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1 February 2020

The Irish Times view on human rights activists: the good fight

The Irish Times

Traditional tools of state repression, such as restrictive laws and intimidation, are today supplemented by increasingly common online tactics

In much of the world, standing up for human rights is fraught with very real dangers. In 2019, according to the non-governmental agency Front Line Defenders, 304 activists were reported killed in 31 countries. Behind that stark number are hundreds of harrowing individual stories. Environmental campaigners beaten to death. LGBT activists “disappeared”. Indigenous leaders shot dead.

Far more human rights workers live with the threat of physical assault, defamation actions, digital assaults, judicial harassment and gendered attacks. In its global analysis for 2019, Front Line documents the roles played by such courageous individuals, from protests in Iraq and Algeria to campaigns for land rights across South America and for women’s freedom in Saudi Arabia.

Traditional tools of repression, such as restrictive laws and intimidation, are today supplemented by increasingly common online tactics, including internet shutdowns or the blocking of instant messages services. WhatsApp was weaponised for attacks on Tibetan activists. Campaigners in Poland had to contend with a ruling party that made countering “Western LGBT ideology” part of its platform. In Saudi Arabia, women such as Lujain Al-Hathloul and Samar Badawi, who led the struggle for the right to drive, remained in jail. The contexts and the issues may differ, but Front Line does an invaluable service by reminding us that each of these disparate struggles, each of these brave individuals, serve a greater, single cause: the advancement of human rights and resistance to those who seek to trample on them.

Very often, those activists prevail. Last year, campaigners celebrated the revocation of male guardianship in Saudi Arabia, the extension of abortion rights in Mexico and Northern Ireland, decriminalisation of same-sex sexual acts in Botswana and Angola and the withdrawal of a Bill restricting free speech in Jordan. Each of these victories came after years of persistent activism, and should serve as a beacon of light to those who battle, at great risk to themselves, for fairer, more equal and tolerant societies.