The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has been working in co-operation with the Armenian Helsinki Committee and the Tajik Republican Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law in the regions of Armenia and Tajikistan to strengthen the capacity of regional non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to monitor human rights in their communities.
"One of the first steps when trying to build up civil society is to get people to think about what they are trying to do and why. That means building a coherent strategy based around core human rights values," says Pavel Chacuk, an ODIHR human rights adviser and trainer. "It also means prioritizing projects, and even turning down potential funding if it is tied to activities that are beyond an NGO's aims or capacity."
The ODIHR has developed a four-stage training programme that takes local activists through the major steps of planning and implementing human rights monitoring projects. Each stage of the programme lasts five or six days; this extensive training period is an investment that the ODIHR considers worthwhile in areas where participants have very little hands-on experience and are working in challenging circumstances.
Setting the context - explaining human rights
While the basic concepts of fundamental rights may seem obvious to those in countries with long-established and vigorous human-rights organizations, many of those trying to set up civil-society organizations in places where they have previously been absent have very little theoretical background as a framework for their activities.
The first stage of the training, therefore, gives a general introduction to human rights. "Human rights training is not an end in itself," says Chacuk. "A solid background in the various national and international instruments that protect human rights, as well as some of the more complex areas where different rights overlap, gives individuals more confidence and ability in standing up for the respect of those rights."
Putting theory into practice
The next stage focuses on strategic human rights monitoring: what it is, why it is important, and how to do it. It includes a monitoring visit to give some initial practical experience, around which the training is built. "Visits to a prison and orphanage allowed us to apply what we had learned in practice," explains Meri Grigoryan, one of the Armenian participants.
After this, participants develop study projects that they implement with the assistance of the ODIHR and local NGO partners.
These small-scale projects, lasting a few months, are given a modest budget of around 500 euros. For many of the participants this is their first experience of designing and running a monitoring activity. The topics are chosen by the participants themselves, based on the needs of particular social groups in their communities.
As well as being an effective training tool, these mini-projects are important in their own right, revealing areas of concern and pointing to the need for further action. In Armenia, for example, a project on violence in schools revealed a worrying incidence of teacher violence towards pupils.
Other projects tested whether certain rights enshrined in the law are actually carried out in practice. One such project monitored the public's right to attend trials. Another looked at whether public buildings are accessible to the disabled, while a third considered whether the socially disadvantaged are able to access the free medical services to which they are entitled.
A total of 14 projects were run in the two countries, covering a broad spectrum of issues from women's rights to freedom of the media.
In the third stage of the training, held in spring, participants learned how to set up and maintain an effective human rights NGO, write project proposals, and raise funds.
When the monitoring work was complete, the participants presented reports on their projects in a final session in the summer. Each project was analysed by the trainers and participants for its content and methodology.
"We are already seeing the benefits of this training programme," says the ODIHR's Chacuk. "Some of the participants have been motivated into setting up their own NGOs, and the majority want to continue working in human rights. But most important of all, are the new skills they have developed for critical thinking in relation to human rights."
The end of the programme was not the end of the ODIHR's support: a train-the-trainer session for the mixed Armenian-Tajik group took place in October in Ukraine, to encourage the alumni of the programme not only to continue working as monitors but also as trainers, passing their knowledge, skills and values.
Follow-up sessions are also planned to involve more people in human-rights work, and to monitor the state of human rights in the regions of Tajikistan and Armenia.