Amnesty's Human Rights Academy: Amplifying the voices of a generation calling for change

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring and an ongoing human rights crisis in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), youth from the region are eager to play a major role in creating change. At the same time, the tools necessary to transform society are difficult to access and the learning journey for them is blocked by those in power.

Human Rights Defenders in MENA face significant security and safety threats in their fight for human rights. Depending on the country, even simply attending a human rights workshop or training can result in deportation, a travel ban or even incarceration. The reality of the path towards change is drastically different depending on the country, but many Human Rights Defenders live in dangerous situations, often affected by conflict and oppression.

With this knowledge in mind, Amnesty International’s Human Rights Education team decided to draft a plan on how to support these change-makers. Mazen Jaber, MENA Regional Coordinator, states that they were “looking for a way to help amplify the voices of a generation calling for change and build their capacity to get more active locally”.

With this goal, the team began building the Amnesty Human Rights Academy, an online platform that would make Human Rights Education and training available to people all over the globe for free. Anyone, no matter their location, education or social class, would be able to access this knowledge and equip themselves. In this way, activists that may face oppression and even punishment for participating in workshops, could learn safely from their phones or computers.

For the diversity of situations the MENA region activists face, Jaber and his team traced a plan based on three key elements: standalone self-paced online learning, advanced capacity building on documenting human rights violations as well as online tools and face-to-face initiatives that can facilitate and enhance youth activism.

Learning about human rights online

The first key element is online leaning. Amnesty International’s Human Rights Academy gives people the opportunity to learn about human rights and offers the tools to defend, protect and claim your rights and others’. It is a unique platform that allows self-paced learning for free. The only requirement is an internet connection.

The Academy had a warm reception, and quickly grew to 35,000 learners in the MENA region, both from high risk and low risk countries. The platform reached activists in countries where Amnesty has no presence, enabling Human Rights Education to reach new audiences.

An online learner from Yemen opens up about their experience learning in the Academy:

“The Academy platform educates generations on their human rights and users spend a very good time studying the various courses. It also gives everyone a sense of how to defend human rights starting from the rights of individuals to the rights of communities as a whole. In addition, the platform, through its educational curricula, contributes to the creation of a generation aware of the necessity to establish the values of justice and knows well how to use the various tools of expression in defence of human rights and how to express solidarity with oppressed people around the world.”

An open-access learning experience has been key to reaching new audiences. Learners have been attracted by the possibility of taking courses and receiving certificates remotely, all without any cost, unlike many other learning platforms. Above all, learners appreciate that the courses touch topics and causes they are personally engaged in.

These new audiences have also been engaged through social media. The number of followers in the region has grown from 15,000 in early 2017 to 21,000 only a year later. The MENA region activists use social media as a key tool for communicating and organising action.

“The online Academy has opened engagement with an audience we could not otherwise reach” says Jaber, “We have opened channels to people who are expressing their desire and interest in promoting human rights and supporting Amnesty in any way possible. 10,000 leaners have joined as international members of the organisation”.

Another learner from Yemen explains how the Academy has helped them: “I appreciate Amnesty International’s efforts to create cultural communities that believe in the existence of others and that is always working on promoting these values over the world. I am currently a student at the Human Rights Academy and I have got my first certificate from it in Refugee Rights. Many thanks to the Academy, I have obtained valuable knowledge that I am seeking to use in order to serve the whole humanity”.

In a region in which the space for activism and freedom of expression is shrinking, the Academy serves as a platform to create safer links between activists, while encouraging debate in a relatively secure environment.

Documenting human rights violations

The next key element is a training programme specifically targeting Human Rights Defenders in the field. This training is unique in its “blended” nature, meaning it takes place both online and offline so learners are able to access the best of both education approaches. Learners start by taking courses online, and then they attend a week-long course in person to gain the skills necessary to successfully document human rights violations, collect evidence and interview people. They then develop a low-risk, hands-on project and receive support and coaching from Amnesty’s researchers during a 4- to 6-week period.

