Retrospect to the Opinion Festival: Who protects the defender of human rights?

On August 15 at the Opinion Festival, a discussion „Who protects the defender of human rights?“ by the Estonia Human Rights Centre took place. It was moderated by the centre’s lawyer Uljana Ponomarjova and its discussion groups were led by human rights ambassadors Kätlin, Keio and Margit as well as project manager Nele from Feministeerium. The discussions were joined by about 35 festival visitors, who are defenders of human rights in one way or the other.

Keio led a discussion group which focused on the legal side: laws, rules, cooperation with judicial authority.

The debaters reached the following conclusions:

  • People’s awareness about their (human) rights is low. The reason for that might be that the level of social studies (knowledge about the constitution and other means) varies greatly among schools. There are good examples, but there are also many bad examples. The foremost problem is teachers’ bad/incomplete preparation in speaking about human rights. Food for thought: should there be a national strategy to raise people’s awareness?
  • The country should stably support strategic litigation. People have a fear of the court: it is mostly seen as a punishing rather than a judicial authority, although going to court (including against the state) is a normal part of life and democracy. Then again, people may be missing the means to pay for state fees or legal costs, which is why instead of turning to court, people contact the media. This however encourages mob law and emotional “justice”. To prevent this, we must raise awareness about the availability of free legal aid and legal aid from the state. The legislation is also lacking in some places and human rights organizations and citizens must go to court to protect their rights. Since legislation has large gaps in important topics (such as in the registered partnership act), many cases are solved based on the cases themselves. A professional legislation would ensure clarity and reduce the amount of lawsuits and therefore the workload of courts. The problem could also be solved by consulting with non-government organizations before issuing laws.
  • The low competence of courts and advocates in the field of human rights. The reason for this being low practice or incomplete legislation. Besides that, the general communication between courts should be improved upon: human rights is an elementary part of society, not just a specific field or politics of certain groups of people.

In a discussion group led by Kätlin, people talked about networks.

For the attendees, a network should stand for mutual support, cooperation, sharing of problems as well as solutions, a larger platform and bigger influence. The networks’ roll in the context of human rights protection could be searching for weak spots and draw attention to them. The visitors agreed that there are some different networks but if just their existence was enough, we wouldn’t be discussing, how to protect a defender of human rights. People also brought out that in order to operate better, the general knowledge of human rights could be improved upon – human rights is a normality not and ideology.

Networks can be divided into formal and informal networks:

  • Examples of formal networks are the Equal Treatment Network and the Diversity Charter. Different networks working to protect human rights can also be added here by sectors. In the public sector there are the Chancellor of Justice, the police etc. In the private sector there are the businesses, who show interest in topics and who consider them to be among their main values, the third sector concludes different non-profit organizations. During the discussion, people put forth the idea that companies, who’ve signed the Diversity Charter should have a sign on their products to show that.
  • Informal networks exist in the form of people’s friends and family as well as different FB-groups or just the local community for example. In the context of human rights protection, social media has a role as well: there are examples of how one community’s fight turns global through the Internet – the BLM movement, news about what’s happening in Belarus, from our home country for example the topic of Alari Kivisaar’s statements.

Nele led a discussion group that’s topic was the self-care and self-help of the human rights defender.

The participants talked about what leads to burnout, how to set boundaries for yourself and what to do before and after a tense moment.

  • Burnout. To not reach burnout you have to pay attention that you don’t overwork, that you take care of your relationships outside of work, reflect on the experiences you’ve gained and appreciate the work you’ve done, delegate responsibility, reduce a need for perfection, admit when you can’t handle a situation and need help, say “no” to responsibilities and proposals more often and not deal with guilt that could arise during resting. When dealing with those close to you, you can also look for the same signs and possibly intervene in a kind way.
  • Setting boundaries. How to set boundaries for yourself? Learn to know yourself so that you know your needs. Express your needs with “I” statements (I feel…) and don’t judge another person’s actions. If you do, then explain your past experiences to increase empathy, which creates a need for setting a boundary in the present.
  • Before a tense moment. Prepare thoroughly! Remind yourself of your goals and the reasoning behind what you are doing. Know that whatever happens (especially if something turns out wrong), it doesn’t completely define you. 
  • After a tense moment. Ground yourself by mentally and physically distancing yourself. Move a lot like by doing sports. Vent about your experience to friends, colleagues or members of your community. Express yourself in a way that you find comfortable – cry, dance, write etc. Looking for professional help and therapy is an important element of taking care of your mental health. Lots of useful information can be found on the site

At Margit’s discussion panel, people talked about volunteers and the participants spoke on four topics.

  • Volunteer work. “To be a volunteer – it is a lifestyle.” Volunteer work is emphatically considered to be very important, from the volunteer’s as well as the employer’s point of view. The participants thought that the perks of being a volunteer are the gained experiences and skills but also getting a taste of real life, so to say.
  • Motivation. One of the most important motivators in volunteering was thought to be the expanding of one’s world view. The following points were also emphasized: lifelong learning, experience, intensive study, personal growth, new friends, acquaintances, the development of social communication, sense of community. The presence of a mentor and their participation is also very important.
  • Responsibility. You always have to have it. A sense of responsibility has to be present when volunteering as well as in an employing organization. The volunteer has to know exactly what they’re responsible for and why. Surely when putting responsibility on someone, one must consider the volunteer’s field of work, their age and experiences.
  • Dangers/concerns. The participants all agreed that the biggest concern would be burnout. Out of a sense of duty, one might take too many commitments, volunteer in many projects, events or NPOs at once. Someone can only volunteer once their base needs have been fulfilled. Volunteers expect support from the organization with regards to work as well as on a moral level. Volunteers want that the organization, who takes in a volunteer, knows why it’s doing it. The job assignments intended for the volunteer need to be universally understandable, concrete, thought out. The participants representing different organizations noted that they expect a volunteer to responsibly fulfill their obligations in an exact way – since there are also those who only volunteer to say that they’ve done it.

The Centre thanks all the leaders of the discussion groups and all the participants for an exciting conversation!

Participation at the Opinion Festival is part of the equal treatment network project VÕIVIK, which is funded by the Active Citizens Fund of EEA Grants, which is operated by the Open Estonia Foundation in cooperation with the Network of Estonian Nonprofit Organisations. The activities of the network at the festival are co-financed by the Ministry of Social Affairs.

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