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Column: These are the incredible people we ignore... until it's too late.

In this age of digitalised 24-hour news, how can it be so difficult to find a space for stories of people with death-defying courage? Those who defend human rights deserve better, writes Mary Lawlor.

Mary Lawlor

YESTERDAY, FRONT LINE Defenders published the list of six human rights defenders who have been selected as the finalists for the 2014 Front Line Defenders Award. All six were been nominated because of their exceptional courage defending human rights in their country and on the basis that an increased international profile can contribute to their security. Part of the excitement was that Al Jazeera Media Network has come on board as our global media partner for the Award and this will hopefully take these stories of courage to a global audience.

At the same time, sadly, we normally face great difficulties getting the stories of human rights defenders out into the mainstream media. In this age of digitalised 24-hour news, how can it be so difficult to find a space where the stories of these courageous people can be told? Is it that, just that because these stories of death-defying courage don’t connect to the economy or jobs, they are completely irrelevant? Have we reached such a point of obsession with our own narrow interests that there is no time or space to celebrate our common humanity and the lives of those who, like Seamus Heaney, believe that “ we were put here to improve civilisation”?

Horrific dangers faced by human rights defenders

Berta Caceres is one of the most respected human rights defenders in Honduras. She defends the rights and the lands of the Lenca indigenous people against the ravages of greedy mining and logging companies. But Berta has seen two of her colleagues assassinated. She has herself has been under constant surveillance, labelled a terrorist and a threat to national security and arrested on trumped-up charges.

When the Government of Belarus announced plans to introduce a new Foreign Agents Law to stop human rights organisation from receiving international funds, Ales Bialiatski set up two personal accounts in Poland and Lithuania to make sure that his organisation, Human Rights Centre Viasna, could continue its work documenting human rights abuses and challenging state erosion of civil liberties. He was subsequently charged with “concealment of income on a large scale” and is now serving four-and-a-half years in a maximum security prison.

Dr Mohamed Al Roken is a leading lawyer and human rights defender in the UAE who has defended human rights defenders and other activists facing prosecution under the state’s draconian security laws As a result, in 2012, he was forcibly disappeared, held in a secret location for eight months and tortured. Later that year, he was one of 94 human rights defenders and political activists arrested on charges of belonging to an Islamist group and plotting to overthrow the state. He was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment after an unfair trial and prevented from lodging an appeal.

In Bangladesh, Adilur Ahmed Khan was arrested by 10 plain clothes policemen and charged with ‘disrupting the law and order situation.’ for reporting on human rights abuses. In Kenya Lydia Mukami was abducted, beaten and stripped of her clothes in public for defending the land rights of farmers, while in Pakistan, Farida Afridi, founder of women’s rights organisation SAWERA, was shot dead on her way to work and the offices of the organisation were bombed.

Front Line Defender received 110 nominations from 51 countries for this year’s award. Every one of them tells a similar sorry tale of oppressive states using the force of the law or the power of the state to silence dissent, shut down human rights organisations, criminalise LGBT rights or gag the independent media. Every one of those stories could be a feature-length documentary in its own right.

Human rights defenders deserve better

This year Front Line Defenders has highlighted the courage of human rights defenders from six countries. Honduras, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Belarus UAE and Kenya. Every one of those countries face serious human rights issues. At the same time governments and large sections of the media ignore the fact that respect for basic human rights and the rule of law are key indicators of the stability that is essential for successful economic development. Economic development and human rights go hand in hand – they are the key indicators of a successful state which will guarantee the maximum benefit for the maximum number of people.

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Richard Bruton recently articulated the view that the issue of human rights had no place on the agenda of a trade mission. When John Hume and Ian Paisley went to the United States to seek the assistance of the US government in resolving the problems of Northern Ireland – they argued the strategy that the effects of political negotiation combined with economic investment would help to take the province out of its troubles. However we don’t seem to think that the same strategy might well work in other countries. If a crisis erupts in Kenya or Belarus or the UAE, it will in the end cost more pain and money than if we had made a serious and concerted attempt to address the fundamental human rights issues at a much earlier stage.

It is deeply depressing when you hear experienced and sympathetic journalists saying that for editors the words ‘foreign’ or ‘human rights’ are a complete turn off. Human rights defenders deserve better. They both deserve and desperately need the oxygen of publicity not just to air their views but to survive. As one human rights defender said “if you are visible you have rights”. We need to be confronted with the brutality and horrors that are inflicted in the name of stability and security.

At the same time we need to be reminded of the passion, the energy and the commitment of courageous people who see the world through a different lens – one that perhaps can show us how we can create societies which value notions such as dignity, equality and human rights, and where, maybe, finally, “everyone [will] be born free and equal in dignity and rights”.

Mary Lawlor is the founder and Executive Director of Front Line Defenders.

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Mary Lawlor

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