2021 – Witnessing the Powers of Hope and Persistence

We know 2021 has been hard for many people, not least Human Rights Defenders. Working for human rights, often against powerful, violent forces, is difficult. 

Sometimes it’s tempting to give up, to give in. I know how hard it is to keep going when you feel weary, when you are hit by loss.

This year one of our team, Woman Human Rights Defender Alaa Al Siddiq, was killed in a car crash. She was an amazing person, full of hope, and despite the many threat and attacks aimed at her, she didn’t despair. 

We also saw the grief of family, friends and colleagues of Human Rights Defenders who were murdered, or whose loved ones have been imprisoned for many years.

But 2021 has shown us that hope will always win in the end. American poet Emily Dickinson understood the importance of hope, and more than 150 years ago she wrote:

Hope is the thing with feathers,

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops – at all…

That it never stops at all is what matters. It persists in the face of enormous adversity. It’s the fuel that energises all human rights defenders, and it’s impossible to defeat. 

I’ve spoken directly to hundreds of Human Rights Defenders across the world in 2021. Online meetings and interpretation mean I can listen to defenders who speak obscure languages from remote places. I’ve heard from defenders in big cities and isolated locations, from those in hiding and those on trial, from those under house arrest and those threatened with murder.

Wherever and whoever they are, what unites them is a sense of hope. They all know, despite attacks and defeats, that their work has meaning and value.

Hope doesn’t guarantee success, but without it nothing can be achieved. With it, real change is possible. 

This month, because we didn’t give up hope, because we persisted in our calls for justice, Human Right Defender and researcher Patrick Zaki was released from prison in Egypt, and charges were dropped against Woman Human Rights Defender Carola Rackete in Italy, who had been targeted for her work in trying to help migrants. In May Human Rights Defender Arash Sadeghi was released from prison in Iran and in June Germain Rukuki was released in Burundi.

Hope is an essential ingredient to the success of Human Rights Defenders. Those in Pakistan have told me how they successfully advocated against corruption and now government departments share information about procurement on items needed to combat Covid. In Kenya, Women Human Rights Defenders report success in having public schools in Kenya titled, affording them protection from land grabs and corrupt development.

Human Rights Defenders tell me all the time about their achievements in protecting the rights of others, how this success often takes a long time, and requires the twin powers of persistence and hope.

Hope sits quietly, permanently in our souls,  and enables us all to continue to endure.

Last week we lost Human Right Defender Desmond Tutu. He understood the importance of having both hope as a constant companion, and persistence as a permanent partner in this work. “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness,” he said. And he also said “I wish I could shut up, but I can’t, and I won’t.” 

I look forward to working with Human Rights Defenders in 2022 who see the hope in the darkness, and who persistently refuse to shut up.

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