We had a great and motivated group from different backgrounds during the programme. We were able to introduce the participants to a range of relevant interlocutors, allowing them real hands-on advocacy meeting experiences, they can now build on in their future engagement with CoE and beyond.

Nora Wehofsits, International Advocacy Officer, Human Rights House Foundation

Participants from civil society organisations in the Network of Human Rights Houses in 8 countries took part in the programme, which included a hands-on advocacy trip to the CoE in Strasbourg during the autumn session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). 

📷 Photos from the advocacy trip to Strasbourg can be found here

Throughout the programme, participants strengthened their skills and knowledge and successfully engaged with Council of Europe bodies and stakeholders, including PACE, the Commissioner for Human Rights’ office, the Secretary General’s Office, and Member State Permanent Representations to the CoE. The programme also fostered collaboration between the Human Rights House Foundation and Human Rights Houses on domestic and international advocacy.

As a part of the advocacy trip to Strasbourg, the European Union’s delegation to the Council of Europe hosted a briefing for participants. The briefing welcomed diplomats from 11 member States for a series of one-on-one conversations between the participants and diplomats.

Ukrainian participant Daryna Pidhorna says that the briefing with EU diplomats was a great experience and that she was able to get important feedback to help her future advocacy work.

Learning to build an advocacy strategy

Daryna Pidhorna, Lawyer, Regional Center for Human Rights (Human Rights House Crimea)

Pidhorna says that the course helped her to better formulate advocacy messages. I used to find it difficult to structure and narrow down advocacy messages to just four minutes… During this course, I learned how to build my advocacy strategy and formulate a clear advocacy message. This applies when speaking to the general public and policymakers who are sometimes not fully aware of [the Ukrainian] context.”

During the advocacy trip, programme participants had the opportunity to meet representatives from the Secretary General’s office, as well as representatives from the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights.

For Pidhorna, these meetings had immediate results for her work. I especially enjoyed the meeting with staff from the CoE Commissioner for Human Rights office. We discussed the topic of returning children deported [by the Russian Federation] back to Ukraine. As a follow-up, I will share our advocacy documents with their office and hope they can continue pressuring governments to raise awareness of this issue”.

Additionally, Pidhorna aims to use lessons learned during the programme during the October 2023 Crimean Platform in Prague. “I will speak to the Czech president, Czech members of parliament and the media. HRHF’s Advocacy Capacity Building Programme helped me to clarify what messages to deliver and that these messages should include personal stories and very clear recommendations.” 

Pidhorna believes that although course participants have different focuses of their work, they will cooperate in the future: “We may organise and meet in future events with, e.g., participants from the Southern Caucasus as they may face similar challenges as Ukrainian faces now.”

On 11 October, the programme’s participants gathered in front of the Council of Europe Palais in Strasbourg to support Pidhorna’s organisation’s solidarity campaign, raising awareness about the situation concerning the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children by the Russian Federation.

Meeting the people behind the institutions

Hripsime Kizogyan, Executive Director, Pink Human Rights Defender NGO (Human Rights House Yerevan)

Armenian participant Hripsime Kizogyan credits the programme with helping her to understand that CoE institutions and bodies are not so “far away” and unapproachable. “I have learned that behind all international bodies, there are real people with their own emotions and thoughts. The programme helped me to understand this and gave me ideas on how to communicate our messages to them.”

During the advocacy trip in Strasbourg, the Norwegian permanent representation to the Council of Europe hosted Kizogyan and her fellow participants for an informal exchange on human rights situations across Eastern Europe, the Western Balkans and the Caucasus.

Kizogyan shares that the programme helped her to understand different processes and bodies, saying that as someone who primarily focuses on domestic advocacy, it was an interesting experience to engage in international advocacy. 

Following this experience, she now plans to review the reports of her organisation. “We need to make sure that we understand the audience we talk to and know what they can do for us. It’s important that we use value-based and fact-based communication in our reports and advocacy.”

