Posts Tagged ‘Open global rights’

The risky lives of Human Rights Defenders during the pandemic

July 15, 2021

Meredith Veit in Open Global Rights of 14 July 2021 wrote how limitations on fundamental freedoms have been purposely and disproportionately used against activists who have refused to put their work on pause, even when the rest of the world was locking down.

Human rights defenders march in Thailand after a peaceful protester was threatened by gunshots from a mine security officer in January 2021. Photo courtesy of Meredith Veit


“Risking your life for human rights during a pandemic” is part I of a three-part series on COVID-19 and human rights defenders.

Human rights defenders (HRDs) across the world have been exposed to a wide range of dangers and threats—from smear campaigns and harassment to arbitrary detentions, abductions, and assassinations. However, the outbreak of COVID-19 has worsened the conditions for a kind of work that is already extremely mentally, physically, and emotionally  arduous.

As outlined in Front Line Defenders’ most recent annual report, at least 331 human rights defenders were murdered in 2020 (an 8.8% increase compared to 2019). 

While certain restrictions have been necessary for containing the spread of a highly contagious virus, severe limitations on fundamental freedoms have been purposely and disproportionately used against activists who have refused to put their work on pause, even when the rest of the world was locked down.

At the onset of the pandemic, Protection International (PI) began conducting research via organisation-wide surveys to evaluate the impact of COVID-19 on the human rights defenders (HRDs) that we work with. PI works principally in 11 countries—Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Thailand and Indonesia. Our findings validate what many human rights practitioners had feared would happen: public health measures are being weaponized against HRDs; there has been a rise in both physical and digital threats and attacks; business interests continue to prevail over human rights; political prisoners continue to be detained and neglected amidst the emergency; and the right to defend human rights is gravely at risk. 

Just one month after lockdowns began, our staff reported that the public health crisis had swiftly exacerbated existing challenges–including heightened physical and digital surveillance, increased criminalization, illegal detentions, and arbitrary arrests. Rates of gender-based violence, including against women HRDs, skyrocketed, and the disproportionate burden of familial care on women rose. The needle on the risk-ammeter didn’t rise gradually; HRDs felt the shock almost instantaneously. 

First, we’ll discuss the most prominently worrying and overarching trend: government’s weaponizing COVID-19 restrictions against their own citizens.

During times of crisis, states lean heavily on law enforcement for the implementation of emergency measures, and due to misinterpretation of government mandates, or sometimes purposefully harsh directives, HRDs and journalists often face the brunt of their brute force. Nearly all PI teams reported that confinement measures have allowed for greater surveillance of defenders.

In Guatemala, for example, a staff member described an unusually persistent police presence outside of their home. In Colombia, our team reports that threats against defenders and their activities have increased, as the government excuses authorities who are acting out under the guise of necessity to control the spread of the virus. 

Towards the beginning of the pandemic, many states did not clearly delineate that press should be excluded from confinement orders. A year later, journalists and dissidents continue to be targeted, discredited, and censored through the veneer of spreading mis- or dis-information about the virus or the effectiveness of the government’s response. In Tanzania, for example, the late President John Magufuli did not acknowledge that COVID-19 was an issue of concern until February 2021 and two editors of independent newspapers said that “officials had informally told them not to publish material that the government would not like.”

Brazil has suffered a similar fate. President Bolsonaro has denied the legitimacy of the pandemic, and he “accus[ed] the press for the chaos that the country is experiencing to divert attention from his disastrous management of the health crisis,” explains Reporters Without Borders. Administrations who baselessly and sweepingly blame journalists and human rights defenders for the impacts of the pandemic are undoubtedly contributing to the rise in violence against them.

Latin America has historically been the region most riddled with killings of HRDs, and this pandemic year has been no exception. The case of Colombia is particularly disheartening, considering that it not only continues to be the most dangerous country in the world for HRDs, but also that the government’s response to the increase of violence and massacres during the pandemic has been to deploy “militarization” techniques. Strict confinement has limited HRDs’ access to protection networks, routes, and allies, especially those who have limited or no access to the internet. Armed actors have taken advantage of confinement measures to more easily locate and murder defenders. Somos Defensores reported a 61% increase in HRD assassinations during the first quarter of 2020 in comparison to the same period of 2019. According to the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (INDEPAZ), at least 308 HRDs and social leaders have been killed in Colombia since the initial lockdowns began on 25 March 2020, including 83 in 2021. Many Colombian HRDs have used temporary relocation programs to find refuge, but towards the beginning of the pandemic, many of these programs were suspended due to travel restrictions. Once emergency evacuations started to be coordinated again, Colombia was the top country for HRD displacements in 2020.

