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It’s not easy to fight the good fight. Human rights defenders often struggle in the face of threats to their life, and sometimes, end up paying with them. Here’s a list of 5 human rights defenders that you must know about.
Today, the world stands witness to eventful times. From student protests in Hong Kong earlier this year, to anti-racism protests happening right now on the streets of America and other parts of the world, the common man has learnt to stand up for his rights, even if it is in baby steps. Closer home, too, a lot of us have mustered the courage to openly discuss, write, and if need be, descend on to the streets to demand our rights.
This awareness of our rights – to live and express our full humanity – would not have been possible without the contributions of brave women and men who question injustice all over the world. In their own ways –be it non-violent civil disobedience, or activism through poetry, music, and other art forms – these individuals have inspired countless others to recognise and claim their rights.
This ability – to inspire multitudes – that threatens unjust governments, oppressors, and the forces against humanity, comes at a cost. Increasingly, defenders of human rights have had to pay with their lives. Imagine having such a powerful voice that the only way to silence you is to eliminate you, once and for all.
Imagine having such a powerful voice that the only way to silence you is to eliminate you, once and for all.
On Human Rights Day, here are some of the human rights defenders the world lost to unjust and oppressive forces. These are the names our short public memory will forget, but whose work enabled the powerless. These are the names that mainstream media will carry in a blurb, overshadowed by half-page luxury ads. These are the names we often don’t know about, but must.
On June 25th, 2014, Human Rights lawyer Salwa Bugaighis was shot to death by gunmen, in her own house. She had just returned from voting in the Parliamentary elections. Salwa was a courageous, bright woman who was at the forefront of the uprising against Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, fighting for a democratic society.
After the fall of the Qaddafi regime, Libya saw tremendous conflict from several groups. Salwa was a founding member and adviser to Libya’s National Transitional Council, which governed the country during and after the uprising. She worked tirelessly towards bringing peace among conflicting groups. She was forced to spend a lot of her time abroad, owing to threats to her life from angry militias. When she returned to Benghazi to vote, she was killed.
Bughaighis was perhaps the most charismatic leader in the women’s movement in Libya, campaigning for minimum quotas for women in Parliament and opposing the imposition of the hijab as compulsory attire, whch brought her in direct conflict with Islamist extremists. She was also a mentor to other activists, particularly the young ones.
A Libyan friend of Bugaighis told The New Yorker, “I am shocked beyond words. Sometimes I think that we just f**ked up by removing Qaddafi—that I would rather live under a dictator and not worry about the safety of my family.”
Last week, the body of José Isidro Tendetza Antún, the leader of Ecuador’s second largest indigenous group (the Shuar), was found in an unmarked grave by his son. Tendetza had been missing since November 28th, when he was last seen on his way to a meeting of protesters against the Mirador copper and gold mine. He had been an open critic of Mirador, an approved open cast pit which had threatened the home of the Shuar, as well as 450000 acres of forest.
Several other Shuar opponents of Mirador have died as a result of the conflict between indigenous groups and mining corporations covertly backed by authorities, in recent years, including Bosco Wisum in 2009 and Freddy Taish in 2013, according to Amazon Watch.
According to a report in the Observatory, between 2011 and 2014, 43 murders were reported against land rights defenders worldwide. Disturbingly enough, the killings of people protecting land and environment rights are only increasing.
In May 2014, well-known advocate and the regional co-ordinator of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Rashid Rehman was shot dead in his office by two gunmen posing as potential clients. Mr. Rehman was known to fearlessly represent cases that carried extreme risk – like that of Junaid Hafeez, a Fulbright scholar and lecturer who had been accused of defaming the prophet Mohammed on social media last year.
Mr. Rehman had come forward to represent Hafeez when no one else had. At the first hearing, he had been threatened. As per a statement issued by the HRCP :“During the hearing, the lawyers of the complainant told Rehman that he wouldn’t be present at the next hearing, as he would not be alive.”
A leading lawyer and Human Rights activist, Samira had been captured by ISIS militants and tortured for five days before being publicly executed in September 2014. The terror group claimed that she had abandoned Islam, after she had allegedly criticised the group’s destruction of places of worship and ancient features in the city of Mosul.
Samira Saleh Al-Naimi was famous for her activities that included defending detainees and supporting the disadvantaged families in the city.
In February, 2014, Daniel Dorsainvil and his wife Girldy Larêche were murdered on a street in Port-au-Prince, sending shock waves throughout Haiti. Dorsanvil was the General Coordinator of the Platform for Haitian Organizations for the Defense of Human Rights (known by the French acronym “POHDH”), an association of eight non-profit Haitian rights institutions that have been publicly critical of Haiti’s “judicial-political scandals,” “human rights abuses” and “deteriorating social and economic conditions”.
The murder, believed to be a political assassination, is a sign of worsening times in Haiti – with many lawyers and activists being threatened for standing up to a corrupt, unjust government.
Closer home, anti-superstition and anti-caste activist Narendra Dabholkar was shot dead last year in Pune.
These names are joined by countless others, most of whose deaths (killings?) go unreported or inefficiently investigated, leaving their families and causes struggling with a void. In a world that perhaps has more injustice than defenders of rights, one cannot even begin to imagine the sheer courage and passion it takes for activists to continue fighting the good fight.
It, thus, becomes imperative, that we contribute – even in the smallest of ways – to the causes that matter. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because we’ve had inspiring individuals –perhaps with the same human scope and limitations as we do- lead the way for us.