Defending the defenders

7 November 2019 - 11:15am

Originally published in Up Front Autumn/Winter 2019.

Defending the defenders: standing with frontline communities struggling for justice

Photo: AFP/Jaafar Ashtiyeh 

At the end of August, US congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar were set to travel on an official delegation to Palestine. But days before their departure, the Government of Israel, goaded on by US President Donald Trump, banned them from entering. The congresswomen have spoken out consistently on social justice issues, including Palestinian rights (Tlaib is Palestinian herself), and it was clear that they were being punished for raising their voices.

Tlaib and Omar are not the first to be banned by Israel. As a matter of policy, Israel prevents millions of Palestinian refugees from accessing their internationally recognised right of return to the homes from which they were expelled. Palestinian refugees are denied their return as a group. But Israel has often prevented individuals of many backgrounds from entering the country if they are suspected to likely speak out about what they see. The UN appointed Special Rapporteurs reporting on Israel’s occupation have been denied entry for years, forced instead to conduct their investigations from outside the country. Why? Because Israel’s government doesn’t like it that they call out its systematic violations of international law.

And now, emboldened by a new class of powerful far-right allies around the world, Israel is ramping up its assault on human rights defenders. Palestinian human rights activists, lawyers and journalists are routinely harassed, threatened, arbitrarily arrested or prevented from traveling. Widely respected Palestinian human rights organisations are targeted by the Israeli government, their work smeared and maligned with crude misinformation campaigns aimed at convincing donors and partners in North America and Europe to cut ties with them.

These threats extended to War on Want when we were blacklisted by Israel last year over our outspoken support for Palestinian rights and campaigns for accountability for Israel’s violations.

Israel’s attempts to silence Palestinians and their allies are a part of a larger campaign to clamp down on human rights defenders, to make our work impossible and to isolate Palestinians from the powerful international solidarity movement that has formed in support of justice and equality. 

Israel’s government is not alone in its effort to shut down dissent and crush social movements. The toxic discourse and policies of far-right leaders around the world – Modi, Bolsonaro, Trump, Mohammad bin Salman, Orban and others – seek to fuel hatred and roll back universal human rights. From India’s military lockdown of Kashmir, to engineered disasters to make way for land grabs in Brazil, the newest wave of far-right leaders and movements brazenly share notes with each other on how to best plunder, destroy and exploit. And all of them are increasing attacks on human rights defenders, including War on Want’s international partners: across the Global South activists contesting the harmful effects of extractivism now constitute the majority of victims of assassination and forced ‘disappearances’.

What can we do to ‘defend the defenders’?

In the face of these shameless attacks, we will not be bullied into silence, and we will do everything we can to increase our support for our partners and their crucial work. Here are the key approaches guiding our response to this global shrinking space for civil society, and the attacks on human rights defenders:

  • Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. Creating a distraction is part of the strategy of the attackers, so to defend our partners and allies, we must talk about the repression they face AND the important work that they do. This helps keep the work going, and provides important context as to why they’re being attacked in the first place.
  • Put energy into connecting, rather than retreating inward. When governments impose travel bans, they aim to isolate social movements and cut off their international support networks. Our job in those moments is to provide as many opportunities as possible for our partners to speak, write and meet with others so that their network of support is expanded.
  • Keep asking ‘how does oppression abroad relate to our systems here in the UK?’ War and repression, corporate plunder and extraction, often starts here, led by corporations with addresses right here in the UK that are profiting from land grabs, extractive mining, house demolitions or bombing civilian areas. While we support our partners in their work on the ground, we can also support them by pushing back against those here that are profiting from repression and exploitation abroad.

War on Want stands in solidarity with frontline human rights defenders across the world in their struggle for justice. War on Want depends on the support of people like you so that we can continue our work with frontline human rights defenders. Will you donate so that we can keep fighting for justice? Thank you for standing with us. 


Photo: Christian McLaughlin

Jakeline Romero Epiayu is an indigenous human rights defender with Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu – Wayuu Women’s Strength. Along with many other community leaders, she has recently been targeted with death threats that directly link her to her activism defending indigenous rights in the face of the colossal Cerrejón mine. These threats tend to appear at the very same time defenders from La Guajira travel to the UK to denounce the company’s impacts. Find out more about La Guajira in our report The Rivers are Bleeding: British mining in Latin America.

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