I wrote this post for Bloggers Unite.
On Human Rights Day 2011, we pay tribute to all human rights defenders. What is a human rights defender? The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders describes them as people who act to address any human right (or rights) issue, anywhere in the world, on behalf of individuals or groups. Human rights defenders can be individuals acting in their professional capacity or volunteering their time to work with an association or group. If you add it all up, there are thousands – maybe millions – of human rights defenders in the world. Each of us that takes action to promote and protect human rights is a defender.
As a human rights defender working in the United States, I have the freedom to work without fear of reprisal. For many defenders around the world, however, this is not the case. Because of they act for human rights, human rights defenders are often targeted for human rights violations, including executions, torture, beatings, arbitrary arrest, trial without due process, detention, death threats, harassment and discrimination. They face restrictions on their freedom of movement, expression, association, and assembly. In addition to targeting human rights defenders themselves and the organizations through which they work, the human rights violations frequently target members of defenders’ families. Women human rights defenders confront risks that are gender specific.
What happens to human rights defenders when the targeting gets to be too much? For more than seven years, I represented human rights defenders who were fleeing persecution and seeking asylum in the U.S. Though I may not have seen them for years, I often think about my former clients. On this Human Rights Day, I am thinking about James and Julia (not their real names). James and Julia were human rights defenders in their native Kenya, speaking out against an oppressive government. They had a little boy who I’ll call William. When the police came to their house to arrest Julia, a police dog had bitten William on the head. You could still see the wound a year later when, having left everything they owned behind to escape Kenya, they were seeking legal assistance with their asylum claim in the U.S.
In police custody, Julia had been brutally and repeatedly raped. Julia testified about her experiences in a straightforward manner and in excruciating detail, but with such poise and dignity that both the asylum officer and I were in tears. It is one of the very few times that have I seen an asylum officer (specially trained federal officials who make decisions about asylum cases based on a written application and an in-person interview) actually cry during an an asylum interview. I remember well how James sat next to her, utterly still. Anguish is the only word that could possibly describe the look on his face as he listened to her testimony.
Years later, after they got their citizenship, James and Julia had a party to say thank you to all of the people who had helped them. In addition to their attorneys, there were people from their church and other members of the Kenyan community. They now lived in a big, new house out in the suburbs. Julia was close to graduation from nursing school William, who I hadn’t seen since he was three, was now in middle school. He was a straight-A student and talented musician who had just gotten braces. They had had another child, too – a daughter born here in America.
The ending is not always this happy for all human rights defenders. That is why, this Human Rights Day, we all need to honor the work of human rights defenders and promote human rights both at home and in other countries. One way to honor the work of the defenders is to be a defender yourself – take action. The UN is asking you to Make a wish for human rights today!
To learn more about protecting human rights defenders: