Front Line Defenders is an international human rights organisation based in Dublin that provides rapid practical support and resources to human rights defenders at risk around the world. These resources include an emergency 24 hour hotline in Arabic, English, French, Russian or Spanish, information and training on personal and digital security and security grants to meet the immediate security needs of human rights defenders at imminent risk.
Human rights defenders are key agents of social change. They work around the globe as social organisers, lawyers, journalists, trade unionists defending the rights of those whom repressive governments would like to silence. They are targeted because they challenge the powerful vested interests of states or corporations, at significant risk to their own safety.
Every two years, Front Line Defenders hosts its Dublin Platform, which is one of the biggest gatherings of human rights defenders in the world. It brings together human rights defenders from all over the world to share experiences, to learn from one another and to develop more effective security and protection strategies to enable them to continue their vital work. The most recent Dublin Platform took place in November this year in Dublin Castle and brought together 118 human rights defenders from 100 countries. The one thing they all had in common is that they are all at risk because of their peaceful human rights work. The people featured in our pages here represent just a sample of those who took part. All of them face intimidation on a daily basis but the level of danger they face is a measure of their impact in challenging injustice and oppression.
Juan Carlos Flores Solís, Mexico
Juan Carlos Flores Solís is an environmental and indigenous rights defender who works, with campesino and Nahua indigenous communities near the Popcaépetl volcano, whose lives and communities are being adversely affected by a campaign by the federal government to allow international investors to exploit previously untapped oil and gas reserves, and develop large-scale infrastructural projects. As a result of his work representing the interests of these communities, he has been subject to a continued campaign of intimidation from politically interested players, including spending ten months imprisoned on the basis of an order issued by the state government of Puebla and the Federal Electricity Commission. He still has an arrest warrant pending against him.
Shyer Karki, Nepal
Shyer Karki is a defender of the rights of sexual and gender minorities, with a specific focus on lesbian women, in Nepal. Shyer’s organisation Mitini Nepal was founded in 2005, and works to protect the socially excluded and vulnerable sexual and gender minorities in what is a very traditional and conservative society. Mitini Nepal works at promoting awareness, as well as resettling people who have been estranged from their families in a dignified manner. ‘In our society, patriarchy still exists in different forms. Where women still have to fight for their rights, then we must acknowledge how hard it is for lesbian women. While working on cases, I have received threats of kidnapping and rape. My life has been in danger, I was being followed,’ explains Karki. ‘Every person has the right not to be violated because of their sexuality or gender.’
Zahra Mohamed Ahmad, Somalia
Zahra Mohamed Ahmad defends human rights in one of the most dangerous places on earth, Somalia, which tops the Fragile States Index put together by the Fund For Peace. Zahra is the founder and legal adviser of the Somali Women Development Centre, whose members have been subject to arrest by both state authorities and paramilitary groups. In 2013 an attack by Islamist militants on the courthouse in Mogadishu claimed the lives of two of the SWDC’s lawyers, among the 29 victims. Somalia’s quarter-century of political instability means that those at the margins of society are even worse affected than elsewhere. Widespread sexual violence and female genital mutilation are two of the issues whose victims Ahmad and the SWDC are confronting.
Lina Ben Mhenni, Tunisia
Lina Ben Mhenni is known for her writing and reporting, through her own blog ‘A Tunisian Girl’ and various social media and online channels, and was a vocal critic of former dictator Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali and his repressive regime. Her accounts, photos and videos were a first hand source of information on the conflict in Tunisia for other Tunisian activists and the international media. Ben Mhenni has always written under her own identity, despite the constant presence of threats of imprisonment, torture and even death, meaning she now lives under security protection. Having visited and reported from the heart of conflicts across Tunisia, Ben Mhenni’s work has borne witness to an incomplete revolution in her home country where a functioning democracy still struggles to bloom.
Cesar Estrada, Peru
Cesar Estrada is a journalist and member of REDCIP (Network of Indigenous Communications in Peru) who has reported extensively on the rights abuses and environmental destruction connected to the multi-national Yanacocha and their Conga gold mining project, whose activities threaten to destroy the water basin for the region, damaging the livelihood and agricultural subsistence of those living in Cajamarca and Hualgayoc. He has also faced continuous judicial harassment and fabricated legal charges as well as repeated death threats. On 31 October, Cesar Estrada was heading to the bus station to begin his journey to Dublin when two unknown men riding a motorcycle approached and pointed guns at him. His wife and a friend shielded him and as they rode off the gunmen shouted, ‘Next time we’ll get you when you are on your own’.
Aung Htet Naing, Burma
Aung Htet Naing is the Coordinator of the Foreign Affairs Committee at ABFSU (All Burma Federation of Student Unions), one of the oldest organisations in Burma fighting the political oppression of the authoritarian military regime. The organisation focuses on safeguarding students’ rights and supporting the struggle for democratic education. More broadly it stands for democracy, peace and opposition to the military junta. Many leading ABFSU members are currently in jail or on trial for taking part in peaceful protests against the new Education Law, and demanding autonomy for educational institutions and a return to democracy.
Words: Ian Lamont
Photography: Kamil Krawczak