Over the past month CSW has been speaking with HRDs across South Asia to find out what it means to be a FoRB defender in the region. Today, International Human Rights Day, we present a guest blog post by Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders.
“Human rights defenders are those community and religious leaders, journalists, activists, lawyers, trade unionists and others who take on the plight of the most marginalised in their society. These defenders of human rights represent people in the face of oppression, violence and harassment, doing what they can to hold perpetrators to account, and uphold the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), among many other resolutions that states across the world are committed to upholding. Many of these defenders face the same intense persecution as those they seek to defend, with many facing threats and risks of violence, torture and even death on a daily basis.
That is why, this year, I joined calls to award the Nobel peace prize to the global community of human rights defenders – especially as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders on 10 December.
As the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, I believe that this declaration must be given foremost importance amongst the international community moving forward, with regards to the protection and sanctity of all human rights worldwide. Indeed, this year the recipients of the Nobel peace prize were human rights defenders Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, further proof that the work of HRDs worldwide helps to bring about lasting change, peace and reconciliation.
On 25 August last year, the Burma army unleashed its attack on the Rohingya people of northern Rakhine state, precipitating the country’s most severe human rights and humanitarian crisis since independence in 1949. The United Nations’ outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, described this crisis as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, and the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, warned of “the hallmarks of genocide”. After the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica the world lamented with the words: “Never again”. But a year ago in Burma, “never again” happened all over again.
“They made it impossible for us to stay – how could we survive?”
In March this year, I travelled to the refugee camps on the Bangladesh-Burma border, to meet survivors. Almost everyone I talked to had seen loved ones killed and villages burned. Accounts of mass rape were widespread. I met Rohingyas whose eyes had been shot out and limbs blown off, and heard of others whose eyes had been gouged out, throats slit and limbs hacked off.
“The culture of impunity can’t go on or violence will increase.” – Ajoy Roy
The words of Ajoy Roy, the frail father of the late Avijit Roy hit us hard. We listened in silence as he shared his despair and disappointment at the lack of judicial process following the murder of his son in 2015. The murder of Avijit Roy, a blogger, made international news and became a case representative of the situation facing not just bloggers but journalists, lawyers, religious leaders and religious minorities in Bangladesh; these members of Bangladesh’s civil society are vulnerable to threats, harassment and attacks.
The voices of extremism and violence infiltrating Bangladesh’s society have delivered a clear and frightening message: independent expressions on religious issues will not be tolerated.
A pattern of appalling attacks that began in 2013 and took the lives of four secular bloggers in 2015 shocked the nation and caught the attention of international media. The stream of violence reflects a forceful assault on freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression, theoretically enshrined in Bangladesh’s secular constitution and ratified international conventions.
The need for a clear counter-narrative to fundamentalism
If the values of a secular democracy are to be protected, fundamentalism must be met with a positive counter narrative from governing authorities. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh, neither political leaders nor members of the police force have succeeded in articulating a message of tolerance safeguarding the human rights and freedoms of its citizens.
On 8 August 2015, Niloy Chatterjee was the fourth blogger to be brutally murdered that year following the killings of Avijit Roy on 27 February 2015, Washiqur Rahman Babu on 30 March 2015 and Ananta Bijoy Das on 12 May 2015.