This article is part of the Forum Network series on Trust
We live in an era of fear and division. Across the world, toxic “us versus them” narratives are being used to cast collective blame for social and economic grievances onto whole groups of people, demonising them and justifying discrimination or repressive measures against them.
Against this background, those who stand up for justice and human rights are coming under attack in more and more places. They are facing an onslaught of harassment, intimidation, smear campaigns, ill-treatment and unlawful detention, even being killed.
In 2016, at least 22 countries saw people killed for their peaceful work standing up for human rights. In 63 countries, they faced smear campaigns. In 68 countries, they were arrested or detained. In 94 countries they were threatened or attacked.
What this amounts to is a full-frontal assault–by governments, armed groups, corporations and others–to clamp down on the right to defend human rights.
People defending human rights come from all walks of life. They include community leaders, lawyers, journalists, students, teachers, health professionals, trade unionists, whistle-blowers, anti-corruption activists, environmental activists, and farmers.
They are the people who challenge the abuse of power by governments and corporations, protect the environment, defend minorities, oppose traditional barriers to women and LGBTI rights, and stand up against abusive labour conditions. In the face of injustice, discrimination, demonisation, violence and repression, they get in the way. And for this reason, they are facing a global onslaught on the right to speak out.
It is now almost 20 years since the international community gathered at the UN and adopted by consensus its 1998 Declaration to protect human rights defenders and civil society, recognising them as agents of change, crucial for promoting and defending human rights. In backing the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, governments promised to support human rights defenders and enable them to work free from obstacles and without fear of reprisals. Two decades later, the letter and the spirit of this UN declaration are being openly flouted.
The nature of the threat is often insidious. It is eating away at the ecosystem of protest and participation in public affairs, and it is becoming riskier and more difficult to hold the powerful to account.
The space for standing up for human rights has become increasingly tight, from laws and policies that authorise the use of force against peaceful protesters, to mass surveillance programmes banning access to foreign funding or imposing stringent registration requirements.
Meanwhile, human rights defenders are labelled ever more openly as criminals, undesirables, “defenders of demons”. They are called “foreign agents”, “anti-nationals”, or “terrorists”. They are painted as a threat to security, development or traditional values.
By either directly targeting human rights defenders or failing to protect them from harassment, threats or physical attacks, governments are sending a message in direct contrast to the UN Declaration: that they are a nuisance to be suppressed. This is a dangerous path to take.
Inequality and unaccountable leadership are major drivers of the growing anger and distrust so many people have towards governments, institutions and corporations. Ultimately, repressing peaceful protests and silencing voices who call for justice and equality is a recipe for a breakdown of trust between governments and people.
Despite the global assault on peaceful protest, people will not simply roll over and accept injustice. History has frequently taught us this lesson. Our spirit of justice is strong, and it will not be suppressed.
From Frederick Douglass through to Emmeline Pankhurst, Rosa Parks, BR Ambedkar and Nelson Mandela, history is replete with stories of ordinary people who refused to accept the status quo and who stood for what is right. That spirit remains alive today–from Iesha Evans standing serenely at the Baton Rouge protests last summer as riot police rushed towards her, or the popular movements emerging across the African continent to channel people’s demands for justice and human rights.
Now more than ever, we need people bravely standing up against injustice and against those who undermine human rights in exchange for a false promise of prosperity and security. We all have the power to challenge poisonous narratives and fight against injustice.
A world without human rights would be one moving in the wrong direction, towards greater conflict and repression, and less freedom, justice and equality. It’s vital we hold on to our commitment to human rights–and make it one of the driving narratives for creating a better world.