Everybody's target

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© Front Line Defenders

Abdullah Al Khateeb can’t believe journalists never ask him about his love life. By the time I interview him at noon on a Monday, he has already spoken to six newspapers that week about his human rights work in Syria’s Yarmouk Refugee Camp. He says that in all his conversations about the war, Palestinian rights, death threats and his ongoing activism, not once did anyone ask if he has a girlfriend.

‘It’s question, answer, question, answer. No-one seems concerned with whether I have somebody to love,’ he says at the end of our conversation.

It’s easy to see why journalists might forget to ask about his personal life, given the drama of his surroundings. In 2014 and 2015, when Yarmouk was besieged, Palestinian human rights defender Abdullah became one of the main sources of information for the media, rights groups and aid workers desperate for news of the camp’s 150,000 starving residents.

For many years before that, though – before the Syrian civil war began, ISIS showed up, and the world took an interest in Yarmouk – Abdullah had been well known across the camp as one of many young activists committed to keeping his Palestinian community alive in Syria.

Now 27, he pinpoints joining the Palestinian Youth Football club, aged nine, as the starting point of his activism. When your people are persecuted just for existing, he says, anything that fosters community is an act of resistance.

He went on to found a number of youth-development organizations, coach local football teams, join international aid convoys distributing food in his neighbourhood, and write human rights reports when international observers were locked out.

An early supporter of the revolution against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Abdullah’s activism has nearly cost him his life more than once. He has been targeted repeatedly by both government and non-state armed groups, including the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS.

In mosques across Damascus, members of ISIS have waged a campaign against him, accusing Abdullah of blasphemy and leading ‘secular, godless projects’. In April 2015, when Yarmouk was almost entirely controlled by ISIS, militia raided his home. Abdullah managed to escape capture – it was the second failed kidnapping in less than two months.

Abdullah puts the difference in life expectancy at about 50 years between an activist and someone who tries to live a quiet life

In July 2016, he survived an assassination attempt. ISIS later claimed responsibility for the attack, which left him in a critical condition after being shot in the chest. He has been in hiding ever since.

His problems are not confined to ISIS. Less than a month after being shot, Abdullah received a notice to report to the local Syrian Islamic Commission in Yalda, a rebel-held city west of the camp, where authorities had taken offence for ‘teaching swimming to girls’ on a Yarmouk children’s programme.

Violent and oppressive groups are trying to stamp out human rights defenders such as Abdullah in Yarmouk and across the country, for their peaceful work to protect and feed communities – and hold killers accountable.

When Yarmouk camp was under siege and its people starving, Abdullah organized community-farming projects to produce more food; when militant groups recruited child soldiers, he connected their families with psycho-social support; when rights organizations were unable to enter Yarmouk to document ISIS brutality, Abdullah stayed behind to send photos, audio clips and reports to international journalists.

When asked how he came by the skills he has deployed during nearly 20 years of activism in Yarmouk, Abdullah says simply, ‘We’re Palestinian. We are very, very good at surviving.’

Most of Yarmouk’s tens of thousands of residents are descended from Palestinians forced from their homes in the 1948 war over Israel’s founding. Since the start of the Syrian civil war, Yarmouk has been hit by a series of bombardments, sieges and chemical attacks that forced these second- and third-generation Palestinian refugees to flee once again.

Today, in makeshift refugee camps scattered across Europe, you can usually spot the Palestinians even before you hear their accents. They are the ones setting up phone-charging stations in camps in Greece, sending their nephews round to collect a little fee.

They also make phenomenal activists.

‘When you care about people,’ Abdullah says, ‘your responsibility is total. If there is no-one to clean the roads, you clean the roads. If there is no-one to put the fire out after the bomb drops, you put out the fire. If there is no-one to write about the danger people are living in, you have to learn to write a report. This is our responsibility. It’s a revolutionary responsibility, a religious responsibility, a national responsibility.’

Abdullah can think of plenty of things he would rather do than be an activist. He loves to teach, and says he’s at his best when he’s coaching in Yarmouk’s youth football league.

