human rights defenders

[OPINION] Human rights defenders are not the enemy

Mary Lawlor

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[OPINION] Human rights defenders are not the enemy

Alyssa Arizabal/Rappler

'On every continent, HRDs are achieving amazing success, in democracies and dictatorships, in cities, in forests and in deserts, and often in the face of terrible danger'

Every week we hear about the deliberate killing of a Human Rights Defender (HRD) somewhere in the world. In a typical week there are five or six murders of people peacefully defending the rights of others.

These crimes rightfully get press attention, and I’ve written extensively about the dangers facing HRDs. What gets less coverage is the vital work they do, which often goes uncredited and unacknowledged. 

The two things are linked – HRDs are often fatal victims of their own success, because they confront powerful vested interests, because they expose corruption, because they refuse to accept injustice, because they challenge criminal gangs, because they talk about things governments want to hide, because they tell the truth, because they make good things happen.

On every continent, HRDs are achieving amazing success, in democracies and dictatorships, in cities, in forests and in deserts, and often in the face of terrible danger. 

This month I am presenting my latest report to the UN Human Rights Council. 

In Bangladesh, an organization run by children is preventing child marriages, even though its members receive death threats. In 2021, local HRDs in Thailand won a major court victory for local communities in revoking title deeds on 23 plots unlawfully issued to oil palm plantations. In Zimbabwe HRDs have won damages in a series of cases holding the government accountable for police brutality.

Women human rights defenders in Indonesia played a vital role in passing a law last year criminalizing physical sexual abuse, including in marriage, sexual exploitation, forced marriage, including of children, and the circulation of non-consensual sexual content.

And HRDs have won significant victories for the rights of LGBTQ+ people in recent years. From Belize to Botswana, Saint Lucia to Sri Lanka and elsewhere, discriminatory laws and practices have been challenged and defeated.

The work of HRDs means people wrongly jailed have been freed from prison. Anti-corruption defenders in Ukraine successfully campaigned for a drastic reduction in the price of medicines. In 2015, Ukraine handed over its medicines procurement to international organizations, reducing prices by 40%, with the price of Imanitib, a blood cancer drug, reportedly falling from $90 to $2 a tablet.

Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, 18 human rights lawyers in China and overseas created a COVID-19 claims legal advisory group to provide free legal advice and support to families of those who died from the disease in Wuhan and Shanghai. They have obtained significant compensation payments for the families.

Rani Yan Yan is an indigenous woman HRD from the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh. The Army wanted to build a five-star hotel in the area, threatening the local water supply and the displacement of 10,000 Mro persons. But she helped organize young people to consult with local villagers in the middle of the night, to avoid surveillance. She and others publicized internationally what was happening, and the military now seems to have backed off the project.

For some HRDs, just managing to keep going in the face of extreme danger and threats is success in itself. Women HRDs have been organizing and leading protests for women’s rights in Afghanistan, Burma, and Iran, despite the extreme risks that they face. 

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HRDs working at Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights organisation, have shown remarkable resilience in the face of threats, smear campaigns, surveillance, and office raids. The tenacity of these HRDs and others in continuing to document human rights violations demonstrates success in the face of severe challenges. 

Since I took up this mandate three years ago, I have heard directly from more than a thousand HRDs. They tell me how they turned to protecting the vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic, saved lives by rescuing refugees and migrants from the sea, advanced the rights of women to bodily autonomy, secured the release of those wrongly imprisoned, brought perpetrators of State violence to justice, exposed the adverse impact of business in the context of land, environment, and indigenous peoples’ rights, and made many other vital contributions helping others. 

Through imagination and perseverance, with hope and solidarity, human rights defenders continue to succeed against intimidating odds and often despite threats and attacks. These victories are usually the result of long-term struggles and are typically achieved in collaboration with other human rights defenders, and with a broad range of allies.

The recent decision by Quezon City Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 139 to dismiss the charges of perjury against 10 human rights defenders from Karapatan-Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights, GABRIELA-National Alliance of Women, and the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP), shows how by standing firm and supporting each other, human rights defenders can overcome adversity. 

The government of President Marcos has an opportunity to reset the dial for human rights by moving away from the repressive policies of his predecessor. The bill recently approved by the Human Rights Committee of the House of Representatives would be an important step forward.

It’s now 25 years since government officials all over the world signed the Declaration on HRDs, promising to protect and support their work. But in many places, State officials vilify and target HRDs in an effort to undermine their work. It’s time to stop the threats against them, and to start celebrating and recognizing the vital work they do. –

Mary Lawlor is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

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