Protection International Colombia has been working principally with Indigenous communities in the Orinoquía region in the east of the country, which continues to be largely neglected by emergency response and relief efforts. Many Indigenous HRDs are left worrying about basic needs such as health and food supplies, forcing defenders to side-line activities related to protecting their land and the environment. Restrictions on mobility and a lack of connectivity have particularly impacted rural HRDs, especially women. “The already enormous burden of familial and household care that falls on women’s shoulders has increased dramatically. Furthermore, they are more exposed and left vulnerable to domestic violence, since, if there is a cell phone in the house, the man normally has it,” explains Aída Pesquera, PI Representative in Colombia. “All of this notably limits them in the exercise of their human rights work.”

Protection International has been working with local leaders to provide cell-phone data to ensure defenders are able to communicate with their protection networks, provide support to communities by facilitating their access to the internet, as well as carry on with their ancestral self-protection practices. “We support them to move to a place where they can safely connect, and we hold virtual workshops every week on protection,” says Pesquera, “We also provide didactic material that they can use autonomously between sessions.”

While Indigenous groups in Colombia and Brazil were hit hardest by the pandemic, they are not yet on the list of prioritized groups for receiving the vaccine even though roll-out has officially begun.

Woman from a rural area of Colombia stands near a mural (2019). Photo courtesy of author

Since we began collecting data, these issues have persisted or even worsened over time. While vaccine inoculation may be on the horizon for some, the reality is that many HRDs are not anywhere near the top of national priority lists for receiving it. We expect that HRDs will continue to work in confrontation with the obstacles listed above for the remainder of 2021, at least.

Human rights groups have been shouting this since March 2020, but we have not yet reached a point where we can stop repeating it: The pandemic cannot be used as a pretext to unjustifiably curtail fundamental rights and freedoms. Governments have no excuse for overtly obstructing the right to defend human rights. One year later, we continue to call on the international community to protect and uphold human rights, especially in times of crisis when they are most at risk of being undermined. Many of us have settled into our routines of the “new normal,” but normalizing these abuses is dangerous. We must continue to speak out. We urge governments around the world to ensure the safety of defenders and to guarantee their right to freedom of expression and their right to defend human rights, even within the context of restrictions that are necessary and proportional.

Meredith Veit is a writer, researcher, multimedia storyteller, and human rights advocate. Her topics of special interest include the right to defend human rights, freedom of the press, digital security, and technology.


https://www.openglobalrights.org/risking-your-life-for-human-rights-during-a-pandemic/

https://www.lutheranworld.org/news/protect-civic-space-post-pandemic-recovery

What can funders do for Human Rights Defenders during COVID-19?

September 29, 2020

 David Mattingly in Open Global Rights asks: “What Kind of Support Do Human Rights Defenders Need During COVID-19?“. The details are worth it:

 

…as governments grapple to provide relief, local organizations and activists are playing a critical role in responding to the pandemic. But they continue to face increased restrictions, threats, and attacks intended to curtail activism and stifle dissent—and they urgently need sufficient resources and political support from the international philanthropic community to continue their efforts.  The Fund for Global Human Rights initiated a COVID-19 impact survey to assess the challenges and opportunities that emerged for civil society over the first three months of the pandemic. Drawing on a deep global network of frontline activists and organizations from more than twenty countries, the Fund surveyed over 200 grantee human rights organizations in late April and early May to better understand how the pandemic has impacted their work. [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/07/23/us1-million-fund-to-support-100-ngos-hit-by-covid-19/]

The survey offers valuable insights into how the activism landscape has changed—and what kind of support is necessary to sustain human rights work through this period of global crisis and beyond. Despite the challenging circumstances, frontline activists are demonstrating remarkable resilience and pivoting to respond differently to community needs. 

Nearly half of the survey’s respondents reported that they were still able to engage in their core work areas, like advocating for LGBTQ equality or defending Indigenous peoples’ land and resource rights. And 40% of respondents said that they were able to continue some core activities while also taking on new areas of work such as monitoring government actions in response to the pandemic, documenting the impact of COVID-19 on their constituencies, or providing community education on health and safety. Remarkably, 11% of respondents said that they had engaged entirely with these new areas of work or activities, which  they had not previously carried out, in order to address the pandemic. A minimal number of respondents—only 3%—answered that they were unable to continue working, and none expected to shut down entirely. 

Despite this largely positive outlook, the picture is likely to change over time as groups learn of more lost funding, donors shift priorities, and the public health crisis deepens across new geographies. This change is already taking place as activists working with historically marginalized groups—including Indigenous peoples and religious, ethnic, and racial minorities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19—have seen firsthand.

Around the world, botched or wanting pandemic responses have highlighted deep cracks in global and domestic systems—from massive disruptions in the transnational food supply chain to marginalized workers being excluded from government assistance programs. Human rights activists have demonstrated their capacity to redirect their resources and balance short-term—and often life-or-death—priorities with their longer-term goals. Thanks to this capacity for adaptation and responsiveness, civil society is poised to meet this moment of reckoning. 

However, human rights defenders are working under tremendous pressure. The pandemic has generated new priorities and urgencies, even as the immense challenges of frontline activism have multiplied. 

