Protection International (PI), a Brussels-based organisation that supports human rights defenders, has launched its regional hub for Africa, based in Nairobi.

It is the first of four such hubs within PI’s Global strategy, 2019-2023.

The decision to create regional hubs is to bring decision-making closer to human rights defenders, while ensuring more timely interventions where threats exist.

Its new global strategy is a shift from focusing on protecting individual rights to protecting collective rights.
PI’s Africa Regional Office was launched at the residence of the Belgian ambassador to Kenya.

The Regional Director, Kenyan Susan Muriungi (pictured), said at the ceremony that “our desire” was for African governments to be held to account for their record on “prosecuting perpetrators of violations on human rights defenders, on eliminating the criminalisation of human rights defenders and on their support of policies that ensure the wellbeing and safety of human rights defenders”.

“We are counting on the support of diplomatic missions and national human rights institutions to work with and influence African governments to respect the right to defend human rights and create an environment that enables human rights defenders to continue doing their work.”

Liliana De Marco Coenen, Executive Director of PI Global, giving the reason for establishing regional offices around the world, said: “This is our response to the worrying trends we have observed in recent years: a closing civic space, the rise of powerful revisionist agendas of international human rights standards and the erosion of democratic values across the world.”

She said PI, a non-profit organisation that was started in 1998 to work with grassroots human rights defenders, began with a simple idea: “People have the right to defend rights free from fear and attacks, and we can improve the protection of human rights defenders at risk.

“Since the late 90s, we have been working together with defenders in over 60 countries around the globe to strengthen their capacities to manage their protection more effectively.”

The Deputy Belgian Ambassador to Kenya, Yvan Feys, who hosted the event in the absence of the ambassador who had travelled to Eritrea on urgent business, said: “Belgium plays a pioneering role with respect to human rights.

“For example, in 1996, Belgium was the first country in Western Europe, which banned the death penalty from criminal law, whether in peacetime or in wartime.

“Considering the obvious need for more attention towards the specific challenges on the African continent, we can only applaud a permanent African hub of Protection International here in Nairobi.”

Preparations for the launch of the Regional Office took a year, during which PI Africa established a permanent presence in Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania with seven sub-offices on the continent.
PI’s regional hubs will have their own locally-based management and governance structures.

They can independently establish links with existing initiatives and promote new ones, working with flexibility across countries in the various regions.

In Kenya, PI Africa is already partnering with the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, the Human Rights Defenders Network and the Coalition of Human Rights Defenders, among several other similar groups.

“We will continue to reach out to all organisations, groups and individuals for partnerships aimed at truly enabling an environment for human right defenders to thrive,” said Ms Muriungi.

At the launch, there was an exhibition, “Unsung Heroes”, featuring portraits of Africa’s human rights defenders by the Swedish photographer, Anette Brolenius.

One was Germain Rukuki, from Burundi, who has received a lengthy jail term last year for his human rights activities.
“Germain Rukuki’s case is emblematic and hard-hitting,” said Gitahi Githuku, Chairman of PI Africa’s Board.

“Arrested in Bujumbura and sentenced by Burundi’s High Court to 32 years in prison for acts we believe he did not commit, Germain was fighting for the defence of human rights and assisting the most vulnerable people.

“The work he was doing at the time of arrest is not a criminal.
“His trial is completely political,” Mr Githuku added.

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