Courageous grassroots leaders provide the best hope to a troubled world

By | August 31, 2018

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who steps down tomorrow, writes:

Across the world, in both the northern and southern hemispheres, there are politicians who are too self-serving, or too spiteful, to care for and protect the most vulnerable. They are not just cowardly but profoundly foolish, because in producing these stress fractures [– the result of decades of mediocre leadership –], they place at risk not only their own futures, but everyone else’s as well.

If we do not change course quickly, we will inevitably encounter an incident where that first domino is tipped—triggering a sequence of unstoppable events that will mark the end of our time on this tiny planet.

Can we swerve in time?

My hope lies in a set of people not widely known internationally, but familiar to those in the human rights community. Unlike the self-promoters—the elected xenophobes and charlatans—these people do have courage. They have no state power to hide behind: instead, they step forward. They are the leaders of communities and social movements, big and small, who are willing to forfeit everything—including their lives—in defence of human rights. Their valour is unalloyed; it is selfless. There is no discretion or weakness here. They represent the best of us, and I have had the privilege of knowing some of them personally, while others are well known to my office.

This is what true leaders look like. Bertha Zuniga Caceres from Honduras, the young daughter of the murdered environmental activist, Bertha Caceres, who has bravely continued her mother’s struggle. Dr Sima Samar in Afghanistan, who leads the country’s independent human rights commission and is utterly fearless, even when threats to her personal safety abound. The same could be said of Senator Leila de Lima in the Philippines, who has now been arbitrarily imprisoned without trial for 18 months. Pierre Claver Mbonimpa from Burundi, a gentle yet principled soul, undeterred even after his son was murdered and he himself survived repeated attacks.

I have also been deeply impressed by the dignity and courage of Denis Mukwege from the Democratic Republic of Congo, an extraordinary human being by any measure. Likewise, I have been humbled by the determination of Angkhana Neelapaijit from Thailand, whose husband, a lawyer, disappeared in 2004 leaving her to become a most courageous activist, fighting against enforced disappearances.

There are others too, from Bahrain for example: the Khawaja family, Nabeel Rajab, Maytham Al Salman and Ebtisam Al Sayegh, who have all have shown extraordinary courage in the face of considerable adversity. Hatoon Ajwad Al Fassi and Samar Badawi in Saudi Arabia: courageous leading voices for the rights of Saudi women, both currently in detention. Amal Fathy in Egypt and Radhya Al Mutawakel in Yemen are also two brave individuals who have put their own safety at risk as they have spoken out against injustice and on behalf of victims of human-rights violations.

Likewise, Ludmila Popovici, an activist against torture in Moldova. In Poland, Barbara Nowacka has been active in organising protests against measures to pull back women’s rights. Sonia Viveros Padilla in Ecuador is fighting for the rights of people of African descent. Close by, in El Salvador, Karla Avelar, the courageous transgender activist, deserves high praise—as does the Peruvian Maxima Acuna, a well-known environmental human rights defender.

I could continue. There are grassroots leaders of movements against discrimination and inequalities in every region. These names are just a sample of the real store of moral courage and leadership that exists among us today. [Continue reading…]

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