From Hungary to Brazil, governments have taken advantage of lockdowns and emergency measures to close civic spaces, curb fundamental freedoms, and stifle opposition. And in an effort to consolidate power, authoritarian or populist leaders are abusing prudent health and safety restrictions to specifically target human rights defenders. Nearly half of survey respondents reported that they had already been targeted by restrictions, curfews, or containment measures.

In Honduras, several prominent activists were arrested on trumped-up charges related to the pandemic, many of whom were attacked or jailed without access to legal recourse. Over 50% of survey respondents reported challenges to the normal functioning of protection mechanisms for human rights defenders.

In addition to these mounting dangers, survey respondents reported that infrastructure issues—including lost funding (37 respondents), sick staff (10 respondents), and reduced staff due to budget cuts (25 respondents)—were impacting their work. A quarter of respondents reported that technical difficulties, such as the lack of reliable internet or access to banks, pose a major challenge. Others mentioned dealing with impacts to their personal well-being, looking after sick family, or lacking access to critical supplies as paramount difficulties—an important reminder that human rights defenders are vulnerable to the same systemic inequalities they fight to overcome.

The imperative for human rights groups to demonstrate their relevance by addressing their community’s needs is made crystal clear by the impacts of the pandemic, which cut across areas of economic and social rights, health rights, migrants’ rights, and beyond. As they fill gaps in governments’ pandemic responses and fight for those most vulnerable to receive the resources and attention they need, frontline groups have the opportunity to continue expanding their grassroots constituencies by demonstrating their value to more people.

In recent years, the international human rights movement has been in a process of rethinking its role and strategies, and the pandemic is accelerating this reflection. This kind of crisis—and the myriad effects reported by survey respondents—begs funders to consider how they balance being nimble, adaptive, and reactive to emergencies such as COVID-19 with the values and strategy of long-term support and movement building.

These examples and data demonstrate the importance but also the effectiveness of partnering with frontline groups that are rooted in their communities and well-positioned to continue their critical, long-term work even as they adapt to shifting priorities. As funders, we must trust our frontline partners to assess their communities’ greatest needs and offer the flexibility to pivot amid a crisis. This means flexible funding, of course, but it also entails support for holistic security and wellness, and emergency funds and political support for activists that are targeted.

As different groups learn to navigate this new operating environment, it is critical that funders make space for cross-regional and intersectional exchanges, following the lead and priority of frontline activists, to compare  strategies, share learning, and foster solidarity.

More than 70% of survey respondents said they had explored or considered engaging with other groups working on similar issues and were interested in connecting with their peers. But with nearly a quarter indicating they have unreliable internet, funders must play a greater role in providing tech support and the means to collaborate. 

The Fund’s COVID-19 impact survey set out to answer the same question activists ask every day: what does our community need? The answers were a heartening reaffirmation of the resilience of civil society, as well as a pertinent reminder that, in times of crisis, our support must meet the demands of the moment.  

The pandemic is accelerating the need for adaptation and, as funders, we should take our cue from how local rights groups are nimbly pivoting to address both immediate and longer-term needs. As grassroots activists and advocates overcome mounting adversities to offer life-changing support in a historic moment of global turmoil, funders must learn, adapt, and evolve alongside them.

https://www.openglobalrights.org/what-kind-of-support-do-human-rights-activists-need-during-covid-19/

Messages of positive behavior instead of accounts of abuse could have better long term impact

September 16, 2019

Brain research suggests emphasizing human rights abuses may perpetuate them

Laura Ligouri in Open Global Rights of 18 June 2019 writes about an aspect of campaiging that few human rights defenders and NGOs will be familiar with: “Capitalizing on the brain’s capacity to simulate events, messages of positive behavior – instead of repeated exposure to accounts of abuse – could better lead to the changes we wish to see in the world“. Laura Ligouri is the founder and director of Mindbridge, a not-for-profit organization connecting psychological and neurobiological insight to non-profit and government-sponsored humanitarian efforts. Here the piece in full:

Throughout the last few decades, much human rights work has necessarily sought to bring human rights abuses to light. But focusing only on abusive behaviour—without paying attention to its opposite—comes with a cost.

According to psychological and neurobiological research, repeated exposure to accounts of human rights abuses may inadvertently prime individuals to engage in the very acts we hope to eliminate; for example, repeated negative actions by some in a particular group come to be seen as normal behaviour for the group as a whole. As a result, activists must strike a balance between exposing abuses and demonstrating positive human rights-oriented behavior. By capitalizing on the brain’s capacity to mentalize and simulate events, messages of positive behavior could lead to the changes we wish to see in the world.

Some of the darkest moments in human history have their roots in the dehumanization of groups and people. If human rights activists can see what lies behind these trends, they can work to tackle the root causes and not just the symptoms of dehumanization. Research shows that many processes involved in dehumanization aren’t necessarily grounded in a lack of empathy for the victimized group. Instead, they are based in neurobiological mechanisms oriented around maintaining one’s own group at all costs. In fact, failures to promote positive, pro-social behavior might not rest in our ability to empathize with the “Other” but in the degree to which we identify and align with our own group.

Extreme human rights abuses often have their roots in powerful neurobiological mechanisms that lead humans to mirror or simulate what they see others in their group doing. Very recent research  shows how repeated exposure to hate speech, such as repeatedly reading it on local media, could prime your brain to engage in hateful speech or even hateful actions.

For human rights defenders, this can become dangerous: every time an organization, news source or media outlet emphasizes and repeatedly highlights a form of human rights abuse, even to condemn it, we are simultaneously engaging a very specific component of the social brain that emphasises compliance with the norms of our own group. Over time, the social brain will justify these acts and will find ways to divest our group of responsibility.

Moreover, a landmark study in 2012 showed that feeling connected to a group not only creates disconnection from more distant “others”, but could directly lead to dehumanization of those communities. The experiments indicated that the more people feel socially connected to closely-knit groups, the less likely they are to attribute human mental states to distant others. They are also more likely to recommend harsh treatment for those distant others.

But is empathy the whole story? A great multitude of non-profit organizations worldwide have worked tirelessly to increase empathy between groups, albeit largely by raising awareness about the suffering of marginalized groups or asking people to walk in other people’s shoes. Yet failures to empathize with others happens all the time.

Research has shown that when presented with images of people in pain, activation of the parts of the brain where empathy resides was significantly less for strangers than for loved ones or people of the same race. Other tests show that it is easier to promote aggressive behavior in interactions between groups than between individuals. When social relations shift from “me versus you” to “us versus them”, human interactions tend to become substantially more aggressive.

For example, in one experiment researchers examined whether acting as a member of a competitive group, versus acting alone, would ultimately lead to increases in one’s willingness to harm competitors. Using functional magnetic resonant imaging, or fMRI, participants were asked to perform a competitive task, once alone and once within a group. These same participants were later asked to engage in an activity where they had an option to harm competitors from another group. Results showed reduced brain activation related to empathy and moral decision-making among participants acting within the group, compared to participants acting alone. This reduced activation was later linked to their willingness to harm a person in another group.

The warning for human rights activists is that suspending our sense of individualized morality in favor of group-based norms is among a series of influential factors leading to dehumanization. But how do we reverse concepts of dehumanization once they have already occurred? And if these processes are deeply embedded within unconscious, psychological and neurobiological mechanisms that have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, is it even possible to defuse and/or rewire them?

The answer is: we don’t have to. What would happen if we used our brain’s ability to mentally simulate an event where, instead of picturing or simulating hurting an individual, we imagined helping them? Researchers examined whether the same mechanisms that underlie processes related to empathy might also work to support the way in which our brain envisions the world, called episodic simulation. Their results showed that not only did the act of imagining helping increase participants’ actual intentions to help others, but also that the more vividly people could imagine a scenario, the more likely they were to help another.

These results have been replicated within the Mindbridge Implicit Bias Project, a series of trainings that capitalizes on the brain’s neuroplasticity in order change an individual’s relationship to bias and discrimination towards social groups over time.

Other research showed concretely the way in which positive episodic simulation coupled with capitalizing on the social brain can result in re-humanization of another group. Held in Israel, the researchers through a series of experiments asked Israeli-Jews to read about members of their group helping Palestinians. They found that Israeli-Jews who became aware about their group helping Palestinians showed greater humanization towards Palestinians.

The challenge for the human rights movement is to counter dehumanization that is seeded by group influence and images of human rights abuses with something different. By modelling the sort of behavior we want to see—kindness, caring and empathy—we can begin to re-humanize vulnerable groups.

If inhumanity can be learned, so can greater humanity. Understanding the brain may help us do just that.

https://www.openglobalrights.org/brain-research-suggests-emphasizing-human-rights-abuses-may-perpetuate-them/

 

 

 

Positive communication is the (only) way forward for effective human rights work!

May 30, 2019

For a human rights movement dedicated to exposing abuses, positive communication does not come naturally. But to make the case for human rights, we need to promise a brighter future” says Thomas Coombes – head of brand and deputy director of communications at Amnesty International – in a piece in Open Global Rights of 19 February 2019. I have perhaps also contributed to the gloom with many posts about the decline of the international guman rights regime [with some more constructive posts e.g. https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/12/26/barbara-von-ow-freytag-argues-well-for-a-new-communication-based-approach/ ]. I think rightly Thomas argues: “to break this cycle and sell hope to the media, we need two things: challenging ideas and surprising stories“. Please read the full (short) piece:

For a human rights movement dedicated to exposing abuses, positive communication does not come naturally. We in the human rights community are driven by a desire to make known the suffering and injustice we see in the world, yet what people need from us is not information about what is going wrong, but hope and a means of making it better.

To make the case for human rights, we need to promise a brighter future. At Amnesty International we have a saying: better to light a candle than curse the darkness. But in the human rights movement, we spend a lot more time cursing the darkness. We want to expose terrible suffering so that people are shocked into action. But when we only show the abuses, people start to believe that we live in a world of crisis with no alternative. They accept that reality, give up, or turn to people who preach division, fear and a false sense of safety.

