The problems of human rights defenders under repressive states

If human rights are to be defended, human rights defenders must also be protected. This is an extremely pressing problem; it is not just the issue of a few people, it is a societal problem. Although it is to one degree or another a problem of all societies, it is one of peculiar difficulty under repressive states.
by Basil Fernando

(June 29, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka Guardian) In order to understand the case of FMA Razzak, a Bangaldeshi who was savagely attacked and partly blinded for his work as a human rights defender, properly we need to look at it in the context in which he was working. That is to say, what is the difference in roles between a human rights defender under a basically democratic state as against that of one under a basically repressive state?

Distinction between the administration of justice under a basically democratic state and a repressive state

When human rights activists and legal professionals from countries within North America and Western Europe think of the administration of justice, they often picture judicial systems with qualified judges who have been selected through reasonably rigorous processes, where their knowledge and their capacity to truthfully and effectively engage with the public without corruption is, generally speaking, taken for granted. Similarly, they may think of police forces with reasonably functioning disciplinary systems, supervision by the parliament, under scrutiny from the press. They may also think of prosecuting systems in which professionals—whether in a civil or common law system—are sufficiently qualified, reasonably independent and again subject to external controls and scrutiny.

Under repressive states, the administration of justice is not of this sort. Instead, what we usually see are judges perhaps qualified in the field of law (an accreditation that cannot be taken for granted) but who expect and calculate that corruption is inbuilt into the process of adjudication. Delays impede the process of justice. Complaint investigations often take months; passage through prosecutors' offices often takes years, and then the passage of the case through court, many more years. Meantime, there are no witness protection programs, so witnesses who experience pressure and threats from those who committed the crimes have no guarantees of security. They might be offered money so that they will not testify or might resort to physical assault, abuse and even murder in order to keep a case under wraps.

In a repressive state, perhaps the worst aspect of the system is the local police. Police officers who are supposed to investigate offences do not work under any sense of obligation to the public, to ensure the effective maintenance of control mechanisms. Complainants are sometimes chased away, made to wait, asked to come back several times or asked for bribes. Every complaint presents an occasion for extortion of the complainants, the accused and others who might be involved. The police become experts at finding opportunities for their own financial benefit. Women they subject to sexual harassment. As such, just getting a complaint lodged is an ordeal.

Additionally, there is in the repressive state the problem of political influence. Under basically democratic states policing and judicial institutions tend to function independently. Interference into their affairs by higher politicians or state officials may constitute a criminal offence, or at very least be considered a serious breach of accepted norms that, generally speaking, politicians do not interfere in the day-to-day affairs of police stations or courts. In the repressive state, by contrast, politicians become involved whenever a powerful person who has been accused of a crime calls in a favour. Politicians call the local police and tell them what to do in response to requests for assistance from members of the power elite. In general, the police are not in a position to ignore these instructions, since their transfers, promotions and often their very livelihoods depend upon political backing.

Distinctive risks and threats under a repressive state

A person under a repressive state who tries to seek justice faces a great ordeal. The person must oftentimes make a choice: do I search for justice and risk my own safety and that of my family, or do I forget about it? In such times, a person may turn to human rights activists for support and guidance. Human rights defenders assist by writing down the person's complaint, advising the person on how to proceed, and accompanying the person to higher authorities and prosecutors, as well as going to court.

Those in the legal profession often feel that becoming involved in activities that could encourage the ire of the police (such as addressing torture) will cause them to lose favour with state officials and this could become problematic for them in the future. For example, a lawyer who has tried to bring a policeman to justice for torturing an innocent civilian may want to bail out a client in an unrelated case, but may find that the client is denied bail because the lawyer in question has attempted to challenge the authority of the police. As people learn that this lawyer is one whose clients do not get bail because of conflict with the police, the lawyer loses business. Other lawyers learn that if they do not want to end up the same way then they ought to avoid becoming involved in human rights issues.

Witnesses of crimes also face a number of difficulties. If a citizen complains about a policeman, the witness of the crime as well as their relatives and friends might be visited by the policeman who would pressure them to encourage the witness to withdraw the charge. Cases might be fabricated against them and they might be threatened with fines and jail time if they do not withdraw the case. Often, witnesses are themselves arrested, detained and tortured. Although torture is in Western Europe and North America thought of as a relatively rare practice, or one confined to certain types of cases, under repressive states it is routinized and mundane. Torture is most often used not to extract information but to terrify and extort.

In such circumstances, the only people willing to take up questions of torture and related abuses are human rights defenders. Yet, such people may not be appreciated for this effort. Under repressive states, trying to help people facing threats coming from state agencies can be considered a tremendously wrong thing to do. Indeed, this lack of appreciation for their role is often the most difficult problem faced by human rights activists working in these countries. The problem is essentially that their simple attempts to help their neighbours to deal with problems posed by agents of the state itself are not seen as legitimate activity.

Compounding of problems caused by failed rule of law

In repressive states with failed rule-of-law systems, insecurity prevails at all levels of society. Among the people who most forcefully express their insecurity are the more affluent members of society. They engage in various kinds of pressure to let their insecurity known to the state. However, the state is unable to deal with the insecurity because it arises from its own repressive anti-rule-of-law model for control. The scale and character of the problems also are profound, requiring enormous political will on the part of the state to undertake serious reform. Yet, such will is absent.

