History and Heritage
Initially founded as a loose network of HRDs in February 2013, the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (the SAHRDN) is now a firmly established non-profit sub-regional network of human rights organisations from Southern Africa. It is registered as 211-513NPO in South Africa with a US Equivalence Determination, making it the equivalent of a US public charity.
The SAHRDN was established as a strategic response to the shrinking civic space and increase in the systemic and systematic attacks on civil society and HRDs across Southern Africa. The shrinking civic space and increased attacks on HRDs in the sub-region was discernible through a marked uptick in the cases of extra-judicial killings, arbitrary arrests and detention, abductions and enforced disappearances, character assassination mainly via state controlled media. The attacks also included violent suppression of the rights to assembly, association and movement, cyber bullying and attacks, unlawful surveillance, general harassment including legal obstacles to existence ( including SLAPPs – Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) and administrative obstacles to operations, targeting of frontline HRDs among other forms of repression.
Despite coming into existence in 2013, the genesis of the idea to form a regional network to support HRDs in the SADC region can be traced back to the 2004 regional meeting of HRDs that the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and the Frontline Defenders organized in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Thereafter, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) established and operated a regional protection fund under the title the Southern Africa HRDs Trust to support HRDs facing persecution in the Southern Africa region. However, this donor driven protection intervention had limitations which resulted in OSISA disbanding it and convening civil society leaders in Southern Africa between 13 and 14 February 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa to discuss alternative models with HRD ownership and control at the center. The meeting resolved to form a loose association called the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) and to establish those in attendance as the steering committee (Steering Committee) of the SAHRDN. It is at this historic meeting that the SAHRDN was formally established as a loose coalition of HRDs from Southern Africa with an expanded mandate to defend HRDs at high risk as well as the civic space.
The SAHRDN Today
The SAHRDN embodies an ironclad commitment to protecting human rights defenders (HRDs) in the face of attacks and shrinking civic space. It coordinates regional efforts to provide rapid, practical, comprehensive and inclusive protection support to HRDs at high risk, defend civic space, and empower HRDs to mitigate the effects of repression. To this end, the SAHRDN contributes to the respect and recognition of HRDs as legitimate actors and agents of social change with universally recognized and constitutionally guaranteed rights.
SAHRDN is governed by a constitution which establishes a secretariat and a management committee composed of members largely drawn from Steering Committee members and representatives of vulnerable groups such as persons with disabilities and under-represented communities. Since 2013, the SAHRDN has operated with close support of the Steering Committee members, especially the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) and the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) which housed the SAHRDN Secretariat from 2013 until 2017. The SAHRDN immensely benefitted from the institutional and technical mentorship of these leading organisations.
In September 2017 the SAHRDN held a strategic review and evaluation meeting of its impact in Johannesburg and decided to fully institutionalize in order to improve its ability to fulfil its mandate to offer rapid and practical support to HRDs in the region. It was then registered as an NPO in South Africa, employing its own secretariat and designing systematic and sustained programming in defence of HRDs and civic space in Southern Africa. An interim leadership was mandated draft the constitution and to run the affairs of the SAHRDN. The ICJ was requested to incubate the SAHRDN, loan it staff, and build its capacity to be a stand-alone organization. This process was completed on 9 July 2018 with the legal registration of the SAHRDN as an NPO in South Africa.
With an extremely experienced and competent secretariat and Board, the SAHRDN is now a fully functional, autonomous entity. The SAHRDN is working on building a sustainable operating model, anchored on a diversified funding base, creative programming, and partnerships with like-minded organizations in the region and beyond.