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" The unanswered misery of a rural human rights defender"

A Rural Human Rights Defender in A World Of Their Own

The recognition given to human rights by various organizations including United Nations is undoubtedly significant. However, experiences of those involved in the process of advancing this cause may remain untold for a time to come. Chatting with one of the Ugandan rural human rights defender gives an interesting overview of the challenges faced at various levels. Although the commendation of this activist has results of his work in the community served for over a decade yet this seems to amount to less when personal security is at stake. In trying times, the isolation experienced can be daunting and troubling.

Establishing networks including civil military cooperation centers, gaining vast knowledge and experience and chairing the steering committee of a National Coalition for Human Rights Defenders (NCHRD-U) nationally help paint the profile of the victim in question. His staff along with him are facing threats of the same similarity beginning from November 2013 till to date; not to mention the attack on his sister, who has been left grounded after an arson attack with three kids and a husband on account of the fact that she is part of his flesh and blood. The harassment, targeting and leakage of consequences of their work has fuelled the vulnerability to an extent that work has been abandoned and refuge in foreign soils is being sought by some of them.

The question that naturally begs for an answer is: Why should activists seek support from a foreign-based human rights organization yet national human rights organizations are around? This question is perhaps one among many in situations of this kind. In saying the unsaid, can one be right in agreeing with Carlos Fuentes, who states that “Writing is a struggle against silence…?

Communication tends to play equally an important role in salvaging the victimized individuals. Formalized communication at times is overtaken by verbal and non-verbal directives, whichever, becomes convenient in unbecoming times. Tension, however, may be experienced if those who referred a victim for assistance later claim ignorance of the situation affecting such victim[1]. As to whether this can be associated with human error or other factors; remains a delicate deliberation, to say the least to those directly affected.

Undoubtedly, the survival of the fittest calls for unusual business in certain respects including, at times, the avoidance of communication formalities in certain exceptions especially if advised from security circles. If previous formal communication on the discomfort of victims goes silent, and media headlines on attempted murder appear, then discretion can no longer be a possibility but mandatory in dealing with such situations.

The necessity of following up communication without using the traditional formalities could however be discretional and may explain reason why a high UN official in the country makes a direct call to one victim to get the update at night. In times of cowering for safety, formal correspondence becomes a luxury, and feigning ignorance or a waiting for formalized attention gets relegated to armchair executives and not hands on operatives. This can only be better understood in a sense that the crime scene is the office scene where communication tools are stored.

How does one settle scores of the non-uniformed, accusing the victim of non-cooperation with security agencies in spite of the latter recognizing how the system discrepancies worked against the victim? Where an officer notes shortfalls such as careless compilation and handling of case files of the victim or poor collection of statements from suspects and failure of court follow ups and investigator irregularities exist;[2] then one is ushered into another reality. It is this reality that leads to a sobering reflection towards the victim in question and those that should have offered some support, the least being to call the media house, condemn, protest any attacks and appeal to the authorities to take immediate action to protect. But can one get this type of solidarity?

Threats and violence are some of the elements that create dire risks for human rights defenders (HRDs). The worst of this is when the life of a defender is threatened and the institutions delay their response in spite of overwhelming evidence and emergency. When facing eminent threat, the publicity and support accorded to overcome the danger doesn’t seem to be equally meted out for rural, urban and other defenders. Urban and well placed activists receive speedy press conferences, protest statements, which are necessary to aid in the publicity of the situation as well as reduce resultant propaganda that is often associated with the incident. Being on a receiving end of over 15 incidences and threats in less than 10 calendar months gives a scary feeling for anyone in question, especially if no sustainable support is attained. It is even worse when some suspected perpetrators get released without formal conclusions to such enquiries.

There is a huge gap to be filled if rural HRDs are to work and feel valued amongst their peers and likeminded institutions to act. It is extremely hurting, demoralizing and discouraging to operate in networks as HRDs but during times of trouble response is varied based on unclear ground. The near death experience of surviving a gun attack sends reverberations to the most patient and ancient of souls.

