The 2020 Martin Ennals Award team and human rights finalists. (Photo: MEA)

I still remember that day about a year ago when the Communication Manager from the Martin Ennals Foundation (MEF) called me to tell me that I was hired for the internship. I was very happy because I had been looking for a job for months since finishing my studies. I believe that they choose me more because of my communication skills than my (limited) knowledge of human rights.

Somehow, the whole internship experience changed my life. I did not know a lot about human rights, despite having grown up in the human rights world capital, Geneva. Not only do a number of key organizations dealing with human rights issues, such as Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists and Huridocs, have operations or representations in this Swiss lakeside city, but it is where the United Nations Human Rights Council has its headquarters. Furthermore it is where the world’s largest human rights film festival, the FIFDH, takes place every year.

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During my internship at the MEF, which is named after the late Martin Ennals, a renowned human rights activist and head of Amnesty International (as with HRW, ICJ and Huridocs, a member of the MEF awards jury), I had the opportunity to meet incredible human rights defenders. This made me realise that I was living in a privileged country. I never realised that there were so many human rights violations in the world.

My internship: a crucial insight into the world of human rights – and its importance

The MEF honours human rights defenders around the world once a year by rewarding them with the Martin Ennals Award. This Award is widely regarded as the Nobel Prize for human rights. The Jury is composed of ten of the world’s leading human rights organisations: Human Rights Watch, FIDH, Huridocs, Amnesty International, Brot für die Welt, ISHR, World Organization Against Torture, International Commission of Jurists, Human Rights First and Front Line Defenders. The Jury nominates three human rights defenders in November and later selects the Laureate from these finalists. The main award is announced during the ceremony, which takes place every year in Geneva.

The Martin Ennals Foundation hired me as a communication and event management intern for six months. I was even paid for my internship. As far as I know, many organizations don’t even contribute expenses to their interns. (See article on Nexstep, one of Global Geneva’s ongoing Breaking In series on internships). My mission was to support the communication manager in her tasks, notably community management related activities, such as updating the Foundation’s website and social media initiatives as well as increasing the visibility of the Finalists. I also helped promote the Award itself by managing media relations, supporting the production of press releases and organizing the press conference.

Equally exciting, I had the opportunity of helping with the 2020 awards ceremony, the main event of the foundation. My tasks involved managing the registrations, the production of the awards, the making of slides with the names of the speakers, developing and implementing the programme such as the printing of flyers, posters and other support materials. Of course, the closer we got to the ceremony, the more this became our main activity. (See message by Cambodian 2012 Laureate Luon Sovath to young people on the power of the media to highlight human rights concerns)

Today, the Martin Ennals Award takes place in Geneva every February. The Finalists are usually present at the ceremony although this is sometimes not possible as some of them are in prison or subject to travel bans. This year, luckily, all three were able to attend. These included: Yemen’s Huda Al-Sarari, a human rights lawyer who has been investigating the secret prisons network of her country; Norma Ledezma of Mexico, who has dedicated herself to seeking justice for the families and victims of feminicides; she was herself motivated to do this following the disappearance of her own daughter as a victim of this scourge; and Sizani Ngubane from South Africa, who has spent her life promoting gender equality and fighting for women’s indigenous rights.

Swiss intern Josephine Seiler (right) and 2019 Martin Ennals Award Finalist and refugee advocate Abdul Aziz Muhamat of Sudan. For an inexperienced intern working with the MEA Foundation, the volunteership provided an extraordinary chance to learn about the struggles of human rights defenders. (Photo: MEA)

The Martin Ennals Award: helping to highlight human rights awareness

For the first time in almost 30 years of the Award’s existence, the nominated finalists were all women. A few days before the ceremony, I had the chance to meet them. It was such an enriching experience for someone like me who barely knew anything about human rights just a few months before. Having the opportunity to discuss with each of them, to learn more about their struggle, their concerns and their dreams for the future was incredible. I still sometimes talk to some of them today via e-mail or WhatsApp.

The Jury voted to select Huda Al-Sarari as the 2020 Laureate of the Martin Ennals Award. On 19 February, in collaboration with the City of Geneva, the Martin Ennals Foundation honoured all three at a special public ceremony. Supported by profile films and international press coverage, it gave the gathering, which included former Laureates and Finalists, the opportunity to highlight the urgent need for human rights awareness worldwide.

In the aftermath of the ceremony, we barely had time to conclude our post-event reports before Covid-19 arrived. Ours was one of the last major public events to be held before such ceremonies were cancelled. Nevertheless, we still managed to organise ourselves with effective communication for both the Foundation and the Finalists by working from home.

As with numerous other organizations, we had to completely rethink the way we worked. In the end, however, it actually functioned quite well. We organised video conferences between us twice a week in order to divide up the tasks and to discuss foundation matters, such as a former Finalist who had just been released from prison, or another who was arrested. What should we do?

Due to Covid-19, I had the chance to extend my contract by four months. It was a great opportunity as the job market was frozen because of the pandemic. I had never thought about working in human rights before this amazing experience, but after a ten months internship in this field, I can now say that I am ready to consider it seriously.

Working in human rights is intense and can be stressful because you have few resources and a lot of work to do. However, the rewards are worth it! When a human rights defender is released from prison as a result of the communication campaign you have helped develop, you know that your work has been useful. Moreover, after working with the MEF, I feel ready to start my professional life.

I can only recommend to other young people to live an experience like this, even if they don’t know much about human rights at first. You’ll learn a lot. I learned how to develop communication campaigns with impact using different social media, how to organise a high-end ceremony and, most of all, I learned about human rights. This, I believe, will help me with my job search because I think recruiters appreciate employees who are knowledgeable in several areas.

Equally important, I have learned a lot about myself. The experience has given me more self-confidence and has allowed me to focus my career choices more. I am also clearer about what I hope to achieve. In my opinion, the awards for human rights defenders are very important. It helps them with recognition by making the world more aware of what human rights defenders are trying to do through their work. Human rights are also important for the well-being of our world, especially at this time of pandemic when human rights are regularly violated.

If you want to undertake an internship in the human rights field,I think you should be eager to learn, curious and highly motivated.

Josephine Seiler is a 25-year-old former public relations and communications student from Geneva, Switzerland. Part of her studies were spent doing a nine-month English course in London to improve her language skills. She is now seeking a job in public relations, particularly one that will enable her to use some of the skills she picked up with the Martin Ennals Foundation, but also to include human rights awareness as part of any new job, whether in the private or public sector.

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