Interview with co-founder of Shelter City, Guus van Zwoll
By Noah Wanebo
Guus van Zwoll is the co-founder and former coordinator of the Shelter City temporary relocation programme for human rights defenders. Read to learn more about Guus, how Shelter City began, and his experience working with human rights defenders.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
How did you originally get involved with Justice and Peace and the Shelter City Programme?
Victor Scheffers, the former director of Justice and Peace Netherlands wanted to hire people who were different from what you would normally see at a Human Rights NGO; he wanted to have broader academic background at his organisation, so he hired a theologian, a historian, and me, a philosopher. This was actually the reason I got into this field. I started as an intern on ‘the security of human rights defenders’ (HRDs), with the idea that the Shelter City programme would be launched within months. During my internship I did a lot of interesting work, however I did not work on the topic of HRDs and security. At the end of the internship, Justice and Peace and I struck a deal: I would get three months paid to kick-start the programme, and if I were able to do that within three months, then I would be the person running the Shelter City programme. I was very lucky that one or two weeks after we struck that deal, the municipality of The Hague came forward to become the first Dutch Shelter City and support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs shortly followed. That summer in 2012 we started with our first call for human rights defenders. We formed the selection committee chaired by Yvonne Donders, professor of International Human Rights from the University of Amsterdam and in September of that year, Magamed Abubakarov, the first human rights defender in the Shelter City programme, arrived.
How did the programme evolve during those initial couple of years?
Magamed was a Russian lawyer and received quite a lot of press. As a result of that press the city of Middelburg contacted us to become the second Shelter City in the Netherlands. There we struck up this interesting deal with the university college in Middleburg. In Middelburg we discovered the logical connection of working together with universities. Universities cannot only provide the structure, housing, and a workplace for the HRD, but can also provide classes and courses. At university, human rights defenders can take formalised introductions to the things that they’ve been working on all along.
We had, for example, a human rights defender from South Sudan who has been involved with human rights work and the peace treaty between the Dinka and the Nuer. He has been doing this type of human rights, peace, and development work all his life, but he never had a formal introduction to the legal basis of human rights; how is it structured within international law, when international law is applicable, etc… For everyone who has been studying International Relations, this is clearly defined, but if you know this work only from the ground, these details can be difficult sometimes. Through the classes at university, he was able to grasp and understand the legal framework that would not only help him to place his own human rights work within the broader context of international law, but also to use this context in the peace talks that he was doing. At the same time the human rights defender could also provide his classmates with the perspective of what it actually means to be living in a country where human rights are being violated and illustrate the tension that’s always there between (international) law and reality. That experience is something that really modeled the programme afterward. We went from The Hague to Middleburg, Utrecht, Nijmegen, Amsterdam, Maastricht, Groningen— all university cities.
“I think that has been its (Shelter City) power. Each city really has their own identity. They have their own core group, and they are able to fill in their own activities.”
I think it’s interesting that the Shelter City idea has almost been franchised out to those different cities, and it grows and evolves differently in different places. How has this shaped the programme?
I think this particularity in each city has been the power of Shelter City. Each Shelter City has their own identity. They have their own core group, and they are able to fill in their own activities. Justice and Peace is there to provide support, share experiences and best practices, and support HRDs by building contacts with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the parliament, but it is the cities themselves that play a key role in creating their own identity and their own vision of what Shelter City should be. And that results in completely different programmes. For example, Nijmegen has a good connection with the university but also directly started with this big coalition within the city—the local Amnesty group, the local Peace Talks group, and a whole network of people that are a part of that Shelter City team. They would not only provide the house and schooling, but would also provide a group of friends who would do activities with the HRD, take them out, etc. After learning these kind of best practices, we then shared these with other cities.
What were some of the initial growing pains while getting the Shelter City programme up and running that you maybe did not anticipate?
There were, of course, several issues. First of all, I don’t think that any one of us realised that running a relocation programme would be more social work than human rights work. If you’re going to start a programme with human rights defenders, you think about training and lobbying—which of course we all did—but there is this huge other part. There’s a lot of work not only getting the human rights defender here, but helping him or her to be able to rest and function in a Western society, which sometimes can be a huge thing. Some people came from societies where they always had people taking care of them—whether family, or wives. So these people had never cooked, had never washed their clothes before coming to the Netherlands, where they suddenly they’re on their own and have to cook and clean for themselves.
Then there is the issue of psychological support. There was a human rights defender who started off very lonely and was getting depressed. At the end of his stay, the situation in his country changed and we had to extend his visa. But because there was a new person coming to the Shelter City apartment, we had to find a new place for him to live. We found this monastery with these three older monks, and he himself was a very vocal atheist from an Islamic country. Luckily these monks had done a lot of development work thirty years before within their congregation, so they knew how things work outside of Europe. And that was a magic match. He was really lifted up because he suddenly had a place to be outside the 9-5 hours; there were people there he could eat with, discuss world politics with, and he participated in the Christmas market… it really changed into a good experience. Those people are still communicating today.
“Being a human rights defender is one thing, but being a human rights defender at risk and to continue doing your work… those are extremely passionate and driven people.”
Is there any common trait that you think unites this diverse group of human rights defenders you met while working with the Shelter City Programme?
It’s a little bit of a cliché, but they have an energy within them and they have a certain way of not accepting ‘no’ for an answer. Being a human rights defender is one thing, but being a human rights defender at risk and to continue doing your work… those are extremely passionate and driven people. In some cases, this almost makes them difficult to handle in a relocation programme, because once you say “this is not possible” and they say “yes, I want it, I need it and I don’t accept that!” They have a huge fire within them, a huge energy. They are the people that are making change possible, and I think most of them see that themselves and there’s no question within them of stopping their struggle. I think that is the common thread that you will see with all these human rights defenders at risk, all over the world.
