Human Rights are a set of fundamental rights and freedoms that everyone in the world must have, regardless of skin colour, gender, party affiliation, or religion. Everyone has the right to exercise their right to have rights, as Arendt said, being first a member of humanity, whose dignity and identity must be preserved, and second, belonging to her country and having the right to exercise her rights as a citizen.
The rights to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, and the rights to work and education, and many more are the rights everyone is entitled to without discrimination. But how did we come to this understanding of rights, and most importantly, what can we do if these rights are taken from us? While institutions are important, their work requires a strong civil society support, given in particular by human rights defenders whose work we should support better, especially the one of women.
- Between The Past and The Present. The Evolution of Human Rights
It is not easy to establish a starting date for the birth of human rights, still we can take 539 BC as a significant year. In 539 BC the troops of Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon, freed the slaves, declared that all people had the right to choose their religion, and established racial equality. These principles and others were recorded on a baked-clay cylinder to be known as Cyrus Cylinder, and are to be found in the first four articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.
A second cornerstone in the history of human rights was the promulgation of the Magna Carta in 1215 which introduced a raw concept of the“Rule of Law ” and the basic idea of defined rights and the habeas corpus, the protection from arbitrary prosecution and incarceration. Later, in 1689, another revolution happened: the English Bill was signed and ultimately gave parliament power over the monarchy. It’s also credited as being an inspiration for the US Bill of Rights (1791).
The most interesting and cited document when discussing human rights over time though is The Declaration of The Rights of Man and of The Citizen which was adopted in 1789 by the French National Assembly, and contains the principles that inspired the French Revolution, namely the one of equality – “all men are born and remain free and equal in rights”. From then on, every single human was taken to be equal before the law, participate in elections, have the right to liberty, freedom of speech and religion, private property, and resistance to oppression.
In 1948, after WWI and WW2, when unprecedented atrocities were committed, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was drafted. As a response to the human tragedy that wars are, UDHR reiterates the ideas of equality and brotherhood among peoples from its famous beginning “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.
Mentioning these documents is important to remember that the current human rights we have are a result of a series of improvements, of cultural and societal transformations – in this regard, it is significant that we now talk about not just man or citizen’s rights but human rights – but also of an evolving power relationship between the individual and the state. In a way, they remind us that rights are never given and should never be taken for granted. Surely, human rights have continued to evolve, the amount of UN conventions has grown accordingly and the work of the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, and the different regional courts, the European Court of Human Rights in particular has become more and more important. Yet, while we cannot deny these are great achievements, the existence of these institutions and documents also highlight the lack of respect for the same rights they define: for instance, the very exigence to create an International Criminal Court in the 90’s makes evident how gross violations of human rights did not stop with the ratifications of conventions in the 60s’ and how implementation requires a political will that needs to be constantly shaped and monitored by civil society.
At the same time, the amount of cases that are processed every year by the international courts, also indicates that there is a growing awareness surrounding human rights violations and individuals’ rights, and a growing knowledge of the institutional reparations mechanisms available. The desire to hold perpetrators accountable is connected to the presence of an active civil society, to advocates, rights defenders, NGOs that fight and challenge the status quo for protecting their and others’ rights. Times have evolved, and history has broken down but people continue to oppress others, so there is a need for people dedicated to preserving the rights of others in different regions of the world, to remain vigilant before violations. A bottom-to-bottom approach and a bottom-up approach are the ones that could shape our societies into human rights-compliant ones. We need human rights defenders to help societies promote a culture of human rights and be compliant with international law, we need people who are ready to defend abuses the moment they occur. At the same time, we have a duty to protect them and make their work safer, especially the one of women, who, as often, are subjected to a higher level of discrimination and violence.
- Human Rights Defenders; The Safe Compass of The Oppressed
The UN declaration on human rights defenders (HRDs) in 1998, came as the first important step to recognizing human rights defenders’ efforts. But who are human rights defenders? Can anyone be a human rights defender? According to the UN, HRDs are “Ordinary men and women who act for the respect of human rights, for instance, freedom of expression, the rights of women, of indigenous peoples or gay, lesbian, transgender and intersex people. They can act alone or in organisations.” They can work individually or collectively to help other people who suffer from violations. Still, their role as HRDs does not protect them from being victims themselves, actually, quite the opposite occurs. Indeed, HRDs rights are often violated by governments, corporations, or by political parties that feel at risk because of the investigations HRDs lead against them, or the campaign they run. Indeed, although, as we have just seen, there is a Declaration on Human Rights Defenders this one actually stayed on paper and most countries did not even commit or work towards its implementation
The greatest danger lies with activists and human rights defenders working alone as individuals, being at risk and violating their rights by terrorism and unjust states, or even their countries.
According to The Organization of American States (OAS), in the first fourth months of 2022, the two Americas were the most threatening countries for human rights defenders; there were nearly 5 killings of human rights defenders in Brazil on February 17 only. As reported, “many of the defenders who were killed were indigenous or Afro-descendant persons or were active in the defence of territorial or environmental rights”.
