Human Rights Under Attack

Around the world today, human rights and freedom of expression is under attack and we are witnessing a global trend of restricting civil society freedoms, often in the name of national security. Individuals and groups who are defending these rights are being targeted. They face growing restrictions on funding, status and freedom to operate - all designed to limit or even prevent their activity. 

Right now, people across the world are risking everything to speak out against injustice.  These are Journalists, student leaders, political opponents, teachers, lawyers, women’s rights & environmental activists and many others. But they’re being harassed, tortured, jailed and even killed – just for daring to stand up for what’s right. 

What we see is human rights activists and organisations being targeted through restrictive national laws, policy and practice. This include restrictions on receiving foreign funding; activists having their assets frozen; bans on people being able to travel & restrictive visa requirements to prevent them taking part in international forums.  

We have seen an increase in targeted surveillance of specific Human Rights Defenders. These are an attack, not only on these individuals, but also on the space for civil society more widely. It can create a climate of fear and can frighten others from defending human rights.

There are also groups that are particularly at risk. In all regions of the world, women human rights defenders frequently face particular violence, intimidation and harassment. They can even face losing their lives.  Just because they challenge gender stereotypes and social norms, work on issues such as sexual and reproductive health and rights or defend the rights of women and girls facing discrimination and abuse.

There are no regions of the world that have not been effected by restrictions on dissent over the past year. Some of these obvious and violent -  others are more subtle and veiled in respectability. We have witnessed crackdown of dissent and the press in countries such as Turkey and Bahrain; and we have also seen the rise of hate speech across large parts of Europe and the USA. 

Journalists are frequently on the frontline of these human rights violations. They are instrumental in exposing human rights abuse. This means that in many places, being a journalist comes with great personal risk. 

In Turkey, for example, we have seen freedom of expression aggressively restricted. In the wake of a coup last July, Turkey escalated its crackdown on dissent.  This included more than 100,000 public sector employees being dismissed on grounds of alleged “links to a terrorist organization or threat to national security”; It meant some 118 journalists were held in pre-trial detention and 184 media outlets were permanently closed down. Internet censorship was also increased and 375 NGOs, including women’s rights groups, lawyers’ associations and humanitarian organisations were shut by executive order in November. 

Erin Keskin, a human rights lawyer and editor is one of the many people in Turkey targeted. She has been subjected to death threats, physical attacks and sustained judicial harassment. She has been facing charges more than a hundred times and been convicted on numerous occasions-  largely because of her work defending Kurdish rights.

After last year’s coup Eren was accused of offences linked to her work with Kurdish newspaper Özgür Gündem, including ‘membership of a terrorist organisation’.  If convicted, she could receive a life sentence.

In Egypt we have seen the continued deterioration of human rights and freedom of expression since the start of the uprising. The authorities have severely restricted the rights to freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Journalists and activists have faced arrest, prosecution and imprisonment for reporting on protests or taking part in them. 

Photo Journalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, also known as Shawkan, and more than 730 other people, continues to face hearings in a mass, unfair trial that began in December 2015, where many have been trialled in their absence. 

Shawkan who faced trumped-up charges that included “joining a criminal gang” and murder for documenting a sit-in protest in the capital, Cairo, on 14 August 2013 has now been detained for 3 years and could even face the death penalty -  just for doing his job. 

Amnesty is campaigning for Erin and Shawkan’s charges to be dropped and for Shawkan to be released immediately and unconditionally. 

But in other parts of the world where being a journalist doesn’t mean life or death the media and reporters can find it hard to do their job. Hostile rhetoric against the media is widespread and for example President Trump is using his twitter account to attack certain news outlets with reporters including CNN and the BBC being banned from White House press briefings recently.

Freedom of expression is at the heart of protecting human rights. Amnesty believes in the protection of human rights defenders and their right to act against human rights violations and were delighted when the international community officially adopted the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1998, something our members had campaigned for because we strongly believe that those who stand up for human rights are crucial agents of change.

However, despite these positive developments we still see the space in which Human Rights Defenders carry out their activities – and the defenders themselves – being targeted and attacked instead of being supported and protected.

This is why Amnesty is stepping up our efforts as a global movement - this year launching a global campaign to push for the recognition and further protection of Human Rights Defenders. 

We need these defenders more than ever. They are speaking up for free speech. Challenging racism and sexism. Condemning torture. And ultimately holding our leaders to account. Without them, the world would be less fair, less just and less equal.

While 2016 saw some of the worst forms of human behaviour, it was also a year in which the very best of human conduct shone through. Countless individuals stood up in defence of human rights and victims of oppression, often putting their own lives or freedom in jeopardy to do so.

They included journalists, media workers, lawyers, women’s and minority rights campaigners, and many others. 

It is their courage and determination in the face of dire abuses and threats that offer hope for a better future for the people everywhere. 

We should celebrate and bear witness to the determination of those who stand up and demand human rights and free speech around the world.

Kerry Moscogiuri is Director of Campaigns at Amnesty International UK