Capacity-building for minority and indigenous leadership

By Chris Chapman

Providing support to minority and indigenous representatives has always been a central part of the MRG ethos. For many years the organization has been running training workshops for activists, first in Geneva and Strasbourg, and later in countries such as Iraq, Egypt, Kyrgyzstan, Cameroon and Costa Rica. This work continues to this day and is integral to MRG’s strategy of achieving lasting impact in the countries where it works.

The programmes in Geneva and Strasbourg focused on sharing information and know-how about the human rights conventions and declarations that states have signed up to, and how the institutions in those places (the UN and the Council of Europe respectively) can be used to put pressure on states to respect the commitments they have made. These workshops were typical of MRG’s capacity-building work for some years, and had an invaluable impact, but there was a growing realization that activists also needed skills in other areas – in particular, leadership, fundraising and campaigning. In 1998, MRG began pioneering a regional training programmes in Budapest for minority activists producing an advocacy training manual.

This reflects a process of what might be called the decentralization of human rights advocacy. Although international NGOs are now increasingly becoming truly global, with offices and staff in many countries around the world, human rights violators try to brush off their advocacy efforts, pointing to the origins of many of these organizations in the global north and dismissing them as neo-colonial meddlers. Meanwhile, grassroots activism is on the rise and is finding new ways to pressure governments. If there is any doubt about this, you need only look at the epidemic of national laws that aim to stifle locally based NGOs and cut off their sources of funding, from Hungary to Israel, from Russia to Ethiopia, from Ecuador to Cambodia – illustrating very clearly the challenge that a vibrant civil society poses to governments that violate human rights norms.

To reflect this trend, MRG is finding new ways to build capacity, including online training, a programme which now has upwards of 1,200 alumni. In Mauritania, innovative ways needed to be found to get around government foot-dragging on the elimination of slavery conditions endured by the Haratine minority. International condemnation had pushed the government to adopt anti-slavery laws, first declaring the practice abolished in 1981, and then criminalizing it in 2007. However, social attitudes around slavery remained entrenched, and the government was reluctant to put slave-owners in prison. Although tough sentences were passed, they were often overturned on appeal, with slave-owners fleeing to neighbouring countries. MRG worked with partners such as Anti-Slavery International and the Mauritanian organization SOS Esclaves on a programme to push for the criminalization law to be implemented. As well as lobbying the government both in-country and in international settings, such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Gambia, the partners embarked on an ambitious programme of training, not just for NGOs like SOS Esclaves, but also for Haratine activists, magistrates who would be hearing slavery cases, lawyers and paralegals to support victims in courts, and journalists to help with changing social attitudes.

The programme had to adapt to the government’s evasion tactics. After magistrates had been trained on the anti-slavery law and the relevant international human rights obligations, they were moved to courts covering other issues. So the partners shifted their focus to lawyers, paralegals and activists, who were more likely to engage on the issue on a long-term basis. One of the notable outcomes of this programme was a ruling by the African Union’s child rights committee in 2018 in favour of Said and Yarg Salem, two brothers born into slavery, and whose former masters were prosecuted but given very lenient sentences.

MRG has also focused on training minority youth activists, often giving them the encouragement and confidence to realize their dreams of devoting their lives to human rights work. Zola Kondur, a Roma activist from Ukraine, talks about how a training programme she worked on with MRG supported young community members to go and speak at international meetings: ‘This was first time they spoke at this level. They were stressed and nervous but they did it really well, and they did networking.’ One such activist went on to be appointed by a local authority as adviser on minority issues, with a budget to implement activities – a ‘unique case in the Ukraine’, according to Zola.

Photo: A human rights training session in Gumare, Botswana