In Colombia, the United Nations High Commissioner stated that there were 71 cases of murder of human rights defenders by the end of March 2022. The Colombian Government has stated that mafias are the first and last threats to indigenous rights defenders in particular. At the end of 2022, “the Colombian Ombudsperson’s Office reported a total of 215 murders of defenders… the highest figure for a single year since 2016”.
In Peru, there were two killings of human rights defenders. In Honduras, the number of killings was 6 over the period January-March 2022.
Killings continued in Mexico during the last four months of 2022, where 4 people were added to the death toll that was already surpassing 12 deaths. There, HRDs are subjected to numerous violations of their rights with the aim to pressure them into leaving the defense of citizens’ rights and leaving the country. They receive intimidation letters from mafia members, they are brought before the courts and subjected to unjustified criminal investigations and they are accused of drug trafficking. In the worst cases, when all previous plans fail to dissuade them to continue their activism, they are assassinated and it is hard, when not impossible, to hold accountable the executors and even harder the instigators, be they states or multinational corporations.
- Women Human Rights Defenders
The violation of the rights of human rights defenders has not and will not stop, but it is important to note that it differs according to the defender`s gender. First of all, “Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) are all women and girls working on any human rights issue (“women defenders” and “girl defenders”), and people of all genders who work to promote women’s rights and rights related to gender equality”. Not only do women suffer more from discrimination as women, but those, among them who fight for gender equality, work on a topic that in itself is quite contentious.
So, what specific violations are Women Human Rights Defenders being subjected to?
Women have always been at the forefront of the fight against human rights violations,, being the first victims of abuses: physical violence, honour killings, and rape attempts are among the most common violations women are exposed to. To these, we have to add the recent institutional women’s ban to enter universities in Afghanistan and the risks they incur if they want to study freely in Iran. For ages, women have suffered all kinds of discrimination and contempt by men in various societies of the world, which required the establishment of special women’s organisations and even having women activists to defend women’s rights. The subjugation of women is still widespread, but countries’ economic and political problems are likely to be used by politicians and governments as excuses to avoid discussing women’s rights and focus on, yet again, other matters.
It is precisely to avoid women’s rights being forgotten that WHRDs continue engaging in campaigning, in their work as activists, as journalists, and as watchdogs of democracy, freedom, and equality. Relentless, they fight, even risking their own lives.
- From Pakistan to Palestine, Two powerful women as The Greatest Inspiration for the Oppressed People:
Here, we would like to focus on two exceptional women, whose names are tied to the fight for human rights: Malala Yousafzai and Shireen Abu Akleh. Malala was born in 1997 to a loving Pakistani family. Her father, a schoolteacher, made sure to give her an education and every opportunity a boy would have had access to. During her high school period, the Taliban movement took control over her village and tried more than once to close girls` schools and sent threatening letters to Malala’s father to force him to stop his voluntary activities in education. Also, Malala herself became a target for her speaking up in favour of girls’ education. Indeed, in 2012, the Talibans shot Malala in the head as an attempt to kill her. Little did they know that not only they did not stop Malala’s activism but that her full life of achievements had just begun. After receiving medical treatment in Britain, Malala continued to defend women’s rights to education, with the help of her father, she established the Malala Charity to help girls achieve their dreams. In 2014 she received The Nobel Peace Prize to become the youngest-ever Nobel laureate.
Malala’s story as an advocate for girls` rights was inspiring to many people as she said “I tell my story not because it is unique, but because it is the story of many girls.”
The Palestinian Shireen Abu Akleh was not an activist, but a journalist who told the world about the daily violations of Palestinian rights. Her continued and engaged storytelling caused her to be killed by the Israeli Occupation Forces while covering events in Jenin. She was killed by the occupying forces who said they did not see she was a reporter. Reporters are protected even in wars by international law, in other words, they cannot be a target, they are not liable to be killed. So, in the investigations following her death, the Israeli military said they missed the “press” sign on her. What is most horrific is that she was not only killed but also assaulted at her funeral. Worried by the fact that her coffin was in itself a symbol of resistance and that the last news that she conveyed to the world was about the violation of rights by the Israeli Occupation, IOF disrupted her funeral.
While Malala is an example of women whose rights have been violated and yet are ready to defend the rights of other women, Shireen was an example of a journalist committed to making public human rights violations in an attempt to reach out to the international community and other human rights defenders to end these abuses and deadly violence.
The issues advocated by human rights defenders differ, from indigenous rights to women’s rights and children’s rights, but in the end all HRDs carry a message and need to deliver it. Unfortunately, our world is unsafe for them. Thus, what can we do for them? The choice lies in front of us: we can either neglect their voice so that that voice disappears or make a serious step in helping people whose rights are violated, especially human rights defenders, whose rights are violated because they are trying to improve things, for us as well.
We can help human rights defenders by exposing violations against their rights, knowing them by their names not just as numbers, pursuing their cases and helping them find solutions for people in need, protecting them, and highlighting their issues. As Shireen once said, “it is not easy to change the reality, but at least I was able to deliver their voice [of Palestinian people] to the world”.
*Aster is the pseudonym of our author. At the moment, they are studying Human Rights in an American University.