Women Defending Human Rights

ICJW representatives attended a CSW62 Side Event sponsored by UN Watch and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights on March 20, 2018, which was a panel discussion between leading female advocates on the subject of Human Rights Defenders. 

Opening remarks were made by Dan Smith, the New York Associate for UN Watch: UN Watch has lots to monitor in Geneva. Their mission is to monitor the Human Rights Council and raise the alarm when human rights abusers are appointed to the Council.  The current session of the HRC will end this Friday.  In the next session Saudi Arabia and Iran will take seats.

Prof. Irwin Cotler – Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and an international human rights lawyer, who counsels prisoners of conscience, was the moderator.  As a parliamentarian in Canada, Prof. Cotler was the first male member of the Women’s Caucus.  He has championed gender equality initiatives in Canada and many other places.  Prof. Cotler set the tone for this event by his description of Raoul Wallenberg as a person who demonstrated that someone with the courage to care can confront evil and be effective in bringing about change.  “Empowering women is empowering humanity”.

Ketty Nivyabandi – a poet and Burundian democracy activist was the first speaker.  She was forced to leave Burundi and has come to Canada where she works with the Nobel Women’s Initiative for women’s rights.  In Burundi, there were decades of internal conflict and civil war in the 1990s.  After the war, a new constitution provided limited democracy with the President to serve for 10 years; there were some abuses but there was a free press.   That changed in 2015 when the president decided to change the constitution and run for a third 10 year term.  There were protests which led to police brutality to suppress dissent.

Ketty used social media to get women to join the protests which had been largely male.  Women broke out of their traditional roles, held all-female protests, and spoke in public.  Then a failed coup d’etat was used as an excuse to silence all protest. Many women were arrested and tortured.

90% of those in private media are now outside the country along with intellectuals and all opposition.  There is no dissent tolerated inside the country.  She considers fighting the dictatorship to be her basic duty; we must normalize resistance and all work against totalitarianism.

Cotler comments – Global totalitarianism is resurgent and a global response is needed.

Wai Wai Nu – Rohingya activist and Founder of Women’s Peace Network and Justice for Women

When Wai‘s background was shared, we learned of her credentials as a key proponent for human rights. She is recognized as one of the 50 leading advocates in the world. For 7 years she was a political prisoner and now continues to speak out about social injustice and human rights found in the repressive society in Burma today.   She shared how it’s not easy for her as a woman and as a member of a minority community to be a defender of rights but feels that it’s her obligation.  She continues to be inspired by women around the world.  She applauds the #me too and #times up movements in the US but urges that these discussions must go to all the corners of the globe.  Gender equality and human rights must reach the grassroots-especially in areas of conflict.  She also stressed the need to protect human rights defenders.  Many are targeted with death threats when they use social media.  A strong strategy is needed.

Cotler comments – Where are the men?  He noted that the audience was virtually all female.  A critical mass of both genders is needed to have an effective grass roots movement and be able to protect activists.

Maria Corina Machado is a leading Venezuelan democracy activist.  Her talk was delivered by video.  For the past 4 years she has not been permitted to leave the country where she is one of the heads of the human rights struggle.  She spoke of the human rights violations and the deterioration of economic and social conditions occurring for the past two decades under the current regime.    As a result:

  • 87% of the population of Venezuela is poor and 61% of these people live in extreme poverty.
  • There is acute malnutrition and loss of weight. 33% of children are impacted.
  • There is a shortage of medicines including contraceptives and HIV and cancer treatments.
  • Venezuela is the most violent society in the world.
  • There are severe limitations and violations of free speech and property rights.
  • Prisoners’ rights including torture are violated.

In conclusion she stressed that “never again” should a tyranny and resulting tragedies exist in her country. She feels that the international community must move from indifference to action.  On a positive note she does see some progress.

Cotler comments – Venezuela is in the midst of a humanitarian catastrophe with widespread malnutrition and infant and other death rates way up because of lack of medical care.  The government refuses to assist but international pressure is building.

Mahnaz Afkhami – first Minister for Women’s Affairs (1976 to 1978) in Iran.  She was the first person to hold such a position in the Muslim world. She is a scholar and an activist and has been published all over the world.    She noted that today is the Iranian New Year which celebrates the coming of spring.

Under the current regime in Iran, she and other woman activists have been charged “with corruption on earth and warring with God”.  The only other woman in the Iranian cabinet at the time of the revolution was the Minister of Education and she was hung in the red-light district.  Ms. Afkahami was in the US at the time and has never been able to go back to Iran.  Exile is not just hard economically; there is also a huge issue of loss of identity.

Rather than discuss the awful situation in Iran, she talked about potential solutions. The 20 grass roots organizations on four continents with which she has been working for the last 25 years, may have some of the answers:

  • The women’s movement must be global; we are 50% of the earth’s population.
  • Women are subject to the family structure with men in charge. There is no longer a need for this structure but it persists and is replicated in education and in industry.
  • We need to get together with men with a new vision to change this structure and to focus on the similarities of our needs. Universal rights for everyone should be socially adapted for each setting.

Cotler – the speaker has an inclusive, participatory vision of human rights.

Denise Robinsonan opposition parliamentarian in South Africa who founded DAWN, Domestic Alliance Women’s Network.  In South Africa, the situation is not as bad as in some other countries.  Women have played a major but subservient role in politics.  She reviewed some of the efforts by women to end apartheid and paid special homage to Helen Sussman, a great liberal, who was the only woman in the parliament under apartheid.

Now there are many women in parliament (though not yet 50/50) who address issues dealing with women’s subjection to the patriarchy; rape, abuse and domestic violence are widespread.  There is a conspiracy of silence about violence against women (founded on the idea, shared by police and justice department) that women are second class citizens and deserve to be beaten.  There is also extensive bias against lesbians.

Reported by:  Joan Lurie Goldberg and Judy Mintz. Also attended by:  Vivienne Brass, Madeleine Brecher, Susie Ivany and Sara Winkowski