Human rights defenders are people who champion and fight for your rights, and mine. On the streets, they represent freedom. In history books, they represent change. It can’t be an easy calling; challenging brutality, oppression, and injustice at the hands of the powerful. The millions who take up the mantle around the world have to be resilient, resolute, and foremost lion-hearted. But they play a pivotal part in the growth of a nation; their placards act as mirrors to society, they remind people to reflect.
In a nation where oppression, double-dealing, and corruption has not only been the norm but is nearly accepted as the culture of taking up office, those who defend human rights in the Maldives are understandably faced with an exceptionally arduous task. Maldives had a strongman that ruled with an iron-fist from 1978 to 2008. While he famously maintains innocence of the various human rights abuses that his 30-year regime is accused of committing, among one of the primary concerns during this period had been the systematic prosecution and forced disappearance of defenders that championed the rights many who were reportedly victims of an autocratic ruler.
Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom himself was an activist who recieved acclaim early in his career for standing up to his predecessor Ibrahim Nasir - who infamously ordered the execution of an island's entire population in a campaign to quash a popular rebellion in the south. In the Maldives, defenders have been cut down for decades.
A recent survey conducted by the Maldives Democracy Network, a nonprofit organization that has been at the forefront of the domestic fight for human rights for years, highlights; ‘the principles of human rights and democracy began to be openly discussed and called for mostly during the reform movement that moved from exile to a national human rights effort during the years 2003 and onwards’.
Fast-forward to 2018, international organizations Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, and Freedom House all observed a consistent decline in Maldives’ human rights situation. Rightly so, in the last year alone independent news organizations have been subject to intimidation and unfair prosecution. Last year, several journalists were targeted and subject to politically motivated accusations supported by state intitutions. Last year, rallies calling for human rights and democratic reform were violently suppressed. Last year, human rights activist and blogger Yameen Rasheed was butchered as he entered his home. Our defenders today remind us that these concerns are born of realities in our society that touch all of us and that we should all find them hard to digest.
The aforesaid survey found common threats to defenders. The utterly comprehensive study names them to be; threats of physical attacks, threats from radical groups, threats and harassment online, and targeted surveillance. Maldives Democracy Network’s managing director, Shahinda Ismail, also said in a panel discussion held earlier this week to mark Yameen’s murder, that women activists in particular get hefty threats of sexual violence. These threats are common, but seldomly addressed by institutions statutorily tasked with doing so.
The survey assessed answers from individual human rights defenders, those associated with organizations or state institutions, and journalists; with 15 participants in each group. In it, the Maldives Democracy Network notes that the Maldives is in need of mechanisms that defend human rights defenders and of international accountability in this regard.
Maldivian authorities have long been accused of failing to address such threats adequately, which only encourages the apathetic attitude with which the general public swallows news of violence against active defenders. Even more sinister are reports of law enforcement officers applying their sinfully-common attitude of incompetence and hostility to dealing with victims of such violence.
Case in point; Yameen's father says that he has been subject to harassment and ridicule by officers of the law, in his efforts to get justice for his son’s murder. The question of who gave some of our state officials the right to extend the protection of the law only to those they deem worthy or to make the innocent guilty, still persists. As does the noticeable apathy towards the rights that our defenders risk their lives to attain.
Colombians say God made their land so beautiful that it was unfair and so populated their masses with evil. Perhaps Maldives is similar and our collective apathy towards human rights abuse is innate and a result of having been born vile. Or perhaps it's been our vulnerable history that's shaped our current temperament, and we are victims of violence extended over generations and now have become numb to it all.
The government and the Maldivian state has thus far proven either unable or unwilling to properly address the threats to the lives and property of our defenders. The protection of these members of our society, who not only deserve gratitude but are crucial to the future of our nation, is a duty that falls on the shoulder of every elected official, officer under oath, and ultimately, every individual.
What ever the obstacles of the time are, those breathing today have our ancestors to spite for our society's failures. Similarly, when future generations reflect on the society they inherit, we will be to be blame. Every failure we pass on to them is our shame. We, as a nation, must not falter in demanding safety for those that defend us, our compass. For the safety and peace of our future sons and daughters, it is our duty to make the concerns of those that defend our rights, our own. Because defenders are familiar with perspective, defenders know that there can be no trade-off or compromise; that they have to hear it from you, they have to hear it from me, and they have to hear it from us.
“No one can give you freedom or justice, you take it” ~ Malcolm X