This approach to training has resulted in more enhanced documentation and monitoring of the human rights situation in countries where Amnesty has no presence and where experienced Human Rights Defenders and researchers are restricted in their access to information or otherwise had to leave their countries. Thanks to the work of these trained activists, a new generation of human rights defenders is ensuring many human rights issues that could go unnoticed are discovered and addressed.

A key element in this programme, as with any other learning path implemented in the MENA region, is the security training that is integrated. It enables activists to analyse the risks they are exposed to and shows them how to protect themselves, both online and offline.

Jaber recalls two participants from Iraq who were grateful for this component: “We worked closely with them on developing a practical security plan where they had to list three contacts and agree with them what should happen in certain situations. During a demonstration, one of them didn’t communicate back, so the security net was activated as planned. If they hadn’t had that plan, the situation could have become very difficult for them”.

Focusing on youth

Youth activists taking part in the HRE Lab to promote Freedom of Expression in Beirut Youth activists taking part in the HRE Lab to promote Freedom of Expression in Beirut
Youth activists taking part in the Freedom of Expression Lab in Beirut

The third key element is combining Human Rights Education with global and national campaigning, getting young activists between the ages of 18 and 24 together to debate about human rights in their communities and countries and plan strategies and locally relevant interventions together.

Through blended learning, young activists grow their ability to analyse context and develop actions that can bring change on a local level beyond the online courses through in-person trainings and workshops. During their time together, activists design action-focused projects for their communities, receiving feedback and support from each other.

MK, a participant, states that “it was an amazing learning experience”. She adds that “I got to learn from each one of you [the other participants] things I will use the rest of my life: professionalism, punctuality, active listening, caring about others, sharing […]”. About the blended training, she says: “I have been involved with many national and international work with Amnesty, but this one was different and amazingly successful”.

Some recent examples of these blended journeys for young activists can be seen in Lebanon. In 2018, youth from the MENA region and Norway came together to organise an HRE Lab to discuss freedom of expression. The result was a successful week-long lab where young people from many countries shared their experiences, thoughts and ideas, coming together to create their own action plans.

Additionally, past participants have organised projects and events with different human rights goals. Young activists from Lebanon organised a storytelling night where migrant domestic workers opened up about their experiences under the Kafala system. The event’s goal was to raise awareness on their situation by amplifying their voices in a safe space.

The same group of activists – in collaboration with the Lebanon Campaigner and Wasl, a theatre collective – decided to use theatre for social change. The play, “Chebbak”, exposed the reality migrant domestic workers live under in Lebanon- the aforementioned Kafala system. It also invited audience to participate, making the play interactive and engaging. Participants also had the opportunity to join the organisation as supporters for “End Kafala”, Amnesty International’s new campaign calling for justice for migrant workers in Lebanon.

Maria Qossayer, participant in a blended learning journey, says the in-person training “taught me how to be efficient by coming up with a structured and organized plan of action and committing to it to get to my end goal”. After the training, she and her team are “working on changing the discourse among the student body toward migrant workers in Lebanon”.

Jaber adds that “activists are using more creative techniques and artistic outputs” thanks to the blended journeys.

Bringing change through Human Rights Education

The option of a blended learning journey combines easily accessible online courses with the possibility of in-person workshops for those able to attend. It has had a very positive impact so far, Jaber says. It has helped the team “design and implement journeys that are tailored to their [the learners’] needs”. The learners are happier, more actions happen, more change is achieved. Jaber highlights the activists’ attitude: “if you look at their enthusiasm and how inspiring the work they are doing is”.

As for the future, Jaber says “we would love to be on the ground in Egypt with activists we are training […], same with the Gulf, Syria and Yemen”. Those are countries with stern governments, and bringing Human Rights Education is an ongoing battle, one we are willing to fight.