When a victim that has survived a possible murder scene is called to answer framed accusations before safety is assured, an emotional complexity deepens. The incidence of unsubstantiated allegations against a victim that has been terrified immediately after such a scenario doubtlessly leaves an incredible vacuum in the safety of an individual. When other reliable sources get quoted on the intent of perpetrators in ensuring that the staff of a victimized HRD resigns from their call of duty, it then leaves no room for any benefit of doubt as to the fundamentals of such attacks. In times such as these, words from George Orwell, need further acceptance than otherwise. George Orwell once said: “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”

Following the reflections of this HRD, there is a world that rural HRDs tend to succumb to in times of difficulty. In times of need such as one depicted in here the help that is urgent seems to be lacking a great deal. This has at times been considered as deficient for rural HRDs in comparison to the vocal or outspoken activists based in the suburban settings.

This in itself is discrimination and it violates the principle of nondiscrimination in human rights protection. But it is even worse when one is not given a fair hearing during such difficult times. Can a fair hearing be achieved if those presiding have prejudiced preconceived ideas? To be heard is no doubt a fundamental right, but in certain cases, reality does differ, as “being misunderstood or negatively treated can be very harmful[3]

In information gathering, the possibility that some questions require unrelated data can easily be understood by the respondent. In a scenario where the affected staff is being questioned by those expected to provide support, how much they earn, who their supervisor is in love with and so forth[4], it becomes understandable to notice the irritation or desperation evoked. Although such irritation can be brushed off and even termed as rude, yet concentrating on that trivialises life issues at a time when gunmen are still trailing can be cruel and callous. This is what happened to one of the human rights defenders victims.[5]

The condemnation of life threatening acts serves to sober the perpetrators and such an act can simply be achieved by calling a press conference or a media house. The absence of this kind of moral voice delineates organisational victims associated to the cause. Martin Luther King once commented that “the greatest sin of our time is not the few who have destroyed but the many who have remained silent”.

Whereas, the Nobel Prize winner, Rt. Rev. Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa once said: “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot, on the tail of the mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality”. These observations by respected persons do indicate the role of responsibility when danger calls.

The Ugandan President, General Yoweri Museveni, in his Moroto District address on 6, February 2015 declared his resolve against killings with impunity in Uganda. Killings, according to the President, had taken on personal disagreements. This in a way signals a leadership role against criminality at the basic level. The voice of the Parliamentary debate led by Hon Alaso Alice in Uganda on November 11, 2014 in demanding explanations from the Internal Affairs Minister on extra-judicial killings in the Teso Sub-region helps sound the bell of consciousness. The mentioning of persecution of organisations documenting human rights violations during that session could only be compared to John the Baptist’s voice in the wilderness calling for all to order.

HRDs’ hopes and belief in times of trouble are often in the human rights fraternity as a source of support, therefore the need to enlist the side-to-side support need not be overemphasized. Any isolation through circulation of false information can be very harmful for the affected staff, who may have little options than leaving the organisation. This indeed can be self-defeating to the goals that one would aspire and had once aspired to stand for. Can the sophisticated approach against the victims which include phone tracking be associated with personal trivialities such as bad love relationships, land problems or labour related scenarios?

Accessing facilities that track phones is a complex action which requires depiction or framing the victim in a particular way to gain consent of a network as well as the legal compliance. Ordinary individuals are therefore unlikely to easily indulge in this privilege of information access unless, otherwise. The Monitor publication of 15, May 2014; indicates that the victims were being gun-trailed by phones at 3:00 pm in the afternoon, points to business unusual. This inevitably weighs heavier than an ordinary squabble or doesn’t it?[6]

When perpetrators walk free, after a life threatening incident and the work environment shrinks, the tempting question of who shall ever be held accountable should a HRD be murdered remains frightening. Perhaps the most challenging and of great interest is when and how the affected HRD is to stand against the violated rights when his/her rights are not secured and with no recourse to remedy their situation.

It follows that a HRD needs to be heard and understood in the context of his/her pain and attendant security needs preservation before those who are suspected perpetrators are given an ear if need be. It is even worse if information is sourced from any source/s without taking consideration of issues that are at stake.

The solace of a victim seems to be turned to victory by an observation of Apoorve Dubey, who in his poetic citation once said:

To get up when you are down,

To fight more intensely when you are struggling,

To put more extra effort when you are in sheer pain,

To come back when nobody expects you to,

And to stand tall when everyone is pulling you down is what makes a champion’.

Would one agree any better? If so, then we are on the road to redemption.

Story by: Dr Adyeyeye, Patrick Olufemi

Postdoctoral Fellow, Graduate School of Business & Leadership,
University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa.

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