Aid work is seldom fun, and rarely glamorous, he says. Food distribution is heavy, cold work, especially in Syrian winters. And you tend to attract anger when you’re the one deciding which family gets rice.

Abdullah says that in Syria – and in many war zones, he suspects – the distinction between activism and humanitarian aid work has melted away. ‘It’s hard,’ he says. ‘You can’t say, “no, I won’t do it because that’s humanitarian not human rights work”. You have to be prepared to do everything and if you’re not, you shouldn’t be an activist.’

If the government, or an armed group, wants civilians to starve, the humanitarian who feeds them quickly becomes the most famous activist in the camp. When ISIS occupied Yarmouk in 2015, it took less than a year for the group to call openly for Abdullah’s assassination. He believes this had as much to do with his work on community food programmes as it did with his liaising with foreign media.

Abdullah is keen to stress that he is one of many, many others. For six years, Syrian activists have provided the most insightful, critical accounts of the war and human rights violations happening in the country – often at great personal risk. They have been detained, tortured, disappeared and killed for their work. In communities under siege and in countries at war, these human rights defenders play an even more critical, life-saving role.

As government troops closed in on the last rebel-held areas of Aleppo in late 2016, human rights defenders still inside split their time between digging children out of the rubble, co-ordinating medical care and recording voice-messages for journalists about the ongoing bombardment.

They, like Abdullah, were activists, aid workers, war correspondents and community volunteers all rolled into one. They bore witness to the violations being perpetrated in Aleppo, as the sole source of credible information for the United Nations, foreign aid organizations, international rights groups, and the media.

They continued to report despite competing, life-threatening demands on their time, and mounting evidence that every interview put them at greater risk of capture.

Abdullah puts the difference in life expectancy at about 50 years between a high-profile, at-risk activist and someone who tries to live as quietly as possible.

He acknowledges that the various groups trying to kill him might succeed, but he doesn’t see this as a logical or compelling reason to quit.

‘Whether today, or in 100 years, everyone on the planet is going to be dead anyway. So all we can do is try to make it good for other people while we’re here.’

Before you go...

It’s a critical time to build media that brings people together – not drives them apart. That means journalism that creates an inclusive global community, and emphasizes that the struggles of people are often in opposition to the same elite-driven globalization and share the same aspiration to a global, common good.

At New Internationalist, we have never had a rich benefactor or a media tycoon bankrolling what we do. So it makes sense for us to turn to our readers to help shape the kind of journalism that makes the case for something better.

On 1 March, we are launching an ambitious Community Share Offer, opening up ownership of New Internationalist to ordinary people all over the world. If you are interested in joining us, visit factsandheart.org.

Erin Kilbride works at Front Line Defenders, frontlinedefenders.org

Brazil human rights defender found drowned in dam

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On 21 June 2016, dam workers found Nilce de Souza Magalhães' (above) body washed up on the river bank of Usina Hidrelétrica Jirau, a dam that she had publicly opposed.

The bodies of murdered women should not have to be the catalyst for responsible development, writes Erin Kilbride.

Last week, a human rights defender's body was found drowned in the hydro-electric dam she spent three years fighting. Nilce de Souza Magalhães was a fierce opponent of the Usina Hidrelétrica Jirau, a rock-fill dam in north-western Brazil. She was murdered in January 2016 by a man who said he wanted to ‘silence’ her. On 21 June, dam workers found Nilce's body washed up on the side of the dam's river bank. Her hands and feet had been tied with ropes and attached to large rocks that kept her body submerged under water for six months.

Brazil is one of the deadliest countries in the world for those who work to defend people's right to land. Front Line Defenders has documented almost 30 killings of environmental, indigenous, and land rights defenders in Brazil in 2016 alone – Nilce is the 27th. In 2015, Global Witness ranked Brazil as the deadliest country in the world for environment rights defenders.

The Jirau dam was first commissioned in 2013, with most of the power set to be exported 2,000 miles across the country to south-eastern Brazil. Despite laws that lay out a strict approval process for water development projects, critics say many criteria were rubber-stamped before consulting with local communities that would be most impacted. In 2010, a coalition of local and international rights groups criticized the ‘highly-flawed’ environmental impact study prepared by the energy and construction companies prior to launching the project.