“Shelter City and the courses that are connected to it play a key role in improving the security and effectiveness of those HRDs.”
I think sometimes we lose track of how much those of us in Western societies have benefited from activists of previous generations. Whether it’s voting rights, LGBTI rights, women’s rights—there were people putting themselves on the line for things we all now live comfortably with. We assume it’s a natural progression, but in a lot of ways it’s people constantly pushing against a strong counterforce.
That is something that you see in this current world, this counterforce is getting better organised. You see that also within Europe and to a certain degree even in the Netherlands. NGOs that challenge the status quo often face the call that the government should not fund them. And you see that this narrative is growing, also within Europe. I believe that we can learn a lot from human rights defenders in this respect; we support them to speak truth to power, something we in Europe sometimes have seem to forgotten. I think we have the illusion, especially if you grow up in Ann Arbor [Michigan] or Leiden [Netherlands] that this is very far away, but it much closer than we think.
“And I came to think of it and I realised that many people in the West are doubting the efficiency and the work of HRDs, but people like Putin, people like Mugabe, they are not questioning the effectiveness of HRDs.”
It sounds like defending human rights is destined to be an endless fight.
I sometimes feel that it is an ideological battle, it will always continue. It’s an ongoing effort that we have to make, and I think that those human rights defenders are really providing that. They are providing us with scope and reflection on the fact that we have to continue. And I think especially when it comes to the Dutch or when you talk about Shelter City, some people will say–even policymakers—oh well, how much can this one human rights defender do? What’s the effectiveness of this person? I heard that in my time a lot. And I came to think of it and I realised that many people in the West are doubting the efficiency and the work of HRDs, but people like Putin, people like Mugabe, they are not questioning the effectiveness of HRDs. They are putting more effort, more money, and more agents than ever into battling these people. I think that is a very strong argument and a strong indication that there is something there. There is something that these people bring into the light that sometimes we don’t even see as being effective, but authoritarian rulers clearly notice that this is not good for them and not good for their agenda.
To what extent do you think Shelter City helps organise the human rights activists and prepare them for these growing and shifting challenges?
These HRDs really get a network that they can tap into while going back, I think also with these training courses we can at least show them the tools that are there to really continue their work in a way that’s more secure. We can mention clear examples of where the course on security or digital security, or where the network that someone obtained, really played a role in improving the safety and security of a human rights defender. I think that Shelter City and the courses that are connected to it play a key role in improving the security and effectiveness of those HRDs.
How did the human rights defenders contribute their own on-the-ground experience to these programmes?
I think that due to the way Shelter City and the training courses were structured, we really learned a lot from the HRDs and are sharing those best practices. For example, the whole digital security part of The Hague Training Course was designed by this guy who was running a Pakistani digital security NGO, and he was actually the one that fueled that whole part of our work. The team of Justice and Peace are able to identify best practices, and they then include them into the rest of the programme, but it also works the other way around. For example, a human rights defender that spent her relocation in Middleburg in 2016 actually started a relocation programme in Georgia called Shelter City Georgia Tbilisi. They’ve been running a very effective Shelter City programme there focusing mostly on Russian-speaking HRDs.
“In that respect, Shelter City really not only gave me the insight that these people are doing tremendous work and that they have an enormous energy and power, and that we should support them because they are at risk, but also gave me the insight that [without] these people, there’s no human rights work.”
What have you been doing since leaving Shelter City?
I left at the end of 2015 to work with ProtectDefenders.eu, which is the EU Human Rights Defenders mechanism. It’s a consortium of 12 Human rights NGOs working together on the security and safety of human rights defenders worldwide. I was the coordinator of the EU Temporary Relocation Platform, a platform that hosts different Shelter Programmes from around the world. There, I tried building connections between different relocation programmes (like Shelter City) and support new relocation programmes; basically new ‘Shelter Cities’ outside the Netherlands. In this respect we’ve worked a lot with Shelter City Tbilisi, and we’re currently working on starting a shelter programme in Costa Rica and looking at programmes in Africa. Besides providing the best practices and provide advice on how to start a relocation programme, we also provide financial support, which of course is key to starting such a programme.
For the last six months, I am the Head of Secretariat of ProtectDefenders.eu, so I don’t work only on the relocation part but I’m actually managing the whole consortium and cooperation between the 12 NGOs, and also looking at emergency support, training, field monitoring, trial monitoring, etc.
“…to work for social change and the implementation of human rights, and work to create these more transparent more democratic and safer environments, human rights defenders are the only agents that drive that.”
What are some things you’ve learned from the human rights defenders you’ve met over these past years?
Their inability to find a compromise, their ability to laugh in the face of danger, their ability to continue their work, their goals, and their family life while facing these risks. That’s very inspirational for me and it’s one of the reasons I’ve continued working in this field. In that respect, Shelter City really not only gave me the insight that these people are doing tremendous work and that they have an enormous energy and power, and that we should support them because they are at risk, but also gave me the insight that without these people, there’s no human rights work.
You need these people on the ground doing their thing. They are the ones doing the work, and the only thing I think we can do is support them as much as we can with the tools they need, the security they need and the funding they need. We can still go out and do traditional development work – digging wells or install toilets – but really to work for social change and the implementation of human rights, and to work to create these more transparent more democratic and safer environments, human rights defenders are the only agents that drive that. They are the agents of change, they are the ones that really force communities to reflect on themselves and force them to think: “is this the way we want to go or not?”
It has to go from the bottom up.