Human Rights Activism in This New Era

Tomorrow is human rights day and the 60th anniversary of the UN human rights charter.   This post was submitted by Asif Saleh, executive director of Drishtipat.  Drishtipat is a U.S. non-profit organization committed to safeguarding human rights in Bangladesh through action-oriented projects that provide direct assistance to those individuals whose voices remain unheard today.

As I walk out of a hearing by a congressional commission on Bangladeshi human rights situation last week, the Bangladeshi ambassador to the US cordially walks up to me and says, “I believe in a lot of things that you said today, but at the end of the day we have to be realists.”   Yes, he is referring to the much dreaded ‘unrealistic’ view of a human rights activist.   The one that talks about social justice, equality and a dream land where the most basic fundamental right for a human being is supposed to be guaranteed by the State.  This is perhaps unrealistic in today’s world, but sixty years ago, a charter was formed on what’s considered to be the gold standard that everyone should strive towards.  However, the big questions are how comprehensive the work of a rights activist need to be surrounding this charter and in what priority, especially in developing world where these rights are constantly being compromised due to poverty and deprivation;  what more can be done than just raising ‘awareness’ and ‘demanding’ justice in this new world of decreasing resources and increasing international competition between governments.

Human rights activists are known as the harbinger of bad news.   A meeting of human rights activists is ‘a non-stop bitching session’, someone once told me.  Surely that’s not a surprise.   The activists, who constantly deal with the victims and their trauma, deal with the worst of human nature.   The awareness building they have to do is about some of the worst atrocities a human can bring upon another fellow human being.  Naturally, these neither make a joyful presentation, nor it has a happy ending.  But still the activists pursue on this seemingly depressing work.  If it wasn’t for them, there would be no one to speak for all the unheard voices in the various corners of the world.  Underlying in that theme is a message of hope and the best of human spirits.  When everything else becomes bleak and dark for the victims and they have lost all hope on humanity, there would be that one last person with no previous connection or attachment to them, who will stand up for them simply for that common shared bond of humanity and nothing else.  There would be that one last group who will fight for their rights.

However, no matter how gratifying this work is for the activist, there is somewhat of a nagging impotence towards this whole approach in countries like Bangladesh.  What is the end result?  Is this fight in the community about hating your fellow being?  Or is it about fighting over resources where the powerful always abuses the powerless?  What about the rehabilitation of the victims?   How do they merge back to normal life?  Awareness on the abuse is good, getting legal recourse for the victim is even better, but more often than not, these victims need financial rehabilitation to move on with their lives.

‘Aware’ people don’t pay their bills when they lose their jobs due to a policy decision by a government.  ‘Aware’ governments certainly do not own up to their mistakes on policy making that make these people landless.  That’s where we, the human rights activists, become painfully powerless; and somewhat irrelevant, as well.  After all, in a country where the main issue of the day is survival and where the right to live a dignified life with food, water, shelter, sanitation and opportunity is being constantly denied by various forces of the world, how would a human rights organization try to become relevant by talking about civil liberty, freedom of speech and access to justice only?

There is no better way to address this than making rights and poverty related work more fundamentally aligned.  After sixty years of the creation of this charter, human rights activism, which is based on it,  now needs tweaking – specially for countries from the Global South where rights activists are becoming dangerously irrelevant, unpopular and are being often perceived as Western agents out to make their own country look bad.  What better way to do this than connecting the rights oriented work closely linked with that of human development?

People working in this sector need to have the vision and the power to make proactive changes in a community to create the kind of economic opportunity that leads people out of poverty and, in effect, making them more aware of their rights and much difficult candidate for exploitation.   Similarly, rights activists need to be empowered to be able to provide means for rehabilitation for the abuse victims.  They need to find partners among governments, private enterprises, development organizations and average citizens to build a coalition that will work towards providing a wholesome solution to people’s struggle for day to day survival.

At the same time, they need to work on ensuring active participation of the marginalized people in processes that affect their lives.  Whether it is trafficking, labor exploitation, land grabbing or displacement of people because of global warming, these issue are all related to poverty and are also, in effect, direct outcomes of decisions taken by various governments, corporations,  institutes and individuals.  As a result, any recourse of violations of people’s economic, social and cultural rights should be legally enforceable so that respect for human rights becomes an integral part of these decision making processes.  Mandela once rightly said that overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity but an act of justice.  Ensuring that justice for the little guys and providing various means to them to break out of the shackles of poverty should be the mantra of today’s human rights and human development activists working in unison.

Asif Saleh is a writer, human rights activist and a technologist.  He writes regularly for leading dailies in Bangladesh and in international magazines on society and politics. His articles have been published in the Guardian, Himal, Daily Star, and New Age. Asif founded Drishtipat, a global human rights organization in 2001. Drishtipat became the premiere, non-profit organization working with the Bangladesh diaspora around the world to bring attention to human rights issues in Bangladesh and beyond.  Drishtipat has over 3,000 members in 9 chapters across several countries, including USA, Australia, UK, Canada and Bangladesh.  In 2008, Asif left Goldman Sachs, where he served as executive director, to invest his time and resources in the growth of Drishtipat.  Asif also founded Unheard Voices, the most popular social justice network capturing the voices of the Bangladeshi expatriates.

Photo courtesy of Seema Khan