The dam uprooted Nilce's community and forced them onto a compound with no running water or electricity. It diverted the Madeira River that Nilce's family had lived off for decades and destroyed their lives as fisherfolk.

After three years of campaigning against the project, Nilce went missing on 7 January, 2016. On 15 January, police detained Edione Pessoa da Silva after an anonymous caller tipped them off. He confessed to murdering Nilce, and escaped from prison days later. Authorities stated that Nilce's murder followed personal accusations she made against da Silva, but members of her community and organization, Movement of People Affected by Dams, say the killing was a response to her powerful activism.

From 2013 to 2016, Nilce led public demonstrations against the dam, spoke at hearings, and submitted legal complaints that initiated civil and criminal proceedings against the Usina Hidrelétrica company and Sustainable Energy of Brazil (ESRB), the consortium responsible for developing the dam. Her work led to a Public Prosecutors' Office investigation into ESRB for failing to compensate displaced fisherman, and another criminal inquiry into data manipulation to obscure how destructive the dam would be. After Nilce spoke at a federal negotiation last December, the government commissioned a state delegation to visit the region and investigate reports of violations.

Nilce was effective and her advocacy was smart. She will never see the results of the investigations she initiated, but her murder is a morbid testament to her power.

Since Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff was suspended in May, political discourse in the country has become openly hostile to human rights. One of the interim government's first moves was dismantling the Ministry for Human Rights. What used to be a ministry devoted to promoting Women, Racial Equality, and Human Rights has become one ‘Secretary’ at a desk in the Ministry of Justice. The new Minister of Justice has referred to the peaceful protests of some land rights organizers as ‘guerrilla tactics’, and the interim president just set up an all-white, all-male cabinet. The National Programme for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders lacks resources to provide adequate support, and HRD ‘beneficiaries of the program routinely say their reports of death threats and attacks go unanswered.’

The scope of the degradation in human rights mechanisms in Brazil does not simply signal a threat to human rights defenders at large. It sends a targeted message to women human rights defenders, Afro-Brazilians, and indigenous activists bold enough to declare their rights to land that they will see no protection from the Brazilian state.

Nilce lived and worked in a marginalized region of Brazil, where the National Programme for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders does not even operate. Her death was not unavoidable, but its prevention was not prioritized. Brazilian authorities need to thoroughly investigate Nilce's murder and bring to justice the people responsible for planning and executing the killing, but the government itself must be held accountable for demolishing the human rights mechanisms that could have protected her.

In the weeks after environmental rights defender Berta Cáceres was murdered in Honduras – a killing that shook the international community in a way that few attacks on human rights defenders do – major shareholders and investors pulled out of the dam Berta was fighting. Following a week of very bad public relations, most decided that bankrolling a controversial dam in Honduras – a state known for violence against indigenous communities and impunity following HRD murders – was not worth the headache. In the months since Nilce's muder, some local Brazilian community organizations have demanded that international funders withdraw support for the Jirau dam.

RELATED: ‘Because the river told me’ - peasant farmers are right to be wary of ‘development’, explains Nils McCune.

Whether or not the project stops, the killing of human rights defenders should not have to be the catalyst for responsible development. The degradation of human rights mechanisms and structural violence against marginalized communities are cause enough for concern – companies need not wait for the dead bodies of vocal women to prove the point.

Five years after Bahrain’s revolution, five new ways to protest

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Women march in a pro-democracy rally outside of Manama, Bahrain. 5 July 2013. by Erin Kilbride

If you look quickly at the state of Bahrain's pro-democracy movement five years after the 2011 uprising, you could be forgiven for believing that the government emerged with some scratches, but largely unscathed.

The sheer number of opposition leaders, human rights defenders, and peaceful activists in prison, on trial and in exile suggests that the Al-Khalifa monarchy has finally silenced its fiercest critics – a task it has been trying to achieve literally since it was installed into power. After half a decade of rounding up activists accused of taking part in the 2011 uprising or the human rights and democracy movement that followed, the government has faced only a fraction of the international criticism it deserves.

