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Sebastiaan, supporting human rights defenders on the local level

Interview by Noah Wánebo

Sebastiaan van der Zwaan is director of Justice and Peace and co-founder of the Shelter City network. Read about Sebastiaan, his vision for Shelter City, and why protecting and supporting human rights defenders is the most effective way to improve human rights at the international level.

In five years, the Shelter City network has grown to include 11 Dutch cities and three international hubs. Since 2012, Shelter City has relocated 66 human rights defenders, offering them temporary relocation, a chance to re-energise, expand their network, and gain vital resilience training. Sebastiaan van der Zwaan, director of Justice and Peace, tells us about the importance of human rights defenders in the global human rights situation.

What was the issue that originally drew you to the field of human rights?

There were many issues, but around 1994 to 1995 was the time when South Africa had just become a real democracy, and I was very much interested in the transitional period, human rights, and human rights violations. My thesis was about these types of issues.

When I finished my studies, I went to work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for some time and I met many human rights defenders — people from Yemen, Pakistan, India, Uganda, people from the UN, many big names in human rights. It got me thinking about how I could contribute, as someone from the Netherlands who had been brought up in a very secure environment. How do you contribute to human rights and these issues in an effective way, what do these people need?

And I found out very early that there’s not much difference between the human rights defender in Pakistan and somebody in the Netherlands; if we believe in the same thing, if we have common values and common ideas, then the next step is asking how do we make these ideas happen?

Can you tell me a bit about how the Shelter City concept came about?

A few years ago, we were thinking we need to take up human rights defenders in our own societies. We were mainly concerned with issues like migration and the rights of refugees. These are important issues in Europe that we need to deal with differently than we are doing now with “Fortress Europe”— I think everyone should be worried about that. But apart from that, if we really want to do something in the area of migration, as well as the area of human rights, we need to look across borders and we need to work with human rights defenders on both a global scale and a local level.

We started talking about this global work on the local scale, like connecting human rights defenders and seeing how we can support each other, as well as raising their voices at the UN, the EU, and other international organizations. As a human rights defender, your strategies are being refined all the time, and you are getting more effective. Of course, if you are more effective and slowly changing things, you will also be noticed, and therefore will also be met with more resistance.  [Human rights defenders say] ‘If you really want to help us, please work more on our security, work more on supporting us, work more on our resilience to make sure we can do this work over a longer period in a more effective way—in a more secure way. And that is basically what Shelter City does.

“It’s shocking to see that so many human rights defenders are attacked or even killed, but would they be attacked or killed if they were not doing very important work? There’s bound to be resistance. Does that mean that they will stop? They will never stop. Does that mean in the end they will succeed and overcome? I’m sure they will. But it is a very difficult time.”

Why do you think it’s important to address global human rights on a local or city level?

Well it’s one of the main challenges of human rights. It’s the last step in making sure that human rights are being implemented. What has been done in the last 30, 40, 50 years—even 70 if you go back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—is talk about developing rights, about how to put them on paper and how to define them, but there is a problem with implementationThere is no other way than implementing human rights on a local level. 

In that sense, we are at a time where people are much more aware of what they can do and the responsibilities they can take on, and what they can actually achieve on the local level. I think there is a lot of knowledge and commitment on the local level as well. Every Shelter City in the network is contributing in its own way because it has its own expertise and its own connections. They want to contribute, they have a lot to offer, and there is a flexibility of a network in which you do not have to do it one way or the other, but you can do it your own way. I think that’s one reason it’s still working and why it’s working so well. But it is a constant challenge.

“On the one hand, we are at a time with big challenges that are very difficult (…) but at the same time on the local level there is this incredible development of people wanting to build something and take responsibility, even more than before. We have to realise that on the local level people are really taking a stand, they want to build their society from within their streets; they feel responsible for it, and with a mix of people they want to do something and they want to relate it to a bigger world outcome.”

Why is something like a Shelter City particularly useful for human rights defenders?

First of all, if you live and work in such difficult situations as many human rights defenders do, it’s really important that you have some time off to relax and not look over your shoulder every minute. We also see that many of them need to work on new strategies. How do they get their message across, and how do they do it in an effective way? For that you need time, contacts, new ideas, and new people to talk to. Shelter city can provide that. We have partners, we have a lot of connections, and we have a lot of other human rights defenders staying with us at the same time.

Another big challenge is, of course, security. You will always have this challenge, but what we can do is be aware of it, plan, and take as many measures as possible within the space we have to really think and strategise. We also really need to support human rights defenders during a longer period of time. This cannot all be done in only three months, but needs to be a continuous thing. This is why we talk about resilience.

“The essence of our work is working with people that believe in something—that they can change something—and they sometimes work on that half their lives, and the beautiful thing is that in many cases they also achieve it.”

This is the five-year anniversary of the Shelter City programme. How has it grown and changed since its inception?

The number of cities has grown, and we’ve become more professional in the way we work and the way we support human rights defenders. We’ve realised that we can offer temporary relocation but we really need to work on building their resilience in any way possible—before, during, and after their stay in the Shelter City. That is something we’ve really developed ideas and strategies for, and this is something we are going to focus on in the coming five years.

“I hope that in 10 years’ time, we have a network of 30 or 40, maybe even 50 Shelter Cities in- and outside the Netherlands. I think that would be the biggest achievement, not necessarily the number of cities but this growing network that contributes to the flexible support of human rights defenders—at a certain time, a certain place, and a certain part of the world, but also in terms of strategy and basic security.”

“That growth would mean that HRDs, especially those who are very talented and because of that are often in the most trouble, can continue to do work over a longer period of time and be more effective.”

Are there any examples of particularly successful Shelter City stories?

There is Madi, who stayed in one of our cities in the north of the country. He’s a human rights defender who was mainly working on women’s rights and democratisation in The Gambia. While working there, his country had a dictator who didn’t like that the civil society was becoming more active… they were speaking out, more people were listening, and they were getting more support. At a certain moment, there was a crackdown on civil society, and more specifically on human rights defenders. As a consequence, he and many others had to leave. He stayed [in the Shelter City programme] for three months, then got an extension. He also had the possibility to do studies and finished his master’s degree in Groningen.

After that, things had changed a bit in his country and he could go back. It shows very well that with temporary relocation and sometimes being flexible, we actually help the human rights defender get through really difficult times and at the same time build and develop skills they can directly use in in their home country. In his case, he’s been working constantly in The Gambia over the past two months building up his own organisation. I think that is one of our best examples, but of course there are more.

What would be your main selling point for why cities should join the Shelter City network and host a human rights defender?

There are many reasons to become part of the Shelter City network. I think that more and more cities are already working in the field of international relations and human rights and asking how they can relate to other cities and work across borders. If you have opened your eyes to this whole world out there and you feel that on the city level you need to contribute to it, you think: how can I share with others the things that I have, the things that I’m good at, the things I can offer as a city, the things that can be provided by the people in a city that they are proud of? So there is also a question about how to contribute to a larger world and how we form a part of that on the city level, and many cities are proud to be part of this tradition of being responsible for a larger group beyond their community.

“Many of the cities are still in contact with their human rights defenders, all of the ones who have been staying in the city. Sometimes you have six to eight HRDs who have stayed there and they are in contact with all of them. I find that very interesting. They’re not only in contact with their direct mentors but they are often in contact with a group of people in the city, sometimes even the mayor—the mayor of Utrecht is in contact with several HRDs who stayed there and regularly talked with him during their stay in that city, so it’s really a lot of different things that have come out of the HRDs.”

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity].