Why is the law still ineffective in protecting human rights defenders?

2013 Linda Elhalabi 100x150Linda Elhalabi

In 2013, it is still extremely dangerous to be a human rights activist. This is nothing new to anyone following the news, however during my experience as an intern for the International Human Rights Training Program, I gained an informed understanding of the legal protections available to activists, or rather the lack thereof. I had the privilege of speaking to human rights activists from all over the world who have lived through horrifying events in their lives because of their determination to fight for other people’s rights. The IHRTP is a chance for human rights activists to learn new skills useful for their work, develop a project that takes into account their learning during the program that they then have to implement back home, and to network with other activists. Workshops, seminars, and plenary presentations with distinguished speakers are meant to help them learn about new resources available to them. As an intern, one of my tasks was to help speakers update and translate their presentations, take notes and then post relevant material online for participants to review and discuss. This is how I started thinking about how vulnerable human rights activists still are today.

There was a presentation on the resources that the UN, specifically the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, has made available to activists. It was a very interesting presentation where the speaker talked about the different protocols and special procedures put in place to tackle issues that range from torture to food security. The speaker also addressed the Universal Periodic Review, an inter-governmental mechanism that allows UN state parties to assess the human rights situation within all countries every 4 years. The speaker then introduced the OHCHR website and taught participants how to use it. It was clear from the presentation that the UN had many ways to involve civil society in promoting and defending human rights. Civil society organizations for instance can provide their input on the human rights situation of their country as stakeholders, and their reports will be taken into consideration during the UPR process. There are also many opportunities for NGOs and civil society actors to cooperate with UN agencies and programs, and to submit reports to the different commissions. However, it became clear that there are no effective mechanisms put in place by the UN to protect human rights defenders.

During the Q&A period, a participant asked an important question: “If my life is in danger because of my work as a human rights defender, how can the UN protect me?” The answer to this question was very unsatisfactory to everyone. The speaker mentioned the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, who is the UN person mandated to receive complaints from human rights defenders. What the Special Rapporteur can do is send “urgent appeals” to the government requesting it to stop abusing the rights of human rights defenders. This is the extent of the protection the Special Rapporteur can offer. In fact, there is an international treaty to address this issue, the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, but it is not a legally binding instrument, and it is still not ratified or implemented by all states. Although states are required to answer the letter of “urgent appeal” by the Special Rapporteur as soon as possible, they often take months to respond, which means that the human rights defender remains vulnerable until the government decides to acknowledge the “urgent appeal”.

Another issue that human rights defenders face today is the lack of security afforded to them online. There was a very enlightening presentation by a professional consultant that has helped many governments and civil society actors learn about how to use the internet to promote human rights. In some cases, she helped governments use digital technology to modernize their system and make it more efficient to better monitor human rights violations. In other cases, she helped activists evade governmental scrutiny by using safe online tools to help them communicate and organize their campaigns and events. It was clear from her presentation that in most states, including in the West, the legal framework surrounding emerging issues such as cyberbullying or “cyber mobs” is still very underdeveloped. This shortcoming in the legal system exposes human rights defenders to many dangers. In many cases, the state itself is responsible for threatening the security of human rights defenders online by collecting their information, monitoring their work and then using the information they found online to prosecute and persecute them.

One of the most memorable moments I experienced at the IHRTP was the ice-breaker the speaker organized at the start of her presentation. She had asked participants several questions, and asked them to go to one side of the room according to what their answer to the question was. First, she asked what online tools they used within their work. The vast majority of the participants moved to one side of the room to indicate that they extensively used many kinds of social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Gmail, and other tools. She then asked them if they were ever arrested or threatened to be arrested by authorities online. Most participants moved to one side of the room again, indicating that most of them had in fact  been arrested or were threatened by the police. They all moved to the same side of the room again when the speaker asked if they were ever threatened to be killed or tortured online. What surprised me then was how diverse the actors who threatened human rights activists were. Of course, the government was the main offender, and everyone moved to the same side of the room when she mentioned the state. But I was surprised to know how many human rights activists were threatened and bullied online and offline by corporations, religious groups, churches, community organizations, and the media.  This is when I started thinking about the importance of programs such as the IHRTP. Although such programs cannot magically help human rights defenders be more secure, many participants later told me that this experience was very comforting, because through the IHRTP they were able to find support from other participants, often meeting activists from their own country or region, or in some cases finding out that they are facing similar challenges as other participants who come from a completely different region. Most importantly, they were able to learn that they are not fighting their battles alone.

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