York University’s Protective Fellowship Scheme for Human Rights Defenders at Risk.

April 30, 2013

Professor Paul Gready at York University, with Nagi Musa, a human rights activist from Sudan.  Below: Karak Denyok

(Professor Paul Gready at York University with Nagi Musa, a human rights activist from Sudan)

 Sheena Hastings reports in the Yorkshire Post of 30 April 2013 on the programme offered by York University that lets human rights defenders stay on a fellowship that provides a safe haven and adds to their skills .

In the few months that Nagi Musa has lived in York, he has not lost the learned panicky response to the odd creaking noise in the night, and he does still find himself scanning any group of people in case there’s someone who looks like a threat. He tends to position himself where he can see the nearest exit, too. Other human rights activists working to bring about peace and social justice in troubled lands would no doubt recognise his reactions. After all, some of their ilk have paid the ultimate price for sticking their head above the parapet…..However, in his short time in Yorkshire, Nagi says he has started to view British policemen without suspicion. “I realise now that I don’t have to be frightened. It’s still strange to see that they don’t carry guns, though.”

Nagi is one of 36 human rights activists who have travelled to York from many countries as part of a unique programme called the Protective Fellowship Scheme for Human Rights Defenders at Risk. These defenders, marked men and women whose work is seen as subversive by the ruling regime in their country, are nominated by human rights groups working in their homeland and invited to come to Yorkshire for six months for a period of study in an environment that is a haven away from the stress of their difficult work.

A fund of £1m provides £10,000 for each human rights defender, covering visa, flights, accommodation, living expenses and a training budget for a period of up to six months. York went on to create a specialist human rights study centre with a staff of six around the Fellowship.

Arrested by gun-wielding security forces during a peaceful public meeting, Nagi was handed to the police and subjected to various humiliations and beatings. “This just made me believe even more in what I was doing.” In 2009 he and two friends started Girifna (meaning “disgusted” in Arabic), a grassroots movement working for non-violent direct action for change. It grew very quickly and Nagi and colleagues were often given donations in the street to continue their work. They used the internet to spread the movement, and it grew rapidly. In 2010 he started a youth forum across Sudan and South Sudan. “Unfortunately the Sudanese government kept rupturing social peace and tearing the country apart by supporting and arming some tribes against others. Tribes of Arab descent are seen to be superior to those of African ancestry. I hated this discrimination and racism.” Nagi says the partition of Sudan has changed little.

Rather than working via political lines, Nagi sees the route to change through the spreading of understanding between his country’s many ethnic groups. For several years his movements have been watched, he has been thrown into to jail several times, and on one occasion kept in custody for 16 days, being refused visits either his family or a lawyer. In some parts of the country student activists have been tortured and killed for their political activities.

Karak Denyok, another recent 
recipient of a Protective Fellowship at York, had overcome intimidation and many threats to help more than 12,000 women to escape poverty in her homeland of South Sudan. She set up two projects based around commercial farms, where women could gain basic agricultural knowledge enabling them to feed their families and earn money….“The main focus of my work in South Sudan has been women,” she says. “But now I want to extend my work with children, many of whom live on the streets. I want to create a drop-in centre, maybe with a school and a health clinic. We need to create a family for these children.”

How does the university benefit from this fellowship? “We believe that human rights defenders are key agents in creating more socially just societies around the world, and they deserve our support,” says Professor Paul Gready, director of the Centre for Applied Human Rights at York University, where fellowship recipients are based. “We also learn a great deal from the defenders who come to us. It’s a two-way thing. “In many countries human rights defenders can face imprisonment without charge, torture and threats of death to themselves and their families. Their outspokenness may also limit their educational and employment opportunities. “We provide a period of respite from an intensely challenging environment and access to resources, education, personal development and training. The programme is tailor-made, so 
they get what they need to support and enhance their work afterwards.”

Further information: http://www.york.ac.uk/cahr or email sanna.eriksson@york.ac.uk 01904 325830.

‘I don’t have to fear the police here… it’s still strange they don’t have guns’ – Features – Yorkshire Post.

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