While the human rights movement will always have to expose abuses, we also need to give people a chance to unite behind a cause, challenge governments to live by their values and build support for our way of seeing the world. Hope-based communication is simply a smart strategy for shifting public opinion not by saying what is popular, but by making popular what needs to be said.

Hope-Based Communication is about illustrating what we want to see, not just what other people are doing. Because the human mind adapts easily to bad news, every dose of shock that we administer to the global conscience inoculates people. Without a tangible, believable alternative vision of how things should be, we risk reinforcing current rights abuses as a regrettable but inevitable reality.

Constant stories of crisis create an alarming picture of the world in our minds. When news is all about negative, sensational and exceptional events, it skews our view of other people, cultivates distrust and blinds us to important but unsurprising developments, as Rob Wijnberg, has argued in his manifesto for constructive news outlet The Correspondent. To break this cycle and sell hope to the media, we need two things: challenging ideas and surprising stories.

The environmental movement has already made that first step from dire warnings to big ideas that convince people that another world is possible. For example, in This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein writes about how promises of a bright green future offered a way forward: “What this part of the world has clearly shown is that there is no more potent weapon in the battle against fossil fuels than the creation of real alternatives.

The human rights movement must now do the same thing, and new research offers us a way to completely reframe the way we talk about human rights. For example, Amnesty International Australia now says “Bring them here” of refugees, rather than asking the government to stop treating them like criminals. Anat Shenker-Osorio’s linguistic analysis of how advocates in Australia, the UK and USA make the case for human rights shows that we talk about human rights as an object that is given to individuals, rather than a tool for people to improve their communities and live together. It encourages us to be more specific about power relations and use the language of journeys instead of war.

We want to take society on a journey to a better place, but when we lean heavily on the language of conflict: we fight, recruit, mobilise, resist, defend, protect and counter. We build coalitions. We wage campaigns. We seek to win battles. We ask people to take sides. This language is divisive—it won’t power a constructive, unifying movement. Instead, we need to talk about building, growing and sticking together.

Research from the Common Cause Foundation shows that altruism is as great a motivator to good causes as self-interest, if not more. Successful movements are propelled forward by enthusiasm and passion. While Donald Trump united his base with the simple red baseball cap, ordinary people demanding women’s rights queued for hours to buy “Together for Yes” buttons in Ireland and thronged the streets wearing green scarves in Argentina.

More and more research points to the fact that fear and pessimism triggers conservative and suspicious views, while, hope and optimism tend to more liberal views. Joyful, inspiring content like Planned Parenthood’s Unstoppable campaign serves not just to inspire, it creates political momentum. Anger mobilizes, hope organizes.

New approaches to stories about people seeking refuge highlight not what they flee but what they create in their new home, how the act of welcome transforms the host, or the power of friendships that face adversity and politics.

The stories we tell become our reality, so we need stories of humanity and compassion, reinforcing the idea that human rights are about people standing up for each other

How do we talk about hope and opportunity when human rights defenders are under attack and we need to defend ourselves, to fight back? How can we be positive when it is our duty to document despair?

Human rights defenders have “long been on the front line”, as Kathryn Sikkink argues in Dejusticia’s Playbook for Human Rights Actors. She warns that the frame of crisis and peril inadvertently harms perceptions of the movement’s effectiveness and legitimacy.

The most urgent challenge is to rebrand what it means to do human rights. The space that we most need to create for civil society is a conscious space apart from today’s struggles in which we allow ourselves to envisage bold possibilities of a better world. Human rights should take pride in being the “slow change” movement, that brings about generational attitudinal and societal progress, offering the path out of the darkest times.


Check out this virtual guide for how you can make a shift towards hope based communications in your human rights work.


There is still a place for anger and sadness, if we balance them with a sense of how we make things better. For no matter how dark the story, there is always some glimmer of hope. And it is our job to kindle that flame. The darker the crisis, the more people exhausted by fear and anger will turn to extreme options. So, we have to give people what every human needs: hope. After all, you light a candle when it gets dark. Hope, like a candle, shines brightest in the dark.

the-future-of-human-rights-must-be-hopeful/

Plea to see labour rights defenders as human rights defenders

May 21, 2019

Appropriately on  Labour Day, 1 May 2019, Ana Zbona and Sanyu Awori (at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre). wrote in Open Global Rights “When space closes for labour rights defenders, the situation is far worse for those at the margins. Labour rights are human rights and must be protected“.

Photo: SolidarityCentre/Flickr


…..Several recent examples of human rights movements that have been led and supported by labour rights groups include: coalitions to rebuild democracy in Honduras after a coup; the mobilizing of workers in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain during the Arab uprisings; and the pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe, led by the country’s labour federation…

Distinctions are often made between labour rights defenders and human rights defenders, but as former UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assembly and Association Maina Kiai expressed: these distinctions are artificial. Labour rights are human rights, and any person or organisation defending them is a human rights defender.. As Sharan Burrow, the Secretary General of the ITUC, put it: “Workers and their unions are the defenders of rights and freedoms.” We must be vigilant to any distinctions that try to separate our struggles”.

