Addressing the Needs of Human Rights Defenders

Human Right Defenders Project brings together students, staff, and community members

Human rights defenders have always faced severe risks as they work to ensure respect for human rights here in the United States and around the world. In the current political environment, these risks are on the rise. One of the greatest crises in human rights today is the shrinking of civic space and the threat to the individuals, groups, and organizations that work to defend human rights. The Human Rights Defenders Initiative brings together our already existing work and future projects to defend those who defend our human rights.

In 2020, the Human Rights Program was approached by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) about undertaking a project on protection networks. Prior to this, the Human Rights Program had recognized the need for research and advocacy work on the status of human rights defenders (HRDs) in the U.S. and around the world and took this opportunity to begin addressing some of the issues faced by HRDs. 

For years prior, the HRP had engaged in conversations with the OHCHR about the need for work on this subject. According to Amelia Shindelar, director of the Human Rights Defenders Project, the human rights community strongly values self-sacrifice and heroism. However, human rights defenders often face problems with survivors' guilt and high rates of burnout, and tend to work in a way that is neither mentally nor physically sustainable. Thus, the Human Rights Defenders Project  was born in order to expand thinking beyond the physical security of human rights defenders and towards a holistic view of what it means to be well in human rights work. 

Since its inception, the Human Rights Defenders Project has produced work on protection networks, as well as transnational repression and academic freedom. The Project has continued to address topics related to the safety and protection of human rights defenders, all while engaging students, faculty, and community members in its efforts. 

Currently, the Project is conducting research and interviews for its Networks for Justice (NFJ) project. NFJ incorporates additional thought and work around mental health and wellbeing, as well as healing and policy advocacy. In order to learn more about the project, I spoke with Biftu Adema-Jula and Deborah Makari, two Master’s of Human Rights students graduating this spring, who are working with Amelia and the NFJ team. 

Networks for Justice

The Networks for Justice project grew in part out of research by MHR students in an advocacy class. These students documented harassment and surveillance on anti-racism advocates in non-protest settings and submitted their findings to the OHCHR in spring of 2022. Since then, the team has published and submitted six reports and continues to submit shadow reports to UN bodies. 

Speakers and attendees at the visit of the UN Expert Mechanisms to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in Law Enforcement to Minneapolis in May 2023

In May of 2023, alongside many community advocates, the team successfully pushed to get the UN Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in Law Enforcement (EMLER) to MinneapolisThe event brought together community members to share their experiences enduring law enforcement  violence and juvenile solitary confinement. 

Now, the team is working to develop a better understanding of the needs of families affected by law enforcement violence who have subsequently joined the anti-police brutality movement. This group of people have experienced the trauma of losing a child or other loved one and are constantly experiencing retraumatization in their activism. “Within this group of people who are experiencing this trauma of losing a child and experiencing constant retraumatization and reexposure, what are the things that they need to be well in this work? How can academia, NGOs, and the international system support them?” explains Amelia. 

Deborah Makari (MHR '24)
Deborah Makari (MHR '24)

Deborah Makari, a long-time graduate student researcher on the team, discussed her interest in transforming systems of policing and addressing the harms of harassment and surveillance which was amplified by a course she took on race and human rights. “When government mechanisms don’t provide everything that is needed to support the well being of human rights defenders, how do communities step in to do so?”

Biftu Adema-Jula described that when moving to the U.S., her perceptions of the criminal legal  system were very different from the actual experiences of POC. The realization that “this isn’t what I thought it was” sparked her interest in learning more about the experiences of other POC who have been impacted by the police and therefore, have different perceptions of law enforcement. As her frustration grew, she wanted to be able to contribute to tangible solutions to the issue. 

Between background research for UN submissions, learning about local initiatives going on around the country, and conducting interviews, both Deborah and Biftu have strengthened their research skills, while being able to connect with individuals in an impactful way. 

Ongoing and Upcoming Efforts

The Networks for Justice team is also partnering with Mothers Against Police Brutality, an organization based in Dallas, Texas. Both teams are working to develop legislative changes in the state’s victims compensation fund. Currently, you can receive restitution from the state if you are the victim of a crime, but people who are killed by law enforcement are automatically categorized as a criminal and disqualified from the fund. Discussions are now ongoing about what kind of policy changes are needed in order to change these standards. 

Additionally, Mothers Against Police Brutality and the Networks for Justice teams are hoping  to develop training and curriculum for mental health providers that is specific to people who have had family members killed by law enforcement. Amelia explained that “Many victims have gone to see a therapist but many times it is very damaging because therapists don’t have the training or understanding of the specific trauma related to losing a loved one to law enforcement.” 

This fall, the Networks for Justice team was invited to participate in the Sixth World Conference on Remedies to Racial and Social Inequality in Cape Town, South Africa.

Giving Back and Getting Involved

One of the most important goals of this project is that the research and work that is done in academia should be useful and helpful for the communities that they are working with. “I want what we’re doing to feed back into their organizational success and personal well being,” emphasized Amelia. 

Biftu Adema-Jula (MHR '24)
Biftu Adema-Jula (MHR '24)

There is a need to protect and support the people doing human rights work “or else no one will be doing the work,” says Deborah. The visit from EMLER last year was a demonstration of how international mechanisms interact with local communities. Now, we need to continue to create platforms for affected communities and activists, and their needs, to be heard by those institutions with power. 

While the HRP is doing something tangible to give back to these affected communities, Biftu emphasized that more must be done. “The University as a whole could play a more active role in this work. People that are not in the Human Rights Program don’t really know about this initiative. I would like to see more collaboration locally because that’s where change can happen for people who are experiencing violence here,” Biftu explained. 

The Human Rights Defenders Project and the Networks for Justice Project will continue to work with affected communities and bring their findings to international bodies. Until then, learn more about the work of the Project and the Networks for Justice team.  

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