Uganda office to support human rights workers

On July 6, a York-initiated project will be launched in Kampala, Uganda, dedicated to protecting and monitoring the safety of human rights defenders in east Africa.

The regional coordination office of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (right) is part of a larger effort to strengthen the network of human rights defenders in Africa. It grew out of research carried out last year by Hassan Shire Sheikh and James Torh, human rights defenders from Somalia and Liberia, for York’s Centre for Refugee Studies.

“I have a personal commitment to assist my fellow human rights defenders in the region,” said Sheikh, a former human rights worker who fled Somalia in 2001 after warlords threatened his life. “I’ve had first-hand experience of what it feels like to flee from your own country only to find, after a long, arduous journey, no place and nobody to turn to for protection and help in the region.”

“Much of the region has experienced massive human rights abuses going back many years and driven by military dictatorships, struggles for democracy, civil wars, and, in the extreme case of Somalia, the collapse of the state,”says Sheikh, who eventually found sanctuary in Canada.

Left: Hassan Shire Sheikh

Sheikh, currently a research associate at York’s Centre for Refugee Studies, will coordinate the Kampala office, which aims to support human rights defenders in Somalia (and Somaliland), Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Sheikh will provide training and protection for human rights defenders in danger, help them relocate to safer parts of Africa, and publicize their plight.

Human rights defenders lobby governments, try to raise awareness about and fight abuses of human rights, as laid out in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They may belong to human rights groups, churches, women’s or development organizations or simply be outspoken individuals in a community. Whoever they are, they risk retaliation and too often are forced to flee Africa when they dare to expose human rights violations in their community or state.

In 1998, their right to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms was officially recognized by the United Nations when it unanimously adopted the Declaration of Human Rights Defenders.

The project was initially funded by Amnesty International, INTER PARES and the International Development Research Centre and continues to be supported with funds from the National Endowment for Democracy (based in Washington, DC) and the International Development Research Centre, based in Ottawa.

Susan McGrath, director of York’s Centre for Refugee Studies, says the east Africa project will generate more information about human rights defenders’ activities, lead to more research in the field and enhance teaching and learning in refugee and migration studies.  “This project is a signficant contribution to the field of human rights in Africa, the centre is proud to be affiliated with Hassan and his work”.

For more information, contact Hassan Shire Sheikh at ext. 20519 or