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'Stand up for their rights, so they can continue to stand up for ours'

Floribert Chebeya was a leading human rights activist in the DRC - until he was found murdered in suspicious circumstances. On Human Rights Day 2010 tribute is paid to Chebeya and others like him.

Floribert Chebeya Bahizire speaks during a seminar in Kinshasa

Floribert Chebeya was murdered - apparently for trying to help others

In a special address to mark Human Rights Day on December 10, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised human rights advocates and their role in the fight against discrimination and exclusion. Ban also called on governments to do more to protect these people - but the appeal came too late for Floribert Chebeya Bahizire.

Chebeya was found murdered in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, on June 2, 2010. Eyewitnesses said the 46 year-old man was lying on the back seat of an abandoned car, his hands tied. Murders are not uncommon in the DRC, a country with a high crime rate, but senior UN officials immediately suspected there was more to this particular killing.

"Two days ago, an individual with whom I met during my October [2009] visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mr. Floribert Chebeya Bahizire, was killed in Kinshasa in circumstances which strongly suggest official involvement," the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions , Philip Alston, told the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Chebeya was "the director of 'Voix des sans-voix pour les droits de l'homme [Voice of the Voiceless for Human Rights],' and a hugely respected human rights leader in the DRC," Alston said.

A figure of inspiration

Indian United Nations soldiers escort a humanitarian convoy past a displaced people's camp in the DRC

The UN is active in the DRC, one of Africa's most unstable countries

Alston called for an independent investigation into Chebeya's death, but the DRC administration has yet to present a full report. On the day of his death, Chebeya had answered a summons from the chief of police in Kinshasa; his last known communication was an SMS to his wife saying he was on his way home.

The director of the Africa division at the UNHCR in Geneva, Scott Campbell, met the activist many times, and described him as "very understated, very soft spoken (except when he was angry!), very committed and very determined."

"Once there was a human rights issue, or somebody in danger, he wouldn't let go," Campbell told Deutsche Welle. "I don't know how many times Floribert was arrested, mistreated, or threatened with death, [but] he continued his work, and this, I think, inspired many others, and continues to inspire many others in the DRC today, and outside the DRC."

The challenges facing human rights advocates in the DRC are huge. They must fight against widespread rape and sexual violence by the military and militias, along with extrajudicial executions, torture and numerous cases of death while in police custody.

Legal institutions and watchdogs are either weak or non-existent, and there's an implicit culture of impunity for offenders, especially those under government employ. The UN's Scott Campbell considers the DRC to be one of the most dangerous places in the world for human rights advocates.

"Those that do it inspire me; they're a very impressive group," Campbell said. "They have no guarantees - and cases such as Floribert Chebeya demonstrate that. So I take my hat off to those that continue in the struggle today."

Help them to help us

Navanethem 'Navi' Pillay

The UN's Navi Pillay wants more people to get involved

Many of the world's most committed and passionate human rights activists are known only to a small circle, and those who do become relatively renowned often do so for tragic reasons, as was the case with Chebeya.

The UNHCR estimates that hundreds of thousands of people around the world dedicate their lives to human rights; fighting discrimination against indigenous peoples, against women, or against people with disabilities or illnesses and other marginalized or persecuted groups.

"We need to stand up for their rights, so they can continue to stand up for ours," the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said in her Human Rights Day address.

"No formal qualifications are required," Pillay said, appealing for people to join their ranks. "We can all be human rights defenders, and we all should be! It just takes commitment and courage."

Of course, it's not quite that simple, and the UN knows it. Every year, thousands of rights activists are harassed, persecuted, arrested or even murdered for their efforts. However, the UN's position is that a situation only becomes truly hopeless when people give up hope.

"We have seen evolution in so many countries in Africa, and elsewhere - certainly in Latin America," Scott Campbell said, stressing that many human rights activists are ultimately successful. "I'm sure if you talked to many in Latin American countries in the 1960s or 70s, they would have said the same thing about human rights defenders: '[It's] an extremely dangerous environment, it's a bit hopeless, how can things ever change?' But these human rights defenders play a critical role in keeping the ball moving forward, in terms of getting towards peace and stability."

Author: Claudia Witte (msh)
Editor: Susan Houlton

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