Following the programme, Kizogyan sees the potential for future cooperation with her Network colleagues. I work on LGBT+ issues. However, it is so valuable to know there are HRDs from other countries with similar histories and struggles. I believe we can organise exchange meetings and share experiences on different cases in the future.”

During a packed October week in Strasbourg, participants attended a hearing of the PACE Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights as part of the advocacy trip.

Increasing knowledge of tools for human rights protection

Marcin Wolny, Advocacy Officer at the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights.

Most of the programme’s participants have a legal background and many were excited to attend a tour of the European Court of Human Rights arranged as a part of the advocacy trip, including Polish participant Marcin Wolny. “I’m extremely happy with the visit to ECHR because strategic litigation, especially at the ECHR, is one of my favourite tools for impacting reality and protecting human rights.”

Wolny’s fellow participant Tural Aghayev from Azerbaijan also found the tour of ECHR invaluable. “Visiting ECHR was crucial for me because I had several questions about its work. I now better understand why a case can be declared inadmissible. It was important to be here physically to understand the composition of the Court and other specifics. This will be useful when sending future applications to the Court and during follow-up implementation.”

Tural Aghayev (centre), Human Rights Lawyer at Legal Education Society, Human Rights House Azerbaijan.

“Also, I work with young lawyers in Azerbaijan and I plan to cover CoE institutions in training for them and other HRDs. Thanks to this programme, I am more confident in explaining how CoE works to these young lawyers and human rights defenders in Azerbaijan.”

Belarusian participant Maryia Sliaptsova shared that while already familiar with ECHR, she learned a lot about other CoE Institutions. “I thought CoE was this… mystery, but now the veil has been lifted… The advocacy trip gave me more strength and I feel more confident in engaging with CoE and different institutions as I know better which issues are relevant for which CoE body.”

“I was amazed how easily CSOs can engage with [representatives] of PACE,” continued Sliaptsova, “before, I thought that PACE was a huge monumental body that you only read about in the news. However, with the help of Nora [Wehofsits, HRHF International Advocacy Officer], I was able to engage directly with PACE representatives and learn even more during this visit.”

Maryia Sliaptsova, Advocacy Coordinator, Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House.

“Even though Belarus itself is not a part of CoE, I learned that the CoE can also be a useful tool for Belarusian human rights defenders. For example, we have the CoE Contact Group on Relations with Belarus.”

Sliaptsova concluded that participating in the course as a part of the Network has been an added value for her: The Network of Human Rights Houses as a network is a huge deal by itself and a positive tool in building coalitions and coordinating actions on human rights. With this course, I met some people I knew, and also established new connections. It is so useful to do this, as sometimes we have similar problems in our countries or e.g., some Belarusians face issues in Georgia and we can think together about joint actions to highlight common human rights challenges.”

“When I return to my organisation, I think we will aim to have a stronger connection with the Commissioner for Human Rights Office and also other CoE bodies.”

Bringing important lessons back home

Dragiša Ćalić, Legal Adviser, YUCOM – The Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, Human Rights House Belgrade.

“I am very happy that I’ve learned two important lessons: one is generally about [international] advocacy as now I know much more. The second one is that I learned about the actual practical work of CoE… I will share what I learned with colleagues in my organisation. And I am sure I will use it in the future.”

Ćalić, shared that before the course, he did not know much about the practical side of international advocacy and particularities of CoE operations, but now he can use the new knowledge in his professional activities: “I speak a lot to the media in Serbia. I now know that every time I speak to the media, it is not only about providing information but also an important advocacy opportunity.”

Next steps

HRHF’s Nora Wehofsits leads a recap on the workings of the Council of Europe and PACE.

“The course participants can now go back to the theory and lessons learned during the webinars and meetings in Strasburg, they have most of the necessary tools to decide where to use their resources and how to put them into practice. We hope to see proactive engagement with different CoE bodies, motivation to engage in civil society opportunities at the institutions, and follow up also in advocacy domestically, using more of the CoE references comfortably… We see this already happening  with the advocacy activities of participants from Armenia and Ukraine.”  Nora Wehofsits, International Advocacy Officer, Human Rights House Foundation

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