Empowering Women By Empowering Women Human Rights Defenders

Empowering Women By Empowering Women Human Rights Defenders

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Date(s) - 16/08/2016
6:45 pm - 11:00 pm

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By Grace Felten, Research and Advocacy Intern, Global Network of Women Peacebuilders

A powerful CSW event took place within the UN headquarters on March 16, 2016 named “Empowering Women By Empowering Women Human Rights Defenders”. It was co-sponsored by Amnesty International, the Permanent Mission of Norway to the United Nations, and the Women’s Human Rights Defenders Coalition. Each speaker was equally as passionate in their urgent call to action for all of us to better support human rights defenders. Part of this support included the request to put pressure on those who are currently suppressing human rights defenders. Included on the panel was Bertha Isabel Zúñiga Cáceres, the daughter of Berta Cáceres, who had recently been killed in her home in Honduras for her tireless efforts to defend the rights of the indigenous Lenca population and their environment.

State Secretary Tone Skogen, from the Permanent Mission of Norway to the UN, referenced this attack in his opening statement. He pointed out that, “This is just one example. Hers is the latest name on a long list of human rights defenders who have been killed worldwide. In 2015, more than 150 human rights defenders were killed.” He went on to declare this “totally unacceptable” and spoke of the importance of protecting these brave individuals.

Mr. Skogen explained how women human rights defenders play a particularly important role. Even though they are often harassed and even threatened with gender based violence, they have already contributed to the SDGs in terms of health and human rights. He spoke of how we must create a safe and enabling environment for these activists. Norway is supporting a new resolution to protect human rights defenders who work in such areas as economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights (including land and development). This will continue to be a main priority in Norway’s human rights based policy. “Without the protection of these defenders,” he declared “Agenda 2030 will not be realized”.

Ambassador Mara Marinaki, EEAS Principal Advisor on Gender and UNSCR 1325, echoed the sentiments of Mr. Skogen. She said that the empowerment of women and girls is at the heart of Agenda 2030. She announced that the EU through “Protect the Defenders” is donating 15 million Euros to aid short, medium, and long term support for advocacy, strategy, policy, and prison legal defense support. These are emergency funds for human rights defenders at risk. She concluded by saying that “Activists are the voice of the voices…for us and for the rest of the world. It is a heavy duty.” She then asked that we all stand and participate in a moment of silence to pay tribute to all the women human rights defenders that have paid dearly. Although the moment of silence was for all women activists lost, it was an opportunity to give special respect to Bertha Isabel and the memory of her mother and her important work.

Bai Ali Indayla, a Bangsomoro (Moro) activist from the Philippines, spoke next. She gave an impassioned speech that was quite alarming. She explained that in her area, women human rights defenders are in danger. Because of the region’s rich resources, sometimes dangerous situations are created. She said that the mining companies are protected by the Philippines military; they act like their own private security guards. Ms. Bai Ali Indayla accused the government of creating policies that give rights to the mining companies and claimed they target women human rights defenders because they are seen as a threat. Furthermore, those who speak out against mining are being called criminals by the government because they are describing the negative side effects that mining has had on the environment and the community. She said there seems to be culture of impunity in regards to crimes committed against activists.

Ms. Bai Ali Indayla reported that her colleagues have been killed — shot to death, this year — for talking about the ill effects caused by the mining companies. Even nuns have been labeled as rebels and criminals, and indigenous leaders are facing trumped up charges. She feels that many people are in danger as long as the government is implementing these harmful policies. She urged everyone present to put pressure on the Philippine government to end what she referred to as “anti-people” policies.

After this, Noelene Nabulivou, Founding member of Diverse Voices and Actions (DIVA) for Equality in Fiji spoke. DIVA is an intergenerational collective of Fiji lesbian, bisexual women and trans masculine/butch and gender non-conforming women working on interlinked approaches to human rights, social, economic, and ecological justice. Her message was direct and to the point. She stated that we are currently in a real crisis, but that we can use this as an opportunity of transformation to advance universal human rights. “This is a time of plain speak” she announced. For many women human rights defenders, they are not working on separate human rights but interconnected ones, “all our rights are in one body”. We need to stop things such as the “invisibilization” of human rights from all of our political documents and outcome documents. We need to decide which states are working for our human rights. She warned against what she sees as lazy and shallow work partnering with private organizations and people who take rights away.

Ms. Nabulivou declared that we need consistent access points, not just at CSW, but in all spaces. There also cannot be any dampening or narrowing of human rights messages here at CSW. We can be both sensitive and accept universality at the same time. We are also not touching the core work of being decision makers in our own bodies with a lack of agreement on reproductive and health rights. What we need now is gender-just social contracts in every community.

The audience seemed to welcome the panelist’s honesty and boldness. The discussion continued with Fatima Outaleb from UAF. She shared her strong opinion; “Many states are sitting in this building pretending that they are supporting civil society but really they are supporting terrorism. My friend was not just killed but cut into pieces in Libya.” She went on to talk also about her friends who used to have homes and cats and dogs in Syria and now they are living in small rooms, having lost everything. If there is a message to send here she said, it is to “stop hypocrisy”. She explained how she felt she was here on this panel to speak for all those who could not make it because they are hiding, suffering in silence. She pleaded with the audience, that if they wanted to help human rights defenders, to “do everything you can; do something about the countries that are supporting companies that are destroying other countries.” She ended by demanding that women be more present in peace talks in Syria and Libya. “If we leave women behind, nothing will happen. No sustainable goals will be achieved, just quick solutions. It is our work to make things better for future generations.”

The final panelist was Bertha Isabel Zúñiga Cáceres. Speaking of her mother, Berta Cáceres, she shared the sentiment, “She was and will continue to be my greatest inspiration. She was a woman defender of life, in the most holistic sense.” She confirmed that the assassination was because of her mother’s struggle and resistance, and that she feels this is what can happen to those who defend human rights and nature. “The capitalist patriarchal society based on ‘extractivism’ sees you as an enemy. Thinking and dreaming of a just world is considered a crime.” She pointed out that it is not enough to punish her mother’s direct assassins but that we need to find out who was really behind the murder. Bertha urged everyone to “add your voice to the worldwide clamor and mobilization.” She said, “I will share with you some of my mother’s words, “Wake up humanity – time is up!”

This blog does not necessarily represent the views of the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders.

Please contact the writer for questions and comments: [email protected].