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It would be foolish to think that defending human rights is just an issue for people in faraway countries
Every night Juana Ramirez Santiago would deliver her husband’s dinner to the hardware store he worked as a watchman. One evening in late September she called him to tell him she was on her way. She never arrived. Neighbours heard four gun shots then found her lying dead on the street. Juana – who helped found a group to challenge violence against women – was just one of hundreds of human rights defenders brutally assassinated so far this year. 2018 is on course to set a grisly record.
Tomorrow, the Nobel committee will announce the winner of the 2018 Peace Prize. This year the prize should be awarded not to a person or an organisation but – for the first time ever – to a community: a collective award for human rights defenders like Juana Ramirez all around the world.
Each day, these brave people stand up and speak out for nothing more than the rights which everyone should be entitled. And as a result, each day, many are silenced – thrown in jail, attacked or even murdered.
Yet how many of us have heard their names? They are hidden heroes. Too often they have to stand alone, courageous individuals and small grassroots communities forced to face down crooked legal systems, corrupt multinationals and oppressive governments. That’s why the role of UN special rapporteur for human rights defenders was developed. It’s why organisations like Peace Brigades International – who provide crucial life-saving support to defenders on the ground – exist.
The prize would shine a global spotlight on their struggle in a year when we mark the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders which outlined how defending human rights is a right in and of itself, not a crime.
The award could not come at a more urgent time. Not just because they deserve recognition, but because in the words of the late Kofi Anna, “We need to be vigilant in the protection of human rights defenders, for when the defenders’ rights are violated, all our rights are injured.”
Defenders are an example to us all. They show us that our rights are not only granted by law but upheld and protected by communities and individuals. They demonstrate that we all need to be human rights defenders. Particularly now that there's a growing backlash against human rights.
It would be foolish to think that this is just an issue for people in faraway countries. Threats to hard won rights are advancing across the West, even in the United States. Just look at women’s rights. Access to abortion is being tightened in states like Iowa, Louisiana and Mississippi.
On LGBT rights it’s still legal to fire someone for being gay in most places in the United States. There are real fears about a rollback of rights from the Supreme Court.
When even leaders of even the oldest democracies brand the media as an enemy of the people or say that "it's embarrassing for the country to allow protesters” it’s time to recognise that the struggle of distant human rights defenders is a struggle everyone must face. That is, if we want to continue living in healthy, free and democratic societies.
Make no mistake, the tide has shifted – freedom and democracy are on the defensive. Authoritarianism is on the rise worldwide. That’s why we need to stand shoulder to shoulder with defenders across the globe. And that’s why they should win the Nobel Prize. Worldwide, a narrative is spreading that human rights defenders are criminals.
The Nobel Prize is the loudest stage we have to challenge the growing discourse that discourse that dismisses and delegitimises non-violent activists as terrorists, anti-patriots, or threats to security and development.
It would send a clear message: to human rights defenders both home and abroad – you are not alone. To those who would harm them - the eyes of the world are watching and your actions will have consequences. And to the rest of us? The rights we don’t defend are the rights we can so easily lose.
Michel Forst is the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights defenders and Susi Bascon is the director of the Peace Brigades UK