Front Line Defenders-Press Release
Somaliland sun – “Our cause is your cause. Your struggles propel us forward. I will continue to draw inspiration from your work and be guided by your example”.
These were the words of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein as he opened the 8th Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders in Dublin Castle today, via live link from Geneva. Organised by Irish based international human rights organisation Front Line Defenders, the Dublin Platform is one of the biggest gatherings of at risk human rights defenders in the world, this year bringing together 120 human rights defenders from 100 countries.
All the participants in the Dublin Platform have been the target of direct attack. Their offices and homes have been broken into, they have been smeared in the media, and receive regular death threats. Some have lost their jobs and others have had to leave their homes because of fears for their safety. Yet they refuse to give up their human rights work. LGBTI rights defender from Saint Lucia, Kenita Placide has seen three of her colleagues assassinated. In Colombia, land rights activist Margarita Hilamo Mestizo received a text message telling her to “get those people out of the finca, in 10 hours I’m going to send in 1600 men from the Aguilas Negras (para military group) to kill whoever”. Despite similar risks, Zahra Mohamed Ahmed continues to defend women’s rights in Somalia, one of the most violent and patriarchal societies in the world. They are just three of the 120 human rights defenders attending the Dublin Platform, all of whom have similar stories to tell of courage in the face of relentless persecution.
The Dublin Platform prioritises the sharing of experience so that human rights defenders can learn from each other and discuss what strategic lessons can be drawn for the prevention and minimisation of risk. It also provides an opportunity for participants to make practical recommendations in specific areas to influence policy and practice at the international level. Front Line Defenders hopes that the human rights defenders who take part in the Dublin Platform will return home re-energised and with enhanced skills to meet the security challenges.
One of the key issues highlighted during the Dublin Platform was the growing backlash against human rights defenders and attempts by repressive governments to silence independent voices critical of government policy.
During his presentation Gauleid Ahmed Jama outlined the current situation in Somaliland.
Although a new constitution with a bill of rights was approved by referendum in 2001, the dominance of a culture of military control and authoritarianism isstill prevalent. State institutions have not been reformed to become compatible with the demands of the constitution. Thus oppressive institutions that do not respect human rights remain in place. Restrictive and oppressive laws are applied to the human rights defenders. Human rights defenders, journalists and whistle blowers are arrested, beaten and prosecuted. Media houses critical of the government are shut down. For instance in the last two years, four newspapers have been closed, namely Haatuf, Hubaal, Somaliland Times and the Independent. Prominent journalists have been arrested and prosecuted. The judiciary branch and law enforcement agencies are not independent from the government giving the authorities huge power which they abuse and use arbitrarily.
The harassment detention and beating of journalists and human rights defenders continues unabated. It is unacceptable as well as illegal and should be brought to an end.
In her opening remarks Mary Lawlor, founder and Executive Director of Front Line Defenders paid tribute to all the human rights defenders whose courage and dedication inspire her on a daily basis. But she also highlighted the growing threat from repressive governments who see the very success of human rights defenders in highlighting injustice and calling for reform as a threat to their power and privileges. “Authoritarian governments are investing huge efforts and resources to close down, silence, restrict and discredit independent civil society – especially those critical of government policies. This ongoing backlash poses a crisis for human rights defenders. And although it is a political challenge to democracy around the world, there is no consistent counter action by governments who claim to defend democracy and human rights”.
This was a concern echoed by the High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Increasingly we are seeing governments crack down on precisely those rights. Across the globe we see laws which forbid access to foreign funds, bans on travel and other attempts to restrict the work of civil society organisations.We see spurious prosecutions, smear campaigns, destruction of property, disappearances and even killings of civil society actors. Measures to block or limit the democratic space online and mass surveillance too. Attempts to crush the free press particularly if it investigates human rights violations, corruption and malfeasance by officials. These are massive and deadly steps backwards. They undermine the strongest antidote against violent extremism which is a healthy civil society”.
Ms Lawlor issued a direct challenge to those governments which claim to support democracy and human rights to combat this increasingly virulent campaign against the culture of human rights built up over the last 50 years. “Governments must give the same priority and resources to creating an enabling space, as autocrats give to closing it down. There must be a renewed, consistent and reinvigorated political priority given to protecting human rights defenders – if we are to stem the terrible tide of attacks and killing we witness in Front Line Defenders on a daily basis. The closing down of civil society space and the backlash against HRDs has almost become an academic discussion which masks the day to day reality for HRDs”.
In his concluding remarks the High Commissioner for Human Rights reiterated the commitment of the United Nations to civil society and to the security and protection of human rights defenders. “The ability of civil society to operate freely and safely underpins every activity of the United Nations. Our cause is your cause. Your struggles propel us forward. I will continue to draw inspiration from your work and be guided by your example”.