Solidarity in tough times: the vital struggle for human rights in 2018

These are not easy times.  Solidarity has never mattered more.

That was the heartfelt and urgent message shared with me by Honduran Indigenous leader Felipe Benitez Vazquez when we reconnected at a meeting in Peru a few weeks ago.  I first met Felipe when he travelled to Canada last year, to bring firsthand accounts of the impact of cruel repression on his people and on human rights defenders throughout Honduras.  We quickly agreed that his description of the struggle for rights and justice in Honduras powerfully captures the mood globally as well.  Without a doubt, not easy times.  And absolutely, solidarity is so vital.

For it has been a year in which the world has witnessed far too much conflict, marked by horrific atrocities with devastating impact on civilians in Yemen, Syria, Myanmar, South Sudan, Gaza, Iraq and many other corners of our world.  At a time when that list should grow shorter, it has been heartbreaking to see precisely the opposite.

Mobilizing to end conflict and overcome hate

And it has been a year during which the politics of hate, fear and division have continued to spread.  Leaders in the United States, the Philippines, Venezuela, Hungary, Turkey, Russia, most-recently Brazil, and a growing number of other countries hold on to or have come to power by demonizing refugees and migrants, LGBTI communities, women, minorities, Indigenous peoples, journalists, political opponents and people living in poverty.

An activist below a Pride flag in Turkey

Conflict and hate challenge human rights at their very core. Not easy times.

That is why documenting the grim truth in conflict zones and pushing for civilian protection, an end to arms sales and accountability for war crimes has been so important in our work this year.

And that is certainly why we have said no, at every turn, to bans, walls and bigotry that deliberately target marginalized communities and foment heightened levels of violence and discrimination.

Around the world, determined human rights defenders campaign and mobilize to end conflict and to overcome hate.  And everywhere, it has been women human rights defenders who are at the front-lines and bring unimaginable courage and resilience to so many vital human rights struggles.  They show us the way.  And they face great risk, including of being killed, as the targeted assassination of Brazilian human rights defender, feminist and grassroots politician Marielle Franco cruelly reminded us in March.

Solidarity has never mattered more.

A year of celebration and sorrow

On December 10th, the world marked the 70th anniversary of the adoption of humanity’s most precious human rights instrument, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is most certainly is an anniversary of equal parts celebration of the many triumphs and progress of the past seven decades; but also sorrowful realization of the many failures and entrenched injustice that still haunts our planet.

2018 was, in so many ways, precisely such a year: of celebration and sorrow.

It has been a year in which it is more important than ever to come together as a movement committed to that promise and vision of universal human rights.  At such a time, your support has been so essential. That support is at the very core of solidarity with human rights defenders. It fuels our demands that prisoners of conscience be freed. It provides the essential financial resources to send researchers into war zones and propels our campaigns for real change and meaningful reform.

Here in Canada your support has been at the heart of our campaign to hold Canadian mining companies accountable for upholding human rights in their operations.  After years of determined advocacy alongside partner organizations and communities who have borne the brunt of mining-related abuses, we welcomed the announcement in at the beginning of the year that the government will establish an Ombudsperson with powers to investigate such cases.  As the year comes to a close, we are keeping up the pressure and anticipate an announcement of who the first Ombudsperson will be at any time. This is long overdue.

In 2018, we have welcomed the progress of legislation through Parliament that, once adopted, will set a legal framework for implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Canada; a crucial change from Canada’s adamant opposition to the Declaration when it was adopted over a decade ago. 

Yet, actions can readily betray words, as is so starkly evident in the willingness of both the federal and BC provincial governments to proceed with construction of the massive Site C dam, despite clear opposition from First Nations who face the devastating loss of the territory that is central to their traditions, livelihoods and well-being.  They do not relent in the struggle for their rights to be respected, nor will we.

