Who Qualifies as a Human Rights Defender?

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Three weeks ago, Emirati commentator Sultan al-Qassemi wrote a piece entitled, “UAE Political Islamists Are Not Defenders of Human Rights.” He criticized the way western NGOs and media outlets used the term “human rights defender” to describe certain jailed Islamists, most of whom were accused of being part of the United Arab Emirates’ wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qassemi spoke of a concern that many of us share: every time I see the term, I wonder how it can be so wrongly used and easily abused. There is much to say on the topic of how the media and NGOs employ the rhetoric of human rights.

Qassemi starts by showing how the UAE’s political Islamists are racist and sexist, which is easily apparent if you just follow their tweets; their tweets are often spontaneous and, so, must be somewhat reflective of their way of thinking. What also needs to be mentioned, however, is how much propaganda is directed against them from the Emirati media and in statements by state officials. The attacks on the Islamists, inside and outside of prisons, are oppressive and immoral; their families tell of denied prison visits, torture cases, and, lately, of how their bank accounts are being frozen just because they are relatives of Islamist detainees. Surely, this point is not to justify the thinking of certain political Islamists, but it is to highlight how state oppression becomes the deciding factor for NGOs on whether to include Islamists under the umbrella of human rights.

As someone that deals regularly with human rights organizations, I learned how inflexible they are in their work. Being forced to deal with stubborn regimes, NGOs often find themselves unable to speak about the violations again “regular people,” but, instead, must refer to any threatened voice as a human rights defender. I have seen how much easier it is to push NGOs to make statements about ‘activists’, as opposed to unknown protesters. NGOs feel forced to use the term ‘human rights defender’, even when the term does not fit, which has been the case, many times. If this speaks of anything, it speaks of our need to revisit a literature of criticism directed towards the discourse of ‘human rights.’ ‘Human Rights’ is ill, even in theory, as it creates a hierarchy, of who is in need of the most support, starting with political activists; that, by itself, makes it problematic and debatable.

What I find even more dangerous, is the way that NGOs in our region take it for granted that they must follow western organizations in their approaches. Local NGOs believe that, by abiding to this set of rules and established rhetoric, their work will be more relevant. They do not realize, however, the danger in following others in their dealings with particular cases. Why do we need to call an Islamist a human rights defender in order to demand his release? Why does ‘free speech’ need to be our top priority? Why do western NGOs need to, for example, call female circumcision a form of ‘torture’, to be able to criticize it? And who approved the act of including such a variety of Arab detainees under the umbrella of human rights, when our heritage consists of social, religious, and political doctrines where the ideal of justice is prevalent.

Starting this discussion is crucial; it can form a new consciousness for the way we perceive ‘human rights.’ It can, also, for the time being, alert NGOs to the need to change their policies and be more daring in criticizing state violations of any sort, without having to justify criticisms using the ‘rights’ discourse. The way ‘human rights’ has been used and overused in all of these contexts, and by passive bodies such as the United Nations, has simultaneously led to the normalization of violations and a game of finger-pointing. A reformed approach to human rights is needed.


There is oppression and lack of deocrmacy and human rights in Burma/Myanmar for all the ethnic groups, not just Rakhine or Kachin and Shan, but also for the Bamar, Mon and Karen. The aim should be to fight the oppression and lack of human rights. So unite with all the races of Burma for the reestablishment of a fre and democratic Burma.Secession from the Union of myanmar is not the answer. Suppose Muslims like to secede from an Arankanese State will you allow them? Then th process will lead to Balkanization of Burma that is unacceptable to all of us!

This is an age-old debate once began 40 years ago by Amnesty International when it conceived of the notion of the "prisoner of conscience" as someone who did not use or advocate violence. AI then defended people on that basis; human rights activists were those whose work did not involve the use or advocacy of violence.

This simple moral precept was thrown under the bus by Amnesty during "Gita-gate" when their gender advisor was dismissed for complaining about AI's turning of Islamists who advocated against women's rights and other civil liberties into heroes, with whom they appeared on platforms and went visiting to 10 Downing Street.

Amnesty has now thoroughly lost its way on this question, accepting discredited notions like "defensive jihad" that run counter to basic human rights.

So it's important to go back to the UN documents that were long negotiated on this subject.

First, there's Art. 30 in the UN Declaration of Human Rights:

"Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein."

So if an Islamist wants to take away freedom of speech and belief or nonbelief, or women's rights from other people even as he pursues his own freedom of religion, he is engaging just in this very activity contrary to Art. 30. It's very important. It's too often overlooked.

Then there's the UN Human Rights Defenders' Resolution:


These help a lot to separate the wheat from the chaff.

You can always defend the civil rights of anyone, even a murderer, on human rights grounds of due process, fair trial, no use of torture, and so on.

But you don't convert the *victim* of human rights violations which you condemn into the *defender* of those rights. He may not be.

And if you are a defender of human rights yourself, you should not condone violence or the violation of any rights.

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