Labour rights defenders regularly experience violence and restrictions on their rights in various ways, including clamp downs on unions where governments and employers obstruct them from functioning freely and independently, laws that limit collective bargaining, and dismissals. In the past year, the International Trade Union Confederation reported an increase in violence, especially to prevent unionizing, and the safety of trade union leaders remains precarious. In Colombia, 19 trade unionists were killed in 2017; in Cambodia, trade union leaders are criminalized; and in Zimbabwe trade union leaders are regularly harassed by government authorities. With respect to laws that limit labour rights, 81% of countries deny some or all workers the right to collective bargaining and 65% of countries exclude some groups of workers from labour law, such as domestic, agricultural and contract workers, up 5% from 2017. Peaceful protests by workers are often met with heavy handed policy or army responses. In addition, the most common reprisal workers face for speaking up about violations are dismissals, a tactic used by employers to stifle civic action. As one example, over 12,000 garment factory workers in Bangladesh were fired for their protests in December 2018 and January 2019 over wages.

The Business & Human Rights Resource documents attacks against defenders working on corporate accountability, and our database shows that agriculture, food and beverage, and apparel are the most dangerous sectors for labour rights defenders. The most common forms of violence against individual union leaders and workers are arbitrary detentions and lawsuits, followed by intimidation and threats, and killings.

A particularly concerning trend is the use of defamation lawsuits to silence labour rights defenders. As one example, since 2016, Thammakaset Company Limited, a Thai-owned poultry company, filed more than 13 civil and criminal lawsuits against former workers who denounced labour rights violations, as well as against the activists and journalists supporting them. Governments and companies, including international brands, need to ensure such judicial attacks do not happen. As Sutharee Wanasiri, a labour rights defender from Thailand, and one of the people sued by Thammakaset, said: “It is also the responsibility of international brands that buy from Thailand to make sure the companies they are sourcing from are not engaged in judicial harassment that creates a chilling effect on whistle blowers and other defenders. They should establish mechanisms that allow workers and defenders to communicate with the brands directly and ensure that they are protected from any retaliation from suppliers during the investigation. The results should be made public and bring accountability for the abuses.

With long and fragmented supply chains, it is particularly important to ensure that we hear workers’ voices, especially those of the most marginalized at the bottom of economic hierarchies, and guarantee dignified and decent work. This includes people working in the informal economy. Workers and civil society organizations are currently focusing on redefining legal employment terms, and reconsidering union strategy in light of changing labour relations, especially in the gig economy, in which non-conventional workers are not afforded adequate legal protection—either because they do not fall within the definition of a “regular employee” under national laws, or because of gaps in legislation when it comes to regulating new forms of employment. The lack of an applicable legal protection and collectively agreed terms of employment hinders the ability to exercise work-related rights, including the right to organise and collectively bargain.

……..

Labour rights defenders should be seen as critical allies in building equitable and sustainable societies. Several businesses are also beginning to recognise that the protection of human rights defenders and the ability for them to do their work is in their interest, and that an attack on defenders is an attack on responsible business. This is encouraging, as now more than ever we need to be brokering connections and building solidarities across movements and sectors to counter threats to the shared space we all depend upon.

https://www.openglobalrights.org/rising-restrictions-on-labour-rights-threaten-the-heart-of-social-justice/

Human Rights in crisis? – here the last word (before the summer!)

August 1, 2018

This blog (among many other sources) has dedicated quite a few posts to the mood of crisis that has engulfed the human rights movement, especially at international level. The international human rights regime as we have known it for the last decades is indeed under pressure, from autocratic regimes, from populist leaders and – let us be honest – from quite a few ‘normal’ people. Below you find a small selection earlier blog posts on this theme of crisis. On  30 May 2018 the MEA organized in Geneva a public event “Human Rights in a Changing World”. At this 25th Anniversary event, the leaders of the 10 international NGOs on the MEA Jury and several laureates had wide ranging discussions both in private and in public. The MEA has now produced a summary for public consumption which I have published separately earlier this day [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/08/01/report-of-meas-25thanniversary-event-human-rights-in-a-changing-world-30-may-2018/ ]

July 31 July 2018, Kathryn Sikkink published an interesting piece that has some elements in common with findings of the MEA event referred to above. The title is: “Rethinking the notion of a human rights crisis”, with as summary that “The frame of constant crisis has negative implications for human rights, especially when questions of legitimacy arise. But hope—based on empirical evidence of human rights progress—should give advocates the motivation to keep working.