In these conditions, what does the state do? Facing this crisis of confidence caused by insecurity and relying on an anti-rule-of-law model for control, lacking political will to address the systemic problems in any meaningful way it resorts to pacification methods. These may often involve the establishing of special paramilitary or military security groups, enabling to act in ways that are outside of the normal law, thereby further compounding the failed rule of law of the repressive state. Paramilitary groups are encouraged to kill, and such killings are treated as unavoidable necessities in order to address the prevailing insecurity that the state itself has encouraged. Justifications are put forward for the use of other types of extraordinary violence.

So far as Bangladesh is concerned, this accounts for the existence and practices of the Rapid Action Battalions, which operate with extraordinary powers in part because of demands from the more affluent sections of society for some type of security, no matter how it is obtained.

When these paramilitary groups begin to operate they kill not only criminals but also many ordinary folk. In fact, there is no attempt to distinguish between the criminal and the innocent person. The paramilitary group does not have the capacity or a process by which to arrive at such a distinction. On the contrary, its operations are premised on the notion that whoever is targeted must suffer the consequences. Therefore random killing is allowed and becomes an acceptable part of the practices of these paramilitary groups.

When random killings increase in number, so too social uproar increases. Despite the repressive social conditions in which people are situated, many try to find a way to make their voices heard against such policies. Human rights organisations and others take up the issue of the victims and make demands on the government that such killings cease. The repressive state, which is hemmed in by its own anti-rule-of-law methods and the demands from affluent sections of the society for some kind of security, comes to regard human rights organisations as its enemies. Opposition to extrajudicial killing and other gross abuses of human rights committed in the name of public security becomes some sort of subversive activity.

Razzak's story

With this general understanding, we can go to the specifics of what happened to Razzak in Bangladesh this 2011. Razzak had for some years been working as a human rights defender. He helped people to make complaints, he accompanied them to court and he liaised with lawyers. Over time, he was seen as a great threat to the local police, who went out of their way to make his work as difficult as possible. Indeed, his interference cost the police and other officials money, lost opportunities for promotions and lost favour with politicians.

On one occasion, the police charged Razzak with the abduction of a young girl. There was no complaint filed by the young girl or her family against him. They had complained that she was missing, but even though the suspects did not include Razzak, the police went after him anyway. Numerous people intervened on his behalf, including a number of international human rights organizations. Shortly thereafter, the young girl was located with a family friend in a village some miles away. The girl maintained that she did not know Razzak, and said that she had left the village voluntarily because her father had brought a new wife into the home. By then Razzak had been in police custody for two weeks. His family had to pay a bribe of USD2000 for his release, and his wife had to sell her jewellery in order to raise the money. This happened two years ago.

Subsequently, a military officer engaged in land grabbing practices seized the property of Razzak's father. When Razzak took records to the police station to file a complaint, the police ignored his complaints and took the side of the military officer. They ignored Razzak's requests for help for more than two months. During that time, Razzak and his family had to live in hiding. The case was brought to the attention of the government, the official national human rights commission and a number of international human rights organizations, but Razzak and his family did not receive assistance. In the meantime, Razzak ventured out of his hiding place to meet senior members of the community whom he wanted to ask for guidance and support. On his journey, a gang of men waylaid Razzak and his brother. The men severely assaulted the two and attempted to gouge out Razzak's eyes. This was done with the full knowledge of the police. The police then came and escorted the perpetrators of the crime to take Razzak's body to the hospital, as if to show they had performed their duties in some way. Three hospitals refused to take Razzak, because of pressure from the attackers, as well as a desire to avoid becoming involved in the difficulties Razzak faced with the police. It took the intervention of a member of parliament to find a place in a hospital for Razzak to receive proper treatment. Once he was admitted, it was discovered that his eyes had been badly damaged, and he had to be hospitalized for a few weeks.

This story, although brutal, is familiar to human rights defenders working under repressive states. Unless volunteers for justice like Razzak work to raise awareness about the difficulties ordinary people in their search for justice, the unequal balance of power between the state authorities and members of the public never changes. But when human rights defenders do this work, their own safety is compromised.

International solidarity, a challenge to the repressive state

Once Razzak was in hospital, his case received a great deal of publicity from international human rights organizations and embassies, urging government intervention. The government was inundated with complaints about this case. A few people came forward to help Razzak, one of them was a young pacifist. After this man helped Razzak he was himself abducted and threatened with killing by persons who were evidently secret state agents. Some details of his case are mentioned in this edition of article 2, as are those of another man who was similarly warned that if he kept up working on Razzak's case then he would be killed and his body disposed of in the sea. Both men have now fled to safety.

Although we might on the one hand ask whether the risks taken by Razzak and these two men for relatively small and simple actions in defence of human rights are acceptable risks, ultimately movements to safeguard the rights and dignity of ordinary civilians can never emerge without a few people like Razzak who are prepared to take these types of risks. Indeed, the struggle of a human rights defender under the repressive state is inherently risky.

If human rights are to be defended, human rights defenders must also be protected. This is an extremely pressing problem; it is not just the issue of a few people, it is a societal problem. Although it is to one degree or another a problem of all societies, it is one of peculiar difficulty under repressive states. Therefore, as human rights defenders worldwide we must work to build up as many new measures as possible to build international solidarity and provide support for such persons in order to better enable them to work under circumstances that entail and necessitate risk.

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