World Humanitarian Day 2020 - COVID-19 Redefining the Role of Grassroots Legal Empowerment Initiatives

Today, 19 August 2020 is the World Humanitarian Day. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) the day is dedicated to raising awareness about humanitarian assistance worldwide and to pay tribute to people who risk their lives to provide it.

As a human rights advocate with a strong background in working with grassroots human rights initiatives in Zimbabwe that seek to promote access to justice and legal empowerment for marginalised and vulnerable communities, I thought it is prudent that I share a small note in relation to COVID-19 and how it has re-shaped the work of grassroots justice defenders and community legal empowerment organisations in Zimbabwe.

Prior to the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, as grassroots human rights defenders (HRDs) we seldom involved ourselves in humanitarian interventions except in exceptional circumstances were we sought fairness, non-discrimination and non-stigmatisation in the distribution of food relief. In other words, we only intervened to secure the respect of human rights of those who were being sidelined from benefiting from humanitarian interventions on unfair grounds.

COVID-19 has changed all this!

Community human rights advocacy organisations today are finding themselves responding to humanitarian needs or at least coordinating community responses to emerging and urgent humanitarian needs in communities brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Traditionally, as first responders to community human rights challenges, community legal empowerment initiatives cannot avoid or ignore the call of communities in their hour of need. COVID-19 has brought forth the interoperability of human rights and humanitarianism (tangible development) at community level. Although, most grassroots legal empowerment organisations are struggling to cope and to satisfy this urgent and more relevant call for humanitarian assistance from communities due to limited resources; the call to intervene on the humanitarian end has firmly established the link between human rights and development.

Through limited financial resources and hard work at community level, our target constituencies can now appreciate the role of human rights in the development discourse. We are linking human rights to the physiological needs of individuals. We are proving to communities that human rights are not political rhetoric and a complex abstract.

To ensure that this link between human rights and development continues to be displayed unambiguously in communities, it is imperative that funders recognise and support the work of community legal empowerment initiatives today and beyond the pandemic.

About the author Paul Sixpence is a Senior Minority Rights Fellow with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights) and Centre Stage Media Arts Foundation (CSMA). He writes in his personal capacity and views expressed herein are not representative of UN Human Rights or CSMA.