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

There is an epidemic of pessimism surrounding human rights today. To name but a few examples, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has suggested that there has never been so much suffering since World War II, University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner has claimed that there have been no marked decreases in human rights violations in the same time period, and international relations scholar Stephen Hopgood has argued that we are witnessing the “end times of human rights.”

Such a pessimistic mindset is understandable because of the worrisome situations that human rights activists face every day. The idea of peril and crisis, however, points not only to the present moment but also implies some knowledge about trends and change over time; it suggests that human rights were not challenged before, and that the situation is now worse.

I recognize that many alarming human rights situations exist in the world today, and I am particularly worried about the current situation in the United States, but I am not persuaded that the state of human rights globally is now worse than it has been before. Instead, let us consider how the frame of constant crisis itself could have negative consequences for human rights.

My recent book, Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century, proposes that pessimistic claims need to be submitted to rigorous examination, both historical and statistical. This debate matters because of the inadvertent effects the frame of crisis and peril may have on perceptions about the effectiveness and legitimacy of human rights activism.

Historically, human rights progress has occurred as a result of struggle, and has often been spearheaded by oppressed groups. Where it has occurred, human rights progress has not been at all inevitable, but rather contingent on continued commitment and effort. Some activists and scholars fear that if they admit there has been progress, people will grow complacent and disengaged.

A recent survey of 346 individuals currently or previously working in the field of human rights found that this work is associated with elevated levels of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. One source of this appears to be negative self-appraisals about human rights work. These findings suggest that one of the most difficult parts of being a human rights activist is the doubt about whether you are contributing to positive change. A frame of excessive crisis thus may not only contribute to the impression that the human rights movement has historically been ineffective, but it could also diminish the motivation and well-being of activists.

By their very definition, human rights are needed when things are bad. I worked at a small human rights organization, the Washington Office for Latin America (WOLA) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a time that is now seen by some as the golden age of human rights activism. Yet we never felt like human rights goals were easily within our reach. How could we, when the Argentine government was disappearing thousands of its citizens; the Salvador government, with the heavy support of the US government, was massacring people; and the world had ignored the recent genocide in Cambodia?

Some of the current pessimism also suggests that human rights activists were popular at some point in the past and are now denigrated. But human rights activists have never been popular in the countries where they work. Repressive governments have a long history of attacking and vilifying human rights groups, through smear campaigns and other repressive tactics. Human rights organizations often defend the rights of unpopular minorities such as political leftists in Latin America, the Roma in Europe, and transgender people in the US.

The fact that the fight for human rights has always faced significant opposition should not discourage us. The longer history of human rights offers a positive message that can help sustain us in the context of our current struggles. In Evidence for Hope, I explore what changes have taken place over time, using the best data I can find on what many of us would agree to be good measures of diverse human rights.

Looking at this data carefully, issue by issue, we see that some situations are worsening—such as the absolute number of refugees displaced by war or economic inequality within many countries. Nevertheless, there are many more positive trends, including a decline in genocide and politicide, a shrinking number of people killed in war, decreasing use of the death penalty, and improvements in poverty, infant mortality, and life expectancy, as well as advances in gender equality, the rights of sexual minorities, and the rights of people with disabilities.

So why is it that so many people believe human rights violations in the world are getting worse rather than better? The short answer is that we think the world is worse off because we care more and know more about human rights than ever before. The media and human rights organizations have drawn our attention to an increasingly wide range of rights violations around the world. Their success in doing so sometimes inadvertently causes people to think that no human rights progress is occurring. Discouraging results are also generated because we compare our current situation not to the past but to an imagined ideal world, and thus we always fall short.

My point here is not to suggest that the situation for human rights defenders is improving in the world. I mainly want to remind readers that human rights defenders have long been on the front line, and we should be cautious in suggesting that there was a better period for human rights in the second half of the twentieth century that has now been eroded in the twenty-first century. Some of the threats—particularly those involving invasive laws about registration and funding—are indeed new and threatening, while other challenges have been almost a constant for civil society human rights organizations over time.

Nothing about how new or old these challenges are or about any trends in fundamental human rights detracts from acknowledging the frightening challenges groups and individuals face, nor do they negate the urgent need to strategize about how to respond to these challenges. Yet, what I hope is that some information about historical trends, as well as a more focused look at data, may be useful as part of an action-oriented discussion of promising tactics and how to address these challenges.

The stakes in this human rights debate are high. Anger, hope, and the knowledge that you can make a difference in the world give people the energy to keep working. Knowing more specifically how human rights groups have made a difference can teach us more about effective strategies and tactics to use in the future.

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Another one bites the dust…the future of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

February 13, 2018

David Petrasek, Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, wrote on 8 February 2018 an interesting piece under the title: “Another one bites the dust—what future for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights?” (Openglobalrights.org) and wondered whether the early departure—yet again—of a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights doesn’t suggests it’s time to re-think the office’s priorities and strengthen its mandate (rather than more activism).

