Teaching the basics of human rights work

15 July 1997

by Nidhi Trehan

Grass roots (colloq.)
1. the common people
2. the basic source of support, as of a movement


Working with human rights NGOs, one hears a lot of positive sloganeering about the value of grass roots human rights work — “teach a man to fish”, “think globally, act locally”, and so on. The real question is, however, whether these words of wisdom are ever really put into practice by the majority of non-govern mental human rights organisations.

In our own work with human rights training in the Romani communities of Hungary (so far, we have had one workshop in Budapest, another in Debrecen, and a third in Szolnok), that is exactly what the ERRC tries to do. We try to give participants the Basic skills of human rights fact finding to enable them to provide human rights “first aid” within their local communities. We also attempt to provide them with sufficient knowledge about who is doing what in human rights in order to involve them in a larger network in which they can seek legal (and other) assistance and support.

From the beginning, the idea has been to engage as many Romani individuals as possible. The reality is that for the type of work shops that we sponsor — legal in focus, but at the same time specifically oriented towards human rights fact-finding and monitoring — very few people (whether in the Roma or the majority communities) have adequate knowledge in this area. Our training program seeks to build up this knowledge base so that one day (hopefully, not too far away), the program will be run entire ly by Roma for Roma.

Meanwhile, we have benefited from the contributions of some extraordinary lawyers who work in the field of human rights (Lilla Farkas, Imre Furmann, Gábor Noszkai) and researchers/fact-finders (Petra Kovács and István Hell) who have served as instructors at our workshops. We are also beginning to engage young Romani lawyers and activists who otherwise would not have an opportunity to participate in hands-on training of this kind.

So what is it like to be at one of our workshops? What are some of the lessons that we have gleaned from the interaction between instructors and Romani activists? What are our plans for the future? First of alt, the workshops, which engage about twenty Romani activists, are two days long. They begin with a very intensive get-to-know your-neighbour session where we try to create a comfortable atmosphere so that participants can speak freely about their experiences with human rights violations. The instructor at this session then details a retinue of questions (who? when? where? etc.). They explain the facts which must be gathered in order for a human rights violation to be reconstructed. They also provide the steps to take (whom to contact, where to file an official complaint, etc.) in case of an incident. This is all done in a very inter active, dialogue-based manner: participants ask questions and tell personal anecdotes.

The second day of the training focuses on imparting basic legal knowledge: how is the domestic legal system structured? What is the procedure for making a complaint? Which human rights NGOs can one contact for legal assistance? This is supplemented with mock exercises using real cases with which NGOs have been involved in the past.

Some of the lessons we have learned include:

  1. There is a need for this type of training: activists reported a high number of human rights violations in their communities. Those participants who are interested should be involved in further, more advanced training or internship programs.
  2. Building the self-confidence of participants is crucial: while most of the trainees are Romani activists and leaders, a number are new to human rights fact-finding. Engaging these persons is another important goal.
  3. The substance of the training must be practical and the language as non-technical as possible. Once dry legal concepts are brought to life by their practical application to a specific community or to individual incidents, real learning and inspiration begins.

While it is still too early to determine the results of the training program, the responses to the questionnaires distributed to the participants have been revealing. Most found the workshops to be useful and motivating. A number of Roma at the work shops said that the creation of an informal network among local level Romani organisations and individuals is a positive and independent effect of the training sessions.

The ERRC plans to hold additional work shops for Romani activists as well as other variations (for young lawyers interested in human rights in Romania for example) in the upcoming months throughout the region. The next training seminar is scheduled for August 3-4 in Pécs, southern Hungary. Roma from previous workshops have been invited to be trainers for future ones. A great soul once said, “Each one teach one.”


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