It is human rights defenders who through their struggle define human rights
“If you drive 40 miles inland from Recife you go back in time 150 years.” Those were the words of a human rights defender from the Pastoral Land Commission in Pernambuco, Brazil, as he tried to explain the lawless brutality with which landowners managed their sugar cane plantations. The reach of the state is weak and the level of corruption and abuse of power is high. And that’s before you factor the coming into power of an extreme right wing Brazilian Government tainted by multiple corruption scandals and driven to promote further reckless exploitation of the Amazon and other natural resources for the benefit of the elite. Those who seek to expose corruption, defend the poor and stand up for human rights are threatened, criminalised or killed. And yet resistance and resilience are strong in spite of the onslaught.
I was reflecting on the discussions we had with Brazilian human rights defenders as I read an article by Eric Posner about conservative efforts in the US to develop a more restrictive definition of human rights. The US Commission on Unalienable Rights is undoubtedly part of the propaganda effort of corrupt authoritarians seeking to protect the power and impunity of the super-rich. We must fight their efforts to undermine international human rights law. However, we need to be careful not to devote too much energy to their legal and philosophical sophistry. It is after all designed to create a smokescreen for the brutality of their actions. We need to focus on power, corruption and accountability more than abstract legal frameworks if we are to make progress on justice and human rights.
Guo Feixiong was the winner of the 2015 Front Line Defenders Award and has endured hunger strikes, solitary confinement and ill treatment but remains committed to human rights, calling upon his release for China to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and political Rights.
Last week also saw the release of the indefatigable Guo Feixiong at the end of a six year prison sentence in China. Guo Feixiong was the winner of the 2015 Front Line Defenders Award and has endured hunger strikes, solitary confinement and ill treatment but remains committed to human rights, calling upon his release for China to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and political Rights. Power, corruption and accountability are increasingly exposed in China as Xi Jinping seeks to consolidate his personal rule. The severity of the repression in Xinjiang and the threats of military intervention in Hong Kong are intended to project strength, but the reality is that a slowing economy and the resilience of those who challenge arbitrary power expose the weakness of a regime which is increasingly reliant on sticks rather than carrots.
Sadly the women human rights defenders struggling against arbitrary power in Saudi Arabia remain in prison in spite of limited moves to amend the male guardianship system. Loujain al-Hathloul is reported to have “rejected a proposal to secure her release from prison in exchange for a video statement denying reports she was tortured in custody,” according to her family. Her courage and resilience stands in stark contrast to the weakness of Western Governments in the face of Saudi threats and intimidation.
Loujain al-Hathloul's courage and resilience stands in stark contrast to the weakness of Western Governments in the face of Saudi threats and intimidation.
Richard Lloyd Parry wrote of how the “Bravery of the Hong Kong Protesters shames the West,” but we might expand that to include all those who stand up against corruption and the abuse of power from Brazil to Saudi Arabia to China. Human rights are in a practical sense defined by the increasingly vibrant and diverse human rights defenders engaged at the local level in the struggle against authoritarianism, corruption and fundamentalism around the world.