Creating a safer and more meaningful space for young human rights defenders


Benedict Bryan

It was a trip to France in 2015 that inspired Benedict Bryan’s human rights and humanitarian work.

Seeing first-hand the human rights consequences that migrants to France were facing at the time, on his return home, he set up an organisation – the Humanitarian Association of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (HARTT) - that would provide humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable, with a focus on migrants and refugees.

“I wanted to help people facing the same situation in my own country. One of the first things we did was collaborate with another local NGO and the University of the West Indies to launch the country’s first English language classes for migrants and refugees,” Bryan explains.

Since HARTT was established, its work has evolved and expanded – they still work with migrants and refugees, but also have a wider ambition to improve social equality within communities in Trinidad and Tobago. One key area of work is women’s rights and the rights of LGBTIQ people – Bryan is also an advisor with the UN Population Fund’s Youth Advisory Group and the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust.

Safety of young human rights defenders

Throughout his years of activism, Bryan has observed that space for young people to stand up for their rights is at best, limited and at worst, under threat.

“If you’re a young person and you want to challenge your government on their view, or ask really difficult questions, depending on who you are asking, there is a risk involved,” he says. “When you bring their interests into question in public, the risks are incredibly high.”

Bryan explains that while avenues do exist for young people to voice their opinions, whether or not they will be taken seriously is another matter.

“Although there is space, it’s not as empowering or as impactful as we would want,” he says. 

Risks young people may face are not necessarily direct violence, but can be emotional or even financial. Bryan recounts the story of a fellow activist who protested at the Trinidad and Tobago Hall of Justice to decriminalise gay sex– on discovering his participation in the protest, the young man’s parents forced him to leave the house, and he became homeless.

“Stigma is a major contributing factor to the risks young activists can face,” says Bryan. “While the risk of violence remains real, we cannot forget about the more subtle risks, which can drastically impact young lives and livelihoods.”

More engagement, more protection

Bryan is advocating for a more meaningful engagement with young people at the government level around the world.

“Politicians everywhere  need to ask themselves if they are engaging young people for engagement’s sake only, or if there is actually a thought process behind it which could lead to real policy change,” he says.

To have more impactful conversations with young people, Bryan also believes governments need to be more aware of the life stage of the young person, and adapt their approaches accordingly. “How you engage with someone who is 13 or 14, is not the same for someone who is 18, or 24.”

At the same time, Bryan is calling for governments around the world to give better protection mechanisms for young people who decide to speak out. Legislation to protect individual activists or groups which focus on human rights is critical to achieve real freedom of speech, he says.

The importance of presence

Young people are agents of change, says Bryan, and have genuine capacity to influence policy and human rights. 

While he believes in the strength of young people’s voices, he also says presence can be just as crucial. “I do believe in just being there,” he says. “Standing  by – either physically or online – can also help.”

“Being there, showing small signs of support – it could be an LGBTQ flag at your desk, it could be a statement promoting a cause in your email signature. These things may be small, but they can give strength to the people on the frontlines of the cause, and they can give hope to the people who may not have the courage to step forward, just yet.”

ENDS

This story is part of Human Rights Champions – a recurring series featuring portraits of human rights defenders or organizations that stand up for human rights. Bryan’s story of activism is part of a series inspired by the first-ever global report looking at the safety and protection of youth in the civic space.

Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in this article are those of the persons featured in the story and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

10 January 2022

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