Human rights advocates under threat worldwide | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 10.12.2017
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Human Rights Day

Human rights advocates under threat worldwide

More and more human rights advocates are paying the ultimate price for their activism. Many are threatened and harassed. For years, the situation of human rights advocates has been growing worse.

"It's very difficult trying to hide where I'm going from my kids, and trying to make my mom feel that everything will be fine – with them knowing I'm lying," Egyptian human rights lawyer Mohamed Zaree, looking visibly tense, told a TV reporter on May 23, 2017, one day prior to his court hearing in Cairo. The authorities have alleged that Zaree represents a security threat and that he has tarnished his country's reputation. 

"These charges could put me in jail for 25 years," Zaree explained. And added: "My kids will grow up without me. I'm concerned about all of this; there are so many things on my mind."

The following day, Zaree was released on bail. But the charges against him have not been dropped. During his time as the Egypt office director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Mohamed Zaree co-authored a 2014 report on the country's human rights situation. UN member states are expected to regularly produce such "Universal Periodic Reviews" and submit them to the United Nations Human Rights Council to help assess human rights situations in each country.

Protective human rights awards

This year, Mohamed Zaree won the Martin Ennals Award — a prize that is sometimes referred to as the "Nobel Prize for human rights".

Mohamed Zaree (picture alliance/AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

Mohamed Zaree is risking life imprisonment for his commitment to human rights

"What we're hoping is that widespread recognition, especially in the media, of Mohamed and his work will mean that hopefully the case and the charges against him will be dropped," says Martin Ennals Foundation director Michael Khambatta. The foundation's prize jury comprises representatives from 10 international human rights organizations. Their main objective is to help protect human rights activists who are being persecuted by their own governments.

An award without a recipient

But Mohamed Zaree was unable to attend the Geneva awards ceremony in October. This is because he has been prohibited from leaving Egypt since May 2016.

"We've had three finalists since 2012 and only in 2013 were all three of them able to come. Somebody has either been travel-banned, or been in prison, and in sadder cases they've either passed away or disappeared," says Khambatta.

Other human rights organizations have had similar experiences. Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova could not attend the Right Livelihood Award — or "Alternative Nobel Prize" — ceremony in Stockholm on December 1. She, too, is banned from leaving her country.

From bad to worse

"Things appear to be getting more and more difficult for human rights defenders," Khambatta told DW. A recent report by Amnesty International warns that for years human rights advocates have been facing ever greater danger. Many are made to disappear or are murdered — often by their own governments. For its report, Amnesty International spoke to relatives of human rights activists who disappeared or were murdered. It learned that many victims knew their human rights activism was putting their life in peril.

Mexico protest at disappeared people (picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Verdugo)

Relatives, as here in Mexico, often never find out what has happened to disappeared human rights activists

Often, environmentalists, human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and volunteers pay a terribly high price for their work protecting and upholding human rights. Front Line Defenders estimates that 281 human rights activists were killed worldwide in 2016 — almost twice as many as in 2015. It is likely that the true number is much higher, with many cases going unreported. The fate of many who have disappeared remains forever unknown. And there is no evidence to suggest that the 2017 figure will be any lower.

Dangerous populists

During a video talk marking the publication of the World Report 2017 from Human Rights Watch (HRW), HRW executive director Kenneth Roth said that the global rise of populist politicians exacerbated the already grave situation: "They all have in common the claim to speak for the majority, and to claim that majority wants rights violated in the name of securing jobs or avoiding cultural change, or protecting against terrorism." Roth added: "We've seen this show before. In the last century, various communist and fascist governments also claimed to speak for the majority, and then visited enormous repression on their people."

Protest at trial of human rights activists (picture alliance/AP/dpa/L. Pitarakis)

Turkey has seen protests against the arrest of human rights activists

Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the United Nations Human Rights Council are alarmed by political developments in many countries. HRW's Kenneth Roth highlighted what can be done to counter persecution at the hands of populists, autocrats and dictators: "What we need is a real, vigorous reaffirmation of human rights." 

And added: "We need to explain that human rights are the best way to avoid corrupt and arbitrary rule."

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