The Middle East comes to Geneva

June 28, 2023

In November 2022, the Foundation hosted its first-ever regional seminar for former Martin Ennals Award Laureates from the Middle East and North African region.


The gathering was immensely significant because these defenders, although they knew of each other, had never been under the same roof before. For too long, they fought their battles in isolation or exile; in some cases, colleagues or family members took over their causes while they served prison sentences. However, at the MENA seminar in Geneva, they were embraced by the warmth of solidarity and their shared experiences created a bond. 


Twelve Laureates or their representatives, hailing from Bahrain, Egypt, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, converged on neutral ground. This collective of human rights defenders has endured threats, persecution, imprisonment, and even risked death, as is often the case for activists in the Middle East. 


The decision to host the seminar in Switzerland and not in the Middle East or North Africa was made due to safety concerns for the participants. It was impossible to resolve certain security risks for human rights defenders in the various Middle Eastern destinations.  


For 3,5 days, the Martin Ennals Foundation provided workshops on subjects of interest and organised meetings with relevant Geneva-based stakeholders and friends of the region. The Seminar was a place where tears were shed, laughter echoed through the halls, and stories were shared. The defenders could speak freely with their peers who could understand their grieving or struggles in exile. 


During the intimate conversations that unfolded, they spoke about the regression in democracy and freedoms since the Uprising of Hope in 2010. Increased surveillance and detention of dissidents in Egypt and Yemen; state control and repression in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates; and the crackdown on civil society in Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. They compared notes on growing injustices in the region, where those who dare to question authority are branded ‘enemies of the State’.  


They also shared wisdom and successful strategies, particularly in the fields of advocacy and campaigns. The defenders learned about others’ experiences to retain international attention on long-term detention cases and leverage international events to pressure repressive states to release human rights activists. Resilience, solidarity, and hope resonated with the defenders in the room.  


“During the discussions, most of the opinions that were presented agreed that women, especially in the Middle East are oppressed and subject to patriarchal authority by force and will reach freedom but only by working diligently and raising our voices loudly, to say to the whole world and demand the rule of law to protect our rights and hear us”.

MEA Defender from Syria  


The seminar facilitated a space for women human rights defenders to openly discuss with the male colleagues their challenges in mobility, access to justice, funding, and leadership roles in the patriarchal societies of the region. The male colleagues reflected on their central role in empowering women and balancing the gender representation gap within civil society organizations in the Middle East. It was a unique intergenerational dialogue, as experienced women and men defenders listened and engaged with the perspectives of younger activists and envisioned that one day bridging the gap between generations and gender in the movement could be achieved. They reminded one another that they were not alone in their fight and that their collective strength would be the catalyst for transformation. 


As the days passed, the seminar became more than just a gathering of minds. Ideas blossomed, strategies were crafted, and alliances were forged. One activity included conversations with donors to better understand fundraising techniques for human rights projects.  


“We learned from our personal and professional experiences, and we were able to connect with other defenders from the Arab world. During the seminar, the donor’s session was enriching to brainstorm how to prepare grant requests and seek support for our human rights work”.

Defender Yemen. 

Martin Ennals Award Laureate 2020 


It was the Foundation’s hope that the regional seminar would emerge important ideas about the power of solidarity in the face of adversity. On their way back home, they carried within them a renewed sense of purpose and the reassurance that a regional and international support network is always there for them. Their determination to end injustice and oppression resonates far beyond the seminar, echoing as a powerful call to action across the Middle East and North Africa.