After the announcement in December 2017 by Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein of Jordan that he would not seek a second term as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, I wrote that “while most high level United Nations officials serve as long as their mandate allows, no single Human Rights Commissioner has served a full four-year second term” [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/12/22/bound-to-happen-but-still-high-commissioner-zeid-announces-he-will-not-seek-second-term/].

The piece is worth reading and poses well the difficult dilemma:

Petrasek states: Zeid’s untimely departure therefore begs the question—is the job do-able? In fulfilling the mandate, must the UN’s top human rights official so annoy governments that they cut short her or his tenure? Is that a price worth paying? It would certainly strengthen the High Commissioner’s position if they were given a single six or seven-year term, getting out from under the Damoclean sword of renewal at four years.

Zeid has been a prominent and eloquent spokesperson in defense of human rights,..Clearly, this won him few friends among powerful countries, the US included. But it’s less clear that his outspokenness made much difference. It’s worth asking: should the High Commissioner prioritize speaking out even if the cost of doing so is to lose the political support necessary to fulfil her or his full mandate? The High Commissioner is not only the UN’s human rights conscience. She or he is also tasked with co-ordinating the UN’s myriad human rights activities, pursuing an active—and perhaps less public—human rights diplomacy, and leading efforts to reform often overlapping, outdated and cumbersome UN procedures.

The idea for a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was put forward by civil society in the lead up to the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1993. Many functions were suggested for inclusion in the High Commissioner’s mandate, but the non-negotiable core demand was simple—the High Commissioner must have an overarching duty to promote and protect human rights anywhere.The High Commissioner was, therefore, a giant leap forward—personified in the post was the UN’s general human rights mandate, grounded in the UN Charter. She or he was now able to act whenever and wherever rights were at risk.

This general protection mandate has produced real results: High Commissioners have put neglected crises on the global agenda; there’s been a much-needed shift to the field of human rights staff, and the High Commissioner has amplified the voices of local human rights defenders.

Yet, today the High Commissioner’s voice is often only one amongst many. There are almost 60 independent human rights monitors (“Special Rapporteurs”) .. in 1993, there were barely a dozen. Similarly, today UN human rights inquiries are investigating crimes against humanity and war crimes in five countries, and eight investigations have concluded in the past decade. The Council regularly meets in emergency session, there is an International Criminal Court, and the UN Security Council often (if inconsistently) includes human rights concerns in its resolutions, a rare occurrence in 1993. The Security Council has also authorized the deployment of over 1,000 human rights staff to UN peacekeeping missions. They too issue reports and statements of concern, as increasingly does the UN Secretary-General.

In short, the gap identified in 1993 has narrowed considerably, at least as concerns the UN pointing a finger at human rights abusers.

But other gaps remain and widen. The growth in UN human rights mechanisms has not been accompanied by an obvious growth in their efficiency or effectiveness. Indeed, multiple and overlapping procedures are weighing down what should be a nimble and responsive system. Further, although at least since the late 1990s High Commissioners have prioritized putting staff in the field, more than half remain in Geneva and New York; in contrast, the UN Refugee Agency has 87% of its staff in the field. This imbalance seriously undermines the Office’s ability to pursue an effective human rights diplomacy. And the relative weakness and underfunding of the High Commissioner’s Office means it is hard-pressed to co-ordinate UN system-wide approaches. It has been over a decade since it has proposed any significant reforms.

The conclusion might seem obvious—the High Commissioner should spend less time speaking out and more time strengthening and reforming both his Office and the UN human rights system. A less public profile, in this view, might produce less resistance to much-needed reform—diplomacy succeeding where activism fails.

Flickr/UN Geneva (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0-Some Rights Reserved)


Of course, it’s not that simple. Many states are reluctant to see the UN’s human rights efforts strengthened, regardless of what the High Commissioner is saying or not. And though a more ‘diplomatic’ approach might suit some states, it will at the same time alarm civil society and activists who look to the High Commissioner for leadership. Even if states might ignore denunciations from Geneva or New York, an activist High Commissioner undoubtedly gives comfort and support to beleaguered human rights defenders.

There are no easy answers to the question posed. Perhaps it’s simply unfortunate but necessary that the High Commissioner’s mandate is a poisoned chalice—do the job well, and you’re unlikely to be re-appointed. However, given the many changes since 1993, it is worth reflecting more deeply on how this mandate might be credibly pursued so that High Commissioners depart when the job is done, not when states determine their time is up.

A single, lengthier term is one proposal, but others might be considered, including better co-ordination between the High Commissioner and the Council’s independent experts to leverage more diplomatic space. The current High Commissioner will depart in August and the key players are already politicking to appoint a successor. If she or he is not to meet a familiar fate, then now is the time to re-think priorities and strengthen the mandate.

 

(David Petrasek was formerly Senior Policy Director and Special Adviser to the Secretary-General of Amnesty International. David has worked on human rights and conflict resolution issues with the UN, foundations and NGOs for over 25 years.)

https://www.openglobalrights.org/another-one-bites-the-dust-what-future-for-the-un-high-commissioner-for-human-rights/?lang=English