Brussels celebrates Human Rights Day 2011

On the 9th of December 2011, for the 3rd year in a row Human Rights Day was celebrated at the BOZAR fine arts centre by the Regional Office for Europe of OHCHR together with its partners the European External Action Service, the United Nations Regional Information Centre, the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH) and BOZAR. The Belgian premiere of the film Cairo 678, by director Mohamed Diab of Egypt, was followed by a sofa-setting discussion with the film director, Engy Ghozlan of the Sexual Harassment NGO Task Force in Egypt who is also a blogger and founder of Harassmap and Candy Sheridan, Vice-President of the Gypsy Council of the UK and activist for rights of Irish Travellers. The discussion was moderated by Reed Brody, spokesperson of Human Rights Watch.

In a year when people took to the streets to claim their rights in North Africa and elsewhere in the world, the focus of Human Rights Day was the use of social media not only in informing but also mobilizing people into action to demand their rights. The Brussels event highlighted issues of sexual harassment of women, violence against women, the Arab Spring and the rights of Travellers and Roma but each of the panelists also had a unique perspective on how an ordinary person can become involved in fighting for rights.

Mohamed Diab’s moving feature film, which dealt with three women affected by sexual harassment in Egypt, was very well received by the audience. In the ensuing discussion the director spoke of his reasons for making the film which tackles an issue that is still controversial in Egypt: “The transition from being a writer to a director needed some courage and needed me to pick something that moved me.” He described the buzz that his film created in the media and social media in Egypt and how it helped bring the issue to the fore. Engy Ghozlan in turn spoke of her use of social media in mapping incidents of harassment in Egypt as well as of informing people of their means of recourse: “We wanted to create a channel for women to be able to speak about sexual harassment, to tell the world what happens, on the spot, as it happens.” Both Ms Ghozlan and Mr Diab also described their experiences of the events in Tahrir Square and the revolution in Egypt.

The third panelist, Candy Sheridan, spoke eloquently of her involvement in defending the rights of her fellow Travellers, first by helping individuals in their planning applications, which led to her becoming a Municipal Councilor and later an advocate on behalf of the Travellers in the high-profile case of the forced eviction at Dale Farm. She spoke of how the media attention on the case was a mixed blessing for Travellers who are a private people. In contrast to big social media campaigns her work usually consists of “winning round one person in a village hall and getting them to see me and my community as human beings that need a place to live”.

The experiences that the panelists shared with the audience reflected what the events of 2011 have demonstrated: there are many ways in which ordinary people can become human rights defenders.

12 December 2011

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