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For a World Citizen Approach to Protecting Human Rights Defenders

In Africa, Asia, Being a World Citizen, Democracy, Europe, Human Rights, International Justice, Latin America, Middle East & North Africa, NGOs, Refugees, Solidarity, The Search for Peace, United Nations, World Law on January 19, 2021 at 6:28 PM

By Bernard J. Henry

What are, if any, the lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 crisis? As far as we, World Citizens, are concerned, the most important one is undoubtedly this: As we have been saying since the early days of our movement, global problems require global solutions.

Beyond the appearance of a mere self-serving statement, this traditional World Citizen slogan finds a new meaning today. Never has it been so visible and proven that national sovereignty can be not only a hurdle to solving global problems, but a full-scale peril to the whole world when abused. While many European nations were quick to react to the virus as a major health crisis right from early 2020, others led by nationalists, namely the USA, the UK and Brazil, adamantly refused to take any action, dismissing the virus as harmless if not non-existent. Just like an individual who is not aware of being sick can pass the disease on others while behaving without precaution, a country that does not act wisely can contribute dramatically to spreading the disease throughout the world. And that is what happened.

No use beating about the bush – that kind of behavior is a violation of human rights, starting with the right to life and the right to health. Even though COVID-19 is first and foremost a medical issue, it also has implications in terms of human rights. There comes a question which has been with us since the beginning of the century: In the absence of a global institution, such as a global police service, in charge of overseeing respect for human rights worldwide, what about the people devoting their lives to performing this duty of public service, these private citizens whom we call Human Rights Defenders (HRDs)? Before COVID-19 ever appeared, many of them were already in danger. While vaccines and medicines are being developed to counter COVID-19, there does not seem to be a cure in sight for the perils HRDs face every day.

Legal, legitimate, but unrecognized

HRDs, people defending human rights, have existed from the early days of human civilization in one form or another. Since 1948 and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), followed by a number of treaties and similar declarations, it has obviously been viewed as more legitimate and legal to promote and protect rights which were now internationally recognized. The UDHR itself has made history by evolving from a non-binding resolution of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly to an instrument of customary international law, toward which states feel obligated through, as international law puts it, opinio juris. But in a postwar Westphalian world where only states had international legal personality, the people defending the rights enshrined in the UDHR, in other words HRDs, long remained deprived of formal recognition.

It all changed in 1998, when the UN General Assembly celebrated the half-century of existence of the UDHR by presenting it with a companion text, officially called Resolution 53/144 of December 9, 1998 but better known as the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms – in short, the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (DHRD).

Like the UDHR, the DHRD was born “soft law”. But the resemblance stops there. In twenty-two years of existence, the DHRD has been nowhere near accepted by states under opinio juris. Accepting international human rights is one thing, but endorsing the creation, if only morally speaking, of an international category of people authorized to go against the state to promote the same rights, well, that continues to be more than the nation-state can live with. Everywhere in the world, HRDs feel the pain of that denial of recognition.

Human rights under attack means defenders in danger

Traditionally, human rights in the Western sense of the word mean freedom of opinion and expression. These rights continue to be curtailed in too many countries, beyond geographical, cultural, religious, or even political differences. Inevitably, that goes for HRDs defending these rights too. The two “least democratic” countries sitting as Permanent Members on the UN Security Council, Russia and China, also stand out as world leaders in political repression.

During the Cold War, the Eastern bloc would put forward economic and social rights as a counterpoint to the said Western notion. Even though human rights were “reunified” over thirty years ago, economic and social rights remain taboo in various parts of the world. In Thailand and Nicaragua, health workers have been punished for demanding better equipment to treat COVID-19 patients. In the Philippines, city residents who pushed for more adequate shelter in times of lockdown were similarly repressed by their government.

Cultural rights, often alongside indigenous rights, can truly be described as disturbing all forms of governments in countries which used to be colonies of Western powers, from Latin America, most recently in Honduras and Paraguay, to Asia with such examples as Malaysia and Indonesia. In such countries, being an HRD trying to advance the rights of indigenous groups all but equates trying to tear the whole nation apart.

Everywhere in the world, such typical 21st-century pressing issues as LGBT rights and, more than ever since the #MeToo scandal, women’s rights may be popular causes, but taking them up almost systematically means trouble, be it in North African countries like Egypt and Tunisia or in the European nations of Poland and Andorra.

Last but not least, even though one might think the wide consensus on the issue opens doors for action, defending environmental rights is proving no easy task. From Madagascar to Belarus, trying to get your government to live up to its responsibilities is bound to create a most unsafe environment for you.

For those who need and manage to flee, being abroad does not even mean being safe anymore. China has been found to be heavily spying on activists from the Uyghur minority living in foreign countries, and last month the AWC had to send an appeal to the authorities of Canada regarding a Pakistani HRD from the Baloch minority group who was found dead in Toronto, after the local police service said the death was not a criminal act but a fellow Baloch HRD and refugee there expressed serious doubts.

