Ane Tusvik Bonde, Regional Manager for Eastern Europe and Caucasus at the Human Rights House Network (Oslo, Norway), looks back on 20 years of the history of the network in the run-up of the International Day for Tolerance to be celebrated on 16 November:
Solidarity and tolerance are essential for the Human Rights House Network. Without them, we would be isolated and divided.
Human Rights House is a community of independent non-governmental organisations working in partnership to promote human rights; the House itself is a test of tolerance. Each organisation within a House participates as an independent partner retaining its autonomy. The Houses are run and managed according to democratic principles of equal participation and representation. They allow room for debate, diversity of opinion, and differences of method and focus; a Human Rights House is tolerance in practice.
A key component of tolerance is respect for dissenting views. This is one of the key principles in the UN Resolution on Protection of Human Rights Defenders adopted in March 2013. Members of the Human Rights House Network have promoted the principles in the resolution making sure that the words and principles would be known outside Geneva in the countries we work.
Within the EU Russia Civil Society Forum, respect for dissenting views is key to fruitful discussions and possible cooperation. The Forum`s strengths are its diversity and the possibilities this brings as a platform to exchange views.
Tolerance as the word is frequently used in speeches, but its nature is first tested by actions. Sanja Sarnavka, Human Rights House Zagreb, reminded us of this at the 20th anniversary of Human Rights House Network (HRHN): ‘The big challenge ahead is intolerance. We are becoming more insular, more content within our small circles as individuals and as nations, and that’s a challenge. To have any impact, we have to work together.’
Tolerance is tested when a person charged with terrorism is not given the same rights as others to defend himself in court, or when refugees are hindered to seek protection, because there are too many waiting at the border, or when LGBT activists face smear campaigns and legal persecution for defending vulnerable groups. As human rights defenders, respect for the universality of human rights is a fight for tolerance we will have to take again and again, and it should be highlighted by all on the 16th of November – the International Day for Tolerance.
Working with the Human Rights House Network, one sees the underlying value of solidarity actions almost every day. The long-term nature of our work can sometimes make it difficult to see the direct impact, but, when conflicts and crises arise, the strength of the Network becomes visible. We see the solidarity, when Houses provide shelter to human rights defenders and their families at risk, and between lawyers from Russia and Ukraine, who have trained together in HRHN’s International Law in Advocacy Programme. This established platform makes it easier for lawyers to exchange information and discuss how to assist each other during the ongoing conflict. When the prominent lawyer Initqam Aliyev was arrested in Azerbaijan, the lawyers from Russia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine collectively reacted and assisted their Azerbaijani colleagues to provide evidence and best argumentations in court.
In October 2015, Human Rights House Network united in Oslo to celebrate 20 years of protecting and supporting human rights defenders. We brought our solidarity with us to Oslo marching to seek justice and freedom for those, who have been punished for expressing their opinion using their civic space. We marched for journalists, academics, filmmakers, lawyers, and human rights defenders, who have been targeted because of their work. They are from Russia (including the North Caucasus), Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Belarus. Their stories have much in common – politically motivated charges, abuse of law, unfair trials, threats, intimidation – and many of those who marched have experienced the same repression.
The human rights defender Ales Bialiatski was among those, who took part in the solidarity march. He felt the solidarity of the Network, when he was detained for his human rights work. In Oslo, he was wearing a T-shirt calling for the release of the lawyer Intiqam Aliyev known regionally and internationally for his fight for justice for hundreds of victims of human rights violations in Azerbaijan. Three years ago, Initqam Aliyev was wearing a T-shirt calling for Ales to be released. Two human rights defenders share a common drive – their constant fight for equality and justice. Their stand is tolerance in practice and principled in action.
Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur on Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, said at the anniversary: ‘We have benefited from the tolerance of years back, and civil society needs to reclaim it and come back to it, and then that can grow… to counter the challenges that exist in the world.’