The European Parliament has adopted the occasional resolution calling for the release of an imprisoned human rights defender; the US State Department churns out a yearly human rights report confirming what most observers already know about Bahrain’s ‘abysmal’ record on freedom of speech, assembly, and the right to a fair trial; for a few years, some American arms shipments to the Gulf kingdom were halted following the violent government crackdown on peaceful protestors.

Human rights defenders from 85 countries at the 2011 Dublin Platform protest outside the Saudi Embassy in Dublin, Ireland in solidarity with human rights defender and former Front Line Defenders Protection Coordinator Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja. 15 September 2011.

Photo: Front Line Defenders

And then there's every Bahrain junkie's favourite President Obama quote from 2011:

‘[M]ass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and such steps will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.’

In the five years since President Obama said it, the quote has appeared in dozens of op-ed pages, at least eight published books, and the DC-based NGO Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain had it printed on coffee mugs.

Unfortunately, Obama's words about opposition leaders in prison remained just words. Arms sales to the kingdom partially resumed in 2012, and dropped further restrictions on military aid in 2015, less than two weeks after a Bahraini court sentenced the country’s highest-profile opposition leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, to four years in prison for criticizing the government. Many prominent activists and politicians are still in jail, and the aforementioned dialogue between the regime and opposition parties is nowhere to be found.

Anyone who thinks the resolve of Bahraini human rights defenders has faded along with the potential for freedom isn’t looking close enough

Five years on, international experts have understandably labelled Bahrain’s prospects for reform ‘bleak’, ‘quashed’, and ‘fading’. But anyone who thinks the resolve of Bahraini human rights defenders has faded along with the potential for freedom isn’t looking close enough.

Every day acts of defiance continue. Political prisoners in Manama’s infamous Jau Prison refuse to wear criminal uniforms – because they are not criminals. Defenders kept in prison cells with young boys argue with guards to have the children moved to juvenile centres, but hold night time ‘human rights education classes’ in their crowded cells. Human rights defenders who have been forced into exile in Europe after receiving violent threats in Bahrain utilize their time abroad to research the Gulf arms trade, detail the record of Bahraini officials engaged in torture and other crimes, and find new advocacy targets. And back in Bahrain, anonymous human rights defenders continue to document and tweet out reports of arrests, tear-gas attacks, and house raids.

The government destroyed ‘the square’ and ‘the roundabout,’ but, as it turns out, the activism of Bahrain's human rights defenders is not shape-specific. Over the past half-decade, as the Bahraini government has continued its attacks on civil society leaders, those same defenders have proven that no matter where you put them, they are still human rights defenders.

Graffiti at a protest in a village outside Manama. 7 July 2013.

Photo: Erin Kilbride

Five years on here's a look at five places Bahraini human rights defenders (HRDs) are refusing to quit:

1. In Prison

The Bahraini regime can't seem to learn its lesson on this one. Arrest after arrest, sentence after sentence, HRDs use their time in prison to document – if only in their minds – the abuses of prisoner rights they witness in their own cells. Multiple international rights groups working on Bahrain can cite phone calls they’ve received from prominent activists who quickly rattle off instances of torture, denial of medical treatment, or unsanitary conditions, reporting as much information as they can before the phone line is cut.

The Bahraini regime can't seem to learn its lesson

Hussain Jawad, Chairman of the European-Bahraini Organisation for Human Rights was detained for 90 days in late 2013. During that time, he compiled over 30 stories about children under the age of 18 who were verbally abused, denied access to textbooks and exams, and kept in crowded cells with grown men. Once released, Jawad became the go-to source for information on minors jailed in Bahrain’s adult prisons. In March 2014, Jawad told me that he and other adult prisoners had set up a makeshift, youth-counselling centre in their cell. A year later, security forces raided Jawad's home, and he ended up back in prison after a two-day interrogation. During a phone call with his wife, Jawad told her he was spending his days behind bars ‘teaching human rights classes to youth in his cell.’

Bahraini HRDs use the time spent behind bars to speak with victims first-hand and to relay reports of abuse after they are released – for those that are – or on elicit telephone calls for those who aren't. Perhaps more importantly, it puts them in a prime position to keep doing what they're best at – documenting abuse in the darkest, most hidden locations and promoting human rights in places it's most needed.

