By Joyce Chimbi
NAIROBI , Jul 18 2023 (IPS)
As human rights increasingly deteriorate, rights defenders are being violently suppressed. Abducted, detained, tortured, and humiliated, many now live one day at a time. They have been told, in no uncertain times, that anything could happen. They are now asking the global community to stand as a witness.
“Like Nelson Mandela was, hundreds of human rights defenders around the world are in prison for their human rights activities. Just like him, they are unjustly treated, fictitious charges levelled against them and handed the most serious sentences that are often used against criminals. One of our priorities is to work with human rights defenders to advocate for their release,” says David Kode from CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society with a presence in 188 countries around the world.
Inspired by the life story of the late iconic South African President Nelson Mandela, the Stand As My Witness Campaign was launched on Nelson Mandela Day in 2020 by CIVICUS, its members and partners.
In commemoration of the third anniversary of the Stand As My Witness campaign, CIVICUS and its partners, including human rights defenders, hosted a public event titled, ‘Celebrating Human Rights Defenders through Collaborative Advocacy Efforts’, to celebrate the brave contributions of human rights defenders and raise awareness about those who are still in detention.
“Over the last three years, we have profiled more than 25 human rights defenders collectively because some human rights defenders are profiled as individuals and others, such as those in Burundi, are profiled as a group because they were arrested as a group. More than 18 human rights defenders have been released over the last three years. As we celebrate, we must recognize that the journey has just started, it is quite long, and the battle is far from over,” Kode said.
The event brought together families and colleagues of detained human rights defenders, previously detained human rights defenders, representatives from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and other human rights mechanisms and civil society organisations.
Lysa John, the Secretary General of CIVICUS, spoke about how special Mandela Day is, for it is the one day of the year when the spirit of solidarity is celebrated in his memory. It is also a day to look back at what has been achieved and how much more could be achieved in solidarity.
She further addressed issues of civic space restrictions, closure of civic space and how these restrictions impact societies and individuals. John stressed that the event was held in the context of the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and the 75th anniversary of the UNDHR or Human Rights 75 to promote their objectives.
“One-third of the population of the world live in contexts which are closed. Where attacks on people who speak out or exercise their civic freedoms are attacked or arrested without any accountability. More and more people in the world, in fact, the largest section of the world, estimated at 44 percent live in countries where civic space and civic freedoms are restricted. In this regard, civic society is more than ever reinventing itself, and there is increased support for them,” she said.
Birgit Kainz from OHCHR spoke about the importance of bringing to life the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders for its adoption was a consensus that human dignity is at the core of everything.
She spoke about the need to be deliberate in the defence of civic space as it enables people to shape their future and that of their children. Kainz said that protection and security are two sides of the same coin and urged participants to network and connect to improve civic space and to also play a complementary role. Further emphasizing the need to maintain data, especially about who is in detention and where in line with SDGs.
Maximilienne Ngo Mbe spoke about the life and times of human rights defenders today. She is one of the most prolific human rights defenders in Africa and continues to receive a lot of restrictions for her fearless human rights activities that often have her fleeing from Cameroon to other countries for safety.
“We need a network for women rights defenders because of the special challenges they face as girls, wives, mothers and vulnerable people. Women are engaging less and less because of these challenges and the multiple roles they play in society,” she said.
The event was an opportunity for released human rights defenders such as Maria Esperanza Sanchez from Nicaragua to speak about resilience in the face of brutal regimes. She spoke about how armed men often came to her house to threaten and intimidate her. Of her arrest, humiliation and torture in 2020, being sentenced to 10 years in prison and her eventual release.
It was also an opportunity to speak on behalf of those who cannot. They include Khurram Parvez, a prolific human rights defender in India. At the time of his arrest for human rights activities, he was leading two critical organizations at the national and regional levels.
Parvez is being charged as a terrorist. His story aligns with that of Kenia Hernandez, a 32-year-old indigenous Amuzga woman, mother of two, lawyer and an advocate for human rights who is currently detained in a maximum-security prison in Mexico and has been sentenced to 21 years. Her story is illustrative of the high-risk female rights defenders and people from marginalized groups face.
Ruben Hasbun from Global Citizen spoke about how to effectively advocate for the release of human rights defenders, sharing lessons from Stand As My Witness campaigners. The event further opened up space to address the role of the private sector.
Christopher Davis from Body Shop, a brand that continues to be at the forefront of supporting human rights and rights defenders, fighting social and environmental injustice.
At the end of the session, participants were invited to sign a petition to have the United Arab Emirates immediately and unconditionally release all those detained solely for the exercise of their human rights and end all abuse and harassment of detained critics, human rights defenders, political opposition members, and their families.
IPS UN Bureau Report
IPS – UN Bureau, IPS UN Bureau Report, CIVICUS