When the DHRD should be providing greater relief and comfort for the performance of human rights work, HRDs continue to be denied any character of public service, leading to acute stigmatization, intimidation, and ultimately repression. As many signs that the nation-state is losing its nerves in trying to defend a Westphalian national sovereignty that COVID-19 has now largely proved is out of date.

Shattering national borders – and human rights, too

One form of human rights abuse that has become particularly salient since the late 2000s, further fueled by Brexit in 2016 and the now-ending Trump presidency since 2017, is the systematic persecution of refugees and migrants – and, more preoccupying still, of those nationals in the countries of arrival trying to lend a hand to the newcomers. In France, President Emmanuel Macron was thought to have been spared from the influence of populist parties backed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia; yet several activists have been prosecuted on these sole grounds, such as Martine Landry of Amnesty International France and Cédric Herrou, both from the Nice area near the Italian border. Eventually, both were cleared by the judiciary. In the USA, migrants’ rights activist Scott Warren was similarly prosecuted – and similarly acquitted. But in both countries and others still, the problem remains unsolved.

No wonder this is happening at all. Even those governments least favorable to the brand of xenophobia “exported” by Moscow since the last decade have become unfathomably sensitive to the issue of migration and asylum, as they too feel threatened by the outside world and flaunt their borders as ramparts, shielding them from some barbaric conduct with which they confuse different customs and religions, thus adopting the very same attitude as those populists they claim to be fighting. That leaves citizens trying to help refugees and migrants singled out as traitors and criminals.

The mass arrival of migrants and refugees from Africa and the Middle East in the summer of 2015 proved that Europe and, for this purpose, the rest of the world were wrong to assume that crises in other, distant parts of the world could never hit home too violently. In this case, the crisis bore a name – ISIS, the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham (the Levant)”. The Iraqi-born terrorist group had conquered a wide swath of land the previous year, seizing territory from both Iraq and Syria along the border, and established on it a “caliphate” that drew scores of individuals from many parts of the world, especially Europe and North Africa. The previous summer had seen its militias persecute the millennia-old Christian minority of Iraq and other religious groups such as the Yezidis. A year before the UN dared called it genocide, the AWC did.

When the Taliban’s “Islamic Emirate” of the late 1990s in Afghanistan had been recognized by three countries, no one recognized the “Islamic State”, let alone the caliphate. Obviously, recognizing the “caliphate” would have been both a violation of international law and an insult to all of ISIS’s victims back home and abroad. Nonetheless, as the French-American scholar Scott Atran and the specialist Website e-ir.info noted, the “ISIS crisis” proved that the traditional notion of the nation-state was now being violently rejected – violently, and ISIS leaders knew full well how to make good use of it, cleverly rendering their barbaric ways appealing to Westerners and North Africans frustrated at the lack of social and political change back in their home countries.

Questioning the nation-state in such an insane, murderous manner can only be diametrically opposed to the mindset of a World Citizen. Stopping borders from serving as ramparts against foreigners irrationally viewed as enemies, bringing the people of the world together regardless of political nationality, none of this can ever be compatible with the creation of yet another nation-state, albeit de facto, to terrorist ends at home and abroad. Even though the massive afflux of migrants and refugees was certainly no phenomenon the best-prepared state in the world could have successfully dealt with overnight, European nations failed at it miserably. In suspecting and rejecting foreigners for fear of terrorism, they only made it easier to commit terrorist attacks on their soil and endanger their own population, including the Muslim population which automatically becomes a scapegoat every time a jihadi terrorist attack is carried out. Nobody’s human rights were well-served and everybody’s human rights ended up as losers.

Globalizing solidarity with HRDs

There you have it. The harder states, European and others, strive to defend their borders as sacred, God-given privileges, the harder human rights and their defenders get hit and everybody loses.

Consequently, returning to the comparison with COVID-19, a true World Citizen perspective toward protecting HRDs must put forward what has been absent throughout the pandemic, in terms of both public health and patient care – globalization. Not the unfair, inhumane economic globalization we have known since the 1990s, for that one too is responsible for what has happened over the past twelve months. A World Citizen can only seek a globalization of solidarity, bearing in mind that, as French President Emmanuel Macron once put it, “the virus does not have a passport” and travels freely through all human beings who accept, or get forced, to become its living vehicles.

The very same principle should apply to human rights and their defenders. The UDHR is by name universal, as are all human rights. Therefore, why wouldn’t the defense of the same rights be universal by nature? If terrorism can be let to shun national borders in its war on the whole world, then why can’t brave, devoted HRDs enjoy the recognition they deserve, in every country, on every continent, and from every type of government? Why in the world would a terrorist get greater attention than a citizen dedicating their life to championing the dignity of all fellow human beings? If this divided world of ours could possibly find some sort of unity in support of health workers fighting COVID-19, then why not around HRDs, too?

World leaders can no longer look away from the issue. Uniting around one global problem means endorsing the principle of global solutions for everything else. If there is to be a different future for the world, a better future, then trusting and respecting HRDs, supporting and helping them, and ultimately joining their ranks are as many keys that will unlock a brand new era of shared true dignity.

Bernard J. Henry is the External Relations Officer of the Association of World Citizens.

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