As the year comes to a close, so too does the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Since publishing our Stolen Sisters report in 2004, Amnesty International has stood in solidarity with families of missing and murdered daughters, sisters, mothers and nieces across the country.  And we will be ready to respond to the Inquiry’s final report when it is released in the spring; for what is truly needed is the action that will at long last address and prevent this shameful violence and discrimination.  That includes the building pressure on governments across the country to end the sterilization of Indigenous women without their consent, a disgraceful and unlawful practice that the UN Committee against Torture has now also decried.

Our concern has mounted over the course of this year about the worrying nature and tone of the debate about refugees and migrants in Canada.  From the national pride that was evident in 2016 as Canadians across the country welcomed Syrian refugees, discourse has deteriorated as politicians and pundits have promoted an untrue, inflamed and breathless narrative about hordes of “illegal” refugees flooding across the US border into Canada.  Numbers have gone up, most certainly, reflective of the punitive assault on the rights of refugees and migrants unleashed in the US by the Trump Administration. But it is far from the crisis suggested by many.

And sadly, the government continues to refuse to take one of the most constructive steps available to improve the situation, by suspending the 2004 Canada/US Safe Third Country Agreement, that closes official Canadian border posts to refugees coming from the United States and forces them to cross “irregularly” into Canada in order to claim protection.  We have joined with the Canadian Council for Refugees, the Canadian Council of Churches and several courageous refugee claimants in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the STCA.  Our passionately committed legal team has been hard at work throughout the year readying for the hearings now scheduled for early May.

Encouragement and disappointment absolutely captures the state of play when it comes to Canadian arms trade this year.  Early in the year, concern about the news of a deal to sell Canadian military helicopters to Rodrigo Duterte’s security forces in the Philippines was swift, leading to the deal being scrapped, ironically by Duterte himself.  But the sale of Canadian-made armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia still goes ahead, despite the grave risk of them being used in Yemen, where Saudi forces continue to be responsible for extensive war crimes.  Even the outrage about the jailing and torture of women’s rights activists and Saudi responsibility for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi did not lead the Canadian government to scrap the arms deal.

Canada is, at long last and after considerable advocacy by Amnesty International and allies, close to signing on to the UN Arms Trade Treaty, which was adopted back in 2013.  Legislation to pave the way for our accession to this critical treaty was adopted by Parliament earlier this month. Concerns remain, however, most notably that Canada’s arms sales to the United States will be exempt from scrutiny, a very real concern given that the US is not joining the treaty and has a notorious arms-dealing record.  There will clearly be more work ahead.

We welcomed two Canadians home from nightmares of injustice and imprisonment abroad this year, cases taken up by Amnesty supporters across the country over many years.  Bashir Makhtal was freed and came home after serving 12 years of a life sentence in Ethiopia; and Hassan Diab was freed after three Kafkaesque years of detention without charge in France on wholly discredited terrorism allegations.

We celebrate their freedom by redoubling our efforts to free Canadian citizen Huseyin Celil, imprisoned in China since 2006 as part of China’s unrelenting campaign against the Uyghur people, and Canadian permanent resident Saeed Malekpour, who has recently passed ten years of unjust imprisonment in Iran.

Final thoughts return to solidarity.  Earlier this year we brought thousands of paper butterflies — with beautiful designs and heartfelt messages of solidarity from across Canada — to families in Mexico campaigning for truth and justice for the 35,000 people who have been disappeared amidst a human rights crisis that has gripped that country for years. It is a campaign led by courageous women who demand the truth about what has happened to their loved ones and measures that will end and prevent further disappearances.  They often feel lonely in that struggle; and certainly face great danger for being outspoken. 

Every one of those butterflies bolstered their spirits and strengthened their resolve, because of one simple but powerful message: you are not alone.

Thank you for the tremendous support you provide to Amnesty International and to shoring up human rights protection across Canada and around the world. It has never been more important.

Not easy times.  Solidarity matters more than ever.  You are that solidarity.