What’s common to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Aung San Su Kyi? They are all individuals who fought the good fight against injustice and for the protection and promotion of human rights of marginalised groups of people. Su Kyi, in spite of being under house arrest for several years in the junta-ruled Myanmar, continues to be a fearless advocate for the rights of all her countrymen to live in a democratic country and not under a dictatorship. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison for leading the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa before becoming the country’s first democratically elected President and a world leader on peace and justice. The 14th Dalai Lama has been in exile since the Chinese occupied Tibet in 1959 and since then has been advocating the right to self-determination of Tibetans and is an apostle of compassion and tolerance.
Like these inspiring icons who have used peaceful means to resist violence and injustice, there are several unsung heroes everywhere who are committed to the cause of defending human rights from which all of us will, at some time, benefit. They do what the Bob Marley song tells all of us to do: “Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights! Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight!”
Human rights activists work in various spheres of society and for various causes, and their work is inspired and guided by internationally recognised human rights standards enshrined in documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By exercising freedom of expression, movement and association, human rights defenders set standards and encourage respect for these principles in society at large.
The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders describes defenders as all those individuals, groups and organs of society that promote and protect universally recognised human rights and fundamental freedoms. Their work includes, but is not limited to, the search for truth and justice and strengthening the rule of law, the strengthening of democratic governance and accountability, the struggle for gender, racial and sexual equality, the protection of economic, social and cultural rights and the rights of indigenous peoples, the struggle against environmental degradation, hunger, disease and poverty, the struggle for a fair standard of living, education and medical attention, the struggle to end war and arms proliferation and to provide urgent assistance to victims of conflict or natural disasters.
Medha Patkar and all members of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the courageous citizens of Bhopal who have been indomitably fighting to hold Union Carbide Corporation accountable for the gas leak that killed thousands of people, and the Manipuri women who staged the naked protest against army atrocities in Imphal are notable examples of human rights defenders.
Human rights defenders often imperil their own lives. We are aware of the life threats that Su Kyi, or Iran’s Nobel Laureate and women’s rights activist, Shirin Ebadi, are constantly under. On several occasions Narmada Bachao Andolan activists have been at the receiving end of brutal police violence and even death for peacefully speaking out against their forced displacement and the government’s false promises of resettlement and rehabilitation. Irom Sharmila has been under arrest and force-fed for eight years after she went on a hunger strike to protest against the repressive Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Manipur.
Human rights defenders work within a context where democratic principles are already in crisis. In repressive regimes, they are arrested, detained, harassed or killed for criticising the State. Making State and non-State actors accountable for human rights violations has become more frustrating than ever, and the work of human rights defenders more dangerous than before.
Among several stories of passion and courage the story of Bant Singh from India bears testimony to the risk involved in being a human rights defender. Bant Singh is a dalit farmer from Punjab who has been active in the peasants and workers movement. In 2000 his minor daughter was gang-raped by upper caste men. He moved court against them and persisted with the case braving threats of violence. In a rare show of persistence and courage in India, a dalit was able to secure conviction for caste-based violence with the court awarding life sentences to the three accused.
In 2006, in retaliation, upper caste men brutally beat him up resulting in both his hands and legs being amputated. Even after this Bant Singh continues with his human rights activism with the Mazdoor Mukti Morcha. His indomitable spirit is reflected in these words spoken during an interview while he was recuperating at the hospital: “Spirits are strong! I don’t feel that my arms are cut because my tongue speaks, my brain works. Even on that day when I was left to die for hours, I didn’t weaken because my limbs were cut. If they’re gone, they’re gone. This world around me, the people who are with me – they are my limbs.”
In 1992 Bhanwari Devi, a dalit woman who worked with the Women’s Development Programme in Rajasthan was gang-raped by upper-caste men because she resisted child marriages in her village. In another shocking incident in 2005, Shakuntala Verma, a social worker with the Madhya Pradesh women and child welfare department had her hands chopped off by villagers in Dhar district because she too tried to stop child marriages.
Clearly, the threat increases manifold given the human rights defender’s issue of work, his or her identity and political opinion. Opinion that criticises the State has always been censured using the toughest tactics as has been the case with Dr Binayak Sen, a health rights activist in Chhattisgarh who has been incarcerated for 18 months without trial because he spoke out against the state’s atrocities against minorities and innocent civilians in the name of curbing Naxalism.
In 2008, Right to Information activists Lalit Mehta and Kameshwar Yadav from Jharkhand were brutally murdered because they sought to expose corruption in the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme of the government. Human rights defenders working in the field of sexual rights also take risks given the unpopularity of the issue they work on and the discomforting questions they raise about the State and society’s inability to protect the human rights of the sexual minorities.
Human rights defenders are society’s conscience keepers, fighting to ensure that unjust laws are changed, and just ones enforced. They are often seen by the State as troublemakers and society at large, too, does not give them the recognition and support that is their due. Yet a society without them would be in very poor shape indeed. In fact we should all be human rights defenders in our own small ways. If all of us speak up against injustice whenever it happens, we wouldn’t have to see another Bant Singh losing his limbs and another Bhanwari Devi getting gang-raped. Building solidarity against injustice of any kind by promoting a human rights culture is our collective responsibility.
Pastor Niemoeller, who died as a victim of the Nazis, illustrates the importance of being a human rights defender for us all as individuals in the following poem:
“First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out -
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the communists
and I did not speak out -
because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade
unionists and I did not speak out -
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me -
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.”