They talk of war but it’s their own citizens these ‘strong’ men fear most

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Filipino activists hold a banner reading 'Stop The killings!' during a protest to mark the Philippines' 119th Independence Day in Manila, Philippines, on 12 June 2017. [EPA/MARK R. CRISTINO]

In the current geopolitical context, European support for those fighting for human dignity is more important than ever, writes Shada Islam.

Shada Islam is Director of Europe & Geopolitics at Friends of Europe. This opinion piece was first posted on that organisation’s website.

They talked of war and conflict but most of the “strongmen” lashing out at each other at the recent security conference in Munich are more fearful of their own citizens than they are of each other.

Civil society activists are under increasing pressure worldwide, their pursuit of dignity and equal rights-for-all clashing with governments’ determination to silence dissent and “disobedience”.

The list of governments frightened by the voice and passion of their own citizens is shamefully long. Their repression can take the shape of state crackdowns, intimidation by “secret services”, carefully orchestrated “targeted killings”, disappearances of activists and government bans on travel.

The free press is muzzled. Minorities face discrimination, women are brutalised and abused, LGBT people are stigmatised. The vulnerable are bullied and exploited. Clearly, these governments fear their own citizens more than they do foreign armies.

It’s a strange and topsy-turvy world where any attempt to expose the plight of the poor and disenfranchised is considered unpatriotic and where standing up against brutality, intolerance and bad governance is condemned, not applauded.

Small surprise then that the much-respected UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said last year that he would not be seeking a second term in office. “To do so, in the current geopolitical context, might involve bending a knee in supplication, lessening the independence and integrity of my voice,” he explained.

The discrimination and clampdowns can be insidious. Pakistani human rights defender Asma Jahangir, who died recently, was constantly harassed, stalked and denounced as “Western”, “secular” and “pro-Indian” because of her fearlessness in speaking truth to power. The equally courageous Pakistani Nobel peace prize laureate Malala Yousafzai faces similar criticism in her home country.

Russia, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia are known for their harsh disregard for the rights of dissidents. Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi is being detained and tried by an Israeli military court on the charge of incitement to violence. While freeing a German national, a Turkish court has just sentenced six journalists to life in jail for alleged links to the July 2016 coup plotters despite criticism by the UN and OSCE representatives on media freedom.

Sadly, even countries that were once seen as fairly safe are becoming much less so. India fell three spots on the World Press Freedom Index to 136th in 2017, according to the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, because of growing self-censorship and acts by Hindu nationalists trying to purge “anti-nationalist” thought.

Southeast Asia’s performance is especially disheartening. The “disappearance” of Sombath Somphone, an internationally acclaimed civil society leader who was kidnapped from the streets of Vientiane in late 2012, is a glaring example of a worsening of the human rights situation in Laos.

With elections coming up, the Cambodian government has slapped a massive tax bill on The Cambodia Daily, a local English-language newspaper often critical of the ruling elite, with many non-governmental organisations fearing a similar fate.

The human rights situation in the Philippines has deteriorated rapidly under President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug campaign. Religious intolerance is on the rise in Indonesia.

In Myanmar, the military’s ethnic cleansing operations against the Rohingya Muslims show no signs of abating although over half a million Rohingya have had to flee their community, becoming refugees in Myanmar’s neighbouring states, including Thailand and Bangladesh.

US President Donald Trump’s assault on non-discrimination and equal justice at home and his “bromance” with the world’s tough guys go hand in hand with worldwide cutbacks in US support for human rights, the rule of law, and good governance.

As the US retreats from the global stage, European support for those fighting for human dignity becomes ever more important.

But “threats, physical and verbal attacks against activists” are also becoming the norm in parts of Europe, according to the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency. The world is watching as the European Commission launches unprecedented disciplinary proceedings against Poland, and Hungary continues its intimidation of pro-democracy civil society groups.

As Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders said recently, many countries point to recent laws in Hungary and Poland to justify their own action against NGOs. Europe’s treatment of refugee and asylum seekers also leaves it open to criticism.

Still, the EU is funding a range of initiatives to support human rights defenders at high risk, and EU Missions in many countries have special human rights officials charged with helping to protect vulnerable groups and individuals.

Regular consultations and discussions also take place with civil society representatives as part of Europe’s relations with Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

These initiatives are welcome and important. But they are still too-often an after-thought, a last-minute add-on to the more important talks with governments. Civil society activists have trouble getting visas to travel to Europe. Their participation in EU-sponsored events is often barred by governments.

But as experience has shown, listening only to state representatives while failing to interact with students, activists, trade unionists, members of parliaments and business leaders leads to flawed policies.

The late Asma Jahangir, who was often at the European Parliament, is no longer there to stir our conscience. But she leaves a strong legacy for many others across the world who share her dedication and passion for justice and dignity – and who deserve our support.

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