Successfully pivoting our work to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic: Virtual Speaker Tours in the UK

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the human rights sector, and our organisation in particular. Since its inception, our organisation has sought to bring human rights defenders from around the world together to strengthen their cause and amplify their voices. Travel restrictions and social distancing have therefore presented significant challenges to the way we work, and by extension, the lives of those we support.

Despite the trying circumstances, we have managed pivot our work and innovate in order to strengthen the capacity of human rights defenders to digitally equip themselves, expand their networks of support, and amplify their voices. Connecting them with influential stakeholders and the wider public has continued to provide them with moral support, facilitate the exchange of ideas, and lay the groundwork for coordinated responses to the crisis. Among many things, we have developed a digital accompaniment scheme to offer support and protection to threatened defenders and communities. This has been developed in collaboration with our global network: 800 human rights defenders across five continents, pro bono partners, and PBI’s committed supporters.

Our biggest success in this respect has been the innovation of virtual speaker tours, which have connected human rights defenders with high profile stakeholders and representatives with even more immediacy than before the crisis.

In July PBI UK together with the Colombian Caravana and ABColombia arranged a series of meetings between Danilo Rueda and several members of the legal and political communities to discuss the situation in Colombia. Danilo is a Colombian Human Rights Defender, and the Executive Secretary of the NGO Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace (CIJP), a church-based human rights organisation working to expose human rights violations committed in the conflict regions of Colombia. We organised meetings for Danilo with members of the Colombian Caravana, the UK Foreign Office, and a group of MPs. Discussions covered transitional justice in Colombia, the current situation under COVID-19 restrictions, the work of CIJP, and the threats he and his colleagues face on a daily basis.

The meetings were an opportunity for Danilo to share knowledge about the effect of the pandemic on the rule of law in Colombia. Speaking to the Caravana, he stated that continued threats against and killing of social leaders under the curfew, compounded by increased control of their movements and communications by illegal armed groups, has stemmed (or severely reduced) the flow of data and evidence that is usually supplied to lawyers to make their cases.

The tour enabled Danilo to request the UK government take responsibility for its international standing by supporting the signatories of the peace agreement in a country ravaged by five decades of civil war. The lawyer also highlighted concerns for reports of the UK’s continued military, technical and financial support for the Colombian intelligence agency, which has allowed the state to pursue illegal campaigns against journalists and human rights defenders.

A total of ten parliamentary questions have been tabled on the set of issues, a record number for a PBI speaker tour. MPs engaged thoroughly with Danilo’s account and presented a series of actions they could take. Former Defence Secretary Des Browne was vocal in his intention to pursue the issue.

The topic was also raised with FCO officials, including head of Latin America Section James Dauris. In the same meeting, Danilo and PBI put in a request that the UK recommend to Colombia the importance of a peaceful resolution to the conflict with armed groups, as a member of the UN Security Council.

Conclusions were also drawn as to actions that could be taken by the international community to assist human rights defenders in Colombia. Danilo suggested a ‘reverse virtual speaker tour’ to exchange judicial opinions with the Special Jurisdiction of Peace.

The digital speaker tour was by all measures a great success and provided a platform for Danilo to represent the struggles faced by his organisation and countless others fighting for justice in Colombia. The logistical ease and strategic efficacy of the virtual elements have guaranteed its use as an advocacy tool in future, as we move beyond the pandemic and continue to innovate and find new ways to support human rights defenders in a changing world.