2. In Bahraini Villages

Bahrain has a network of activists that continue to visit homes, protests, and hospitals to collect information about ongoing rights abuses. On a weekly basis the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights reports the updated numbers of arrests and detentions as well as how many children are currently detained. The European-Bahraini Organisation for Human Rights collects and publishes photos of arrest warrants to showcase the trumped up charges most activists are handed. Every morning independent activists tweet out lengthy lists with the names of those arrested the night before – which are then shared around as mothers search for their sons. Collectively, they are the documentation team that just won't quit.

3. In South Korea

In 2013, Bahrain Watch, a British-based advocacy group run by both Bahrainis – some of who were HRDs in Bahrain and went into exile to avoid detention or other repressive measures – and non-Bahrainis, revealed that Bahrain's Ministry of the Interior had requested 1.6m teargas canisters from South Korean distributers. According to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights police have killed at least 89 people since 2011, more than 40 of whom died from direct shots to the head with tear gas canisters or from tear gas suffocation.

According to the leaked document acquired by Bahrain Watch, in 2013 the government placed an order (yet another) for 1.6 million tear gas shells, 145,000 stun and flash grenades, and 90,000 tear gas grenades – otherwise put, more than 2.5 canisters per Bahraini citizen. Bahrain Watch launched a global Stop the Shipment campaign, which went viral on social media, received endorsements from the likes of Noam Chomsky, and saw the group’s founder link up with South Korean activists to stage anti-shipment demonstrations at Seoul City Hall. Thirty-one Korean NGOs held a protest outside South Korea’s Defence Acquisition Program Administration, Korea's tear gas export licensing authority, and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions followed suit, calling on authorities to stop the shipment.

After months of campaigning, the Financial Times reported that South Korea denied two requests from Korean companies to export tear gas to Bahrain due to the ‘unstable politics in the country [Bahrain], people’s death due to tear gas and complaints from human rights groups.’ The report revealed that the order was larger than Bahrain Watch originally knew. The government was set to import 3 million tear gas canisters – four for every one Bahraini citizen – had the activists not stopped the shipment.

4. In Solidarity

In the summer of 2014, when American police began using teargas to dispel protesters demonstrating against racist police violence, photos coming out of Ferguson, Missouri became increasingly indecipherable from those taken by citizen journalists in Bahrain, Palestine, Turkey, and other well-worn teargas-filled communities. As American media began to delve into the harmful effects of teargas, chemical weapons survivors across the world offered up techniques to Ferguson’s residents. Bahraini human rights defenders, activists, and the average village resident – many of them now tear gas experts – offered up tips: milk not water, no rubbing, run against the wind.

As their own reform efforts have been persecuted at home, Bahraini human rights defenders have remained active in their support for other communities’ human rights campaigns. A 2012 solidarity trip to Gaza by Bahraini medical professionals included some of the medics who had been detained, tortured, and convicted for treating wounded protestors during the government’s brutal assault on Pearl Square. Dr Nabeel Tammam, whose conviction was later overturned, was originally charged with illegal gathering and distributing false information to the media. Tammam has a long history of supporting Gaza on medical and solidarity missions, and organized the 2012 ‘humanitarian stand’ in response to Israel’s ‘latest’ atrocities against Palestinian civilians.

5. In the News

‘The forgotten revolution’ is a favourite refrain of protesters in many countries – Bahrain included – where people feel like international media has abandoned, or altogether ignored, coverage of their struggle. Of course, there is never enough press; there will never be enough press. But hardly a week goes by without a Bahrain human rights issue headlined in a major international paper, and in a majority of these pieces, it is not Western NGO or think tank heads cited as experts, but Bahraini human rights defenders themselves. Over the past five years, HRDs have proven more media savvy, creative, and just plain likeable than the $32 million PR machine they’re up against. Indeed, they’ve proven their resiliency, and the next ‘expert’ to think the revolution is dead has another think coming.

Erin Kilbride is the Communications Fellow at Front Line Defenders, the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.

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