions to judicial scrutiny and oversight as a necessary check and balance in a modern democracy”.   Undoubtedly, such punitive measures are aimed at scaring and intimidating human rights defenders.

These are but just a tip of an iceberg of crackdown against young human rights defenders by repressive regimes across the globe. It is not uncommon that the motive of such attacks and punitive measures against YHRDs is to scare, intimidate and punish critical voices while protecting narrow political interests of the ruling elite.

The impact of shrinking youth civic space on development including attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cannot be overemphasized. Hence the need for creating tools and strategies to maintain and expand YHRDs operating space. I must add, world leaders and development stakeholders working with YHRDs including the UN family cannot afford to look away, they must step up efforts, and must act now, if the youth are to continue to meaningfully contribute to Agenda 2030. World leaders and development actors need to go beyond rhetoric, and ensure implementation of the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (commonly known as the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders) which recognizes in international law, the importance and legitimacy of fighting for human rights and the need to protect those who carry out the work.

In the face of growing and sophisticated crackdown on YHRDs and civic space in general by repressive states and anti-rights group, we cannot rely on governments to automatically protect YHRDs and the fundamental rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association and assembly, even though these rights are critical to the protection and promotion of all human rights. The YHRDs and human rights stakeholders and duty bearers must proactively guard against the fast closing civic space. The response must be solid, collective, sustainable and multiple-layer at national, regional and global levels. But how do we move from here? I leave some suggestions here for further reflection by all of us. First, I think that we must make protection of YHRDs a prominent issue among world leaders, the UN, Governments and development partners. It must become a priority of the human rights agenda. One entry pathway is to consider creating dedicated platforms for YHRDs to substantively engage on protection of YHRDs and civic space in general. We must create deliberate spaces for learning and experience sharing for YHRDs.  ‘Global conferences/dialogue on protection of Young Human Rights Defenders could help increase understanding among YHRDs and human rights stakeholders of the trends, threats and opportunities faced by YHRDs and harvest political will from duty bearers. Such youth platforms could be supported by an organized global structure/leadership on protection of YHRDs – perhaps starting with a small multi-stakeholder technical working group/ Think Tank. The UN Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on protection of human rights defenders, and even the UN Youth Envoy among other stakeholders may be entry points in consolidating this conversation further for broader engagement and action. Perhaps it’s time we began the conversation about having a UN special rapporteur on protection of YHRDs in order to give the plight of YHRDs a prominent face. Overall, we must build a global movement on protection of young human rights defenders. In addition, the YHRDs should forge a global solidarity movement. We must fight back repression together.  It is only through such solidarity that the global youth movement can effectively and sustainably resist encroachments on civic space. There is also need to build capacity of YHRDs on protection mechanisms of human rights defenders such as preventive approaches including capacity-building trainings on safety and security and well-being. What about establishing a dedicated ‘Emergency Protection Mechanism for YHRDs at Risk’ in order to response to the growing crisis of attacks against YHRDs? Youth activists need our support now. We cannot afford to lose more YHRDs simply because we are unwilling to support them in times of need. Notwithstanding the existing protection mechanisms for HRDs in general such as FrontLine Defenders, such mechanisms are hardly accessible to YHRDs and are limited in size. Hence the need for a dedicated emergency facility for YHRDs. There is also need to increase funding investment for youth movements. Quite often there is very little or no support for YHRDs and youth-led initiatives in general despite the donkey and risky work they carry out. In fact, largely, there is no remuneration for the work that is done by YHRDs. Most of them are volunteers and economically vulnerable. This often causes strong activists to leave the movement. In this way there is no continuation of efforts and the gains are lost. It is also crucial that there is deliberate effort to recognise the crucial work youth activists carry out in the protection and promotion of human rights and democratic governance and development. Such recognitions raise the profile of youth activists and act as beacon of inspiration for doing tough work. Lastly, Governments should be encouraged to put in place legislation on protection of human rights defenders. Despite the UN Convention on Protection of Human Rights Defenders 21 years ago, most Governments have not domesticated the convention through their country legislation. UN member states must constantly be held accountable and reminded that protection of human rights defenders remains a primary obligation of the state - it is not a benevolent undertaking. I wish to reiterate, in conclusion, that in order to sustain and expand the contributions of young people to national and global development such as the SDGs, it is important that Governments and international community create a conducive environment for YHRD and civil society at large. We must all work together to confront the encroachment of civic space by repressive regimes.