Human Rights Defenders Day: The Power of Persistence

I’ve spoken to thousands of Human Right Defenders (HRDs) in the last year and a half. These are people all over the world who peacefully defend the rights of others to help build civil and just societies, and I talk to them as part of my job as the UN Special Rapporteur on HRDs.

They tell me about the successes they’ve achieved in fighting corruption, or in getting medical supplies to communities hit by Covid. Some tell me of the great risks they face for their work – listening to Women Human Rights Defenders in hiding in Afghanistan is an instant reminder of how dangerous standing up for human rights can be.

And today is their day – International Human Rights Defenders Day, marking December 9, 1998 when the UN adopted the Declaration on HRDs, recognising them as a group of people who work peacefully and legitimately for human rights and who deserve recognition and protection.

It’s hard to know whether things are generally better or worse since that day, and it’s easy to look at the news and despair. To see reports of people being used as political pawns because they are trying to reach the EU, and left to freeze to death in the forests on the Poland-Belarus border, or left to drown in the Mediterranean or the English Channel, and to wonder What Have We Become?

The part of those tragedies I work on is when people who are trying to help others to reach shelter, or give food and blankets or legal advice, are themselves targeted for persecution. Those people – like Sean Binder who grew up in Ireland and is now on trial because he was trying to help people to safety in Greece – are HRDs.

Virtually every day I talk to people from all over the world who are taking huge personal risks to help others – people who organise protests against illegal land grabs or deforestation, or document torture in custody, or defend people in court. I hear about their doggedness and determination despite receiving deaths threats, or being at risk of going to prison, or having their families attacked because of the human rights work they do. Hundreds of defenders are murdered every year for their human rights work.

Some specific groups are often singled out for targeting. Defenders working on women’s rights, LGBTI-rights, rights related to land and the environment, along with indigenous rights, are constantly under attack.

I’ve been working with HRDs for decades, and learned from some extraordinary individuals. I’ve seen them vilified, ostracised and romanticised. Too often HRDs are described by well-meaning people as “tireless” or “fearless” but they’re really not. They’re often exhausted and scared. They’re not superhuman, and they don’t need to be idealised. The point is they carry on the work anyway.  And when it becomes too much there are others who take up their place.

There are few quick wins. I spend a lot of time trying to persuade governments to let HRDs out of prison. It’s often a slog that takes years, even decades, of consistent pushing. But I’ve learned from defenders that the stream eventually breaks through the rock from persistence, and that long-term commitment can pay off.

In 2018 HRD Germain Rukuki was given a 32 year sentence by a court in Burundi.  Month after month many people, including myself, persistently advocated for his release, and he was freed in June this year.

But the are many, many more cases of HRDs sentenced to long terms in prison – my latest report to the UN General Assembly, in October this year, focused on HRDs who are serving at least ten years in jail because of their peaceful human rights work. It is so very cruel and unjust. These include Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, sentenced to life in Bahrain in 2011 after an unfair trial. I worked with him for many years from Dublin at the NGO Front Line Defenders, and I will continue to press for his release, year after year, until he is released.

A couple of weeks ago a government publicly criticised me, noting “with great astonishment” that I was “relentless” about its human rights record. It shouldn’t be at all surprised. HRDs and those who support them know that we have to be relentless in order to make progress.  HRDs don’t give up easily – they have indomitable spirits.   Nowhere is this more evident than in the words of Anna Politskaya the Russian journalist and human rights defender who was murdered because she documented atrocities in Chechnya.

 “So each time I go there, people tell me things. They do so in the sincere hope that, if I record what is actually happening, it will lead to change, to peace. Obviously, I am not to blame for what is going on, but the more I think about it, the more I would be betraying these people if I walked away. The only thing to do is to take this to the bitter end, so that no one can say that when things became difficult, I ran away.”