Reflections on Women Human Right Defenders & Twitter

I tweet most days while standing in line at the grocers, waiting for the bus, or walking between classes. It’s usually about my area of specialization, business and human rights (BHR). Twitter conversations on BHR can be contentious. My online colleagues and I can be blunt, forceful, and firm in our disagreements. But, our twitter conversations have been those of passionate professionals. We come to the discussion with a common language and a common foundation. As a result, no matter how loud or forceful the conversation, the attacks are on ideas and not people.

This week, when I spoke out on Professor Melzer’s blog post on the Assange case, I approached the disagreement in exactly the same. I forcefully, fully, and resoundingly disagreed with what I considered to be a lax portrayal of the law on conditional consent in sexual relationships. To be clear: my disagreements with Professor Melzer go further than this alone but it was the discussion of rape and the seriousness of conditional consent that brought me to the conversation on Twitter.

I wasn’t alone. Several ATLAS women read the same article, circulated by a member, and came to the same conclusion. We also penned an open letter in response to Professor Melzer. And we did what we do – we talked about it on Twitter.

I didn’t expect the responses we received.  

What I considered a strong disagreement amongst human rights lawyers and academics became a discussion of interest to a large number of others. Many, who firmly support Assange, felt our concerns over the discussion of rape could not be separated from concerns over Assange’s treatment. I understand that point of view, but disagree with it. For me, Mr Assange’s guilt or innocence – or his personality – is not the central question because that does not affect his right to a fair trial, to due process, to not be subjected to torture, or extradited to where he will likely face torture, etc. I do not think Mr Assange should be extradited to the United States. Full stop. And I think if Sweden or the UK were to do that, they would be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

I’m naturally a pedagogue (which as a child meant I was naturally called a kiss-ass know-it-all) and believe that dialogue can help overcome differences. Even where it doesn’t do so directly, the dialogue can be important to our long-term thinking and growth. So I tried to engage when people had questions or raised concerns about our approach.

Some will point out that I was not as kind to Professor Melzer. When he asked for a meeting with us, I conditioned my participation on a clarification, apology, and retraction of his language on the rape charges. But that’s also a reflection of power dynamics. I know I have less power than Professor Melzer in this discussion because of his position. I’ve had experience with people trying to use ‘meetings’ and ‘dialogues’ to delay progress. As I do not know Professor Melzer personally, I wanted to be clear that I am happy to engage on this topic, but not if it’s merely a mask for what I consider bad language on rape. His subsequent statement and tweets he has made in regards to the debate have changed my attitude.

But with other individuals, I wanted to engage immediately – to discuss, debate, and understand one another. I quickly learned, however, that it did not matter what I said. My points were misconstrued or misrepresented. My statements about Assange – such as that I do think he’s a narcissist (although that doesn’t affect my opinion on his human rights protections) – were used as proof that what I said wasn’t what I “really” felt. Those assessments were never accurate. People accused us of stupidity and said we didn’t understand that a man’s life was in danger. I understand the threat to Mr Assange. I also find no tension in protecting Assange’s right to life and using appropriate language around rape. Professor Melzer appears to agree with me on that.  

The insults – not just against me, but against the small number of ATLAS women who were speaking up on twitter – grew. 

Obviously we were called bitches. 

We were also told we didn’t have a right to speak for rape victims. 

We weren’t trying to speak for all rape victims. Some of us have been victims of sexual assault and understand that each victim gets to speak up for themselves, have their own stories and truths, and their own positions in any issue they choose to address. But we were trying to speak about the definition of rape, the difficulty in reporting rape, and the complex social realities that can affect women’s testimonies. 

We had other more creative and confusing insults as well. Career feminists, fake feminists, CIA feminists, pretend-feminists, lunatic feminists, and ‘disguised-up women’s rights activists.’ I began blocking and muting people left, right, and centre. I possibly blocked people who wanted to have a sincere and good faith conversation but whose opening comments were too similar to those whose comments were merely invitations for abuse.

I was called an ‘establishment narrative manager’, which given what I write on, the NGOs I’ve worked with, and my own background, actually makes me laugh when I think about it in isolation. The problem is, I can’t really think of it in isolation. Because this was followed by abuse and deep-dives into ATLAS women’s backgrounds in an attempt to find any evidence that we are part of some American-interventionist secret society. 

Then there were the threats, explicit and implicit. 

The threats were bigger than us. I thought about the threats that have made women leave Twitter. I thought about the threats that were more than just threats. And I thought about women human rights defenders globally.

Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, used his annual report in February to highlight the growing violence and repression of women human rights defenders worldwide. I want to quote extensively from the press release to his report, which outlines the unique threats women human rights defenders face:

“In many countries, women who dare to speak out for human rights are stigmatised and called bad mothers, terrorists or witches, silenced and marginalised from decision-making and can even be killed. It is particularly worrying that the hostility they face comes not only from State authorities, but also the media, social movements, their own communities and even their family,” said the Special Rapporteur.

“Public shaming, attacks on women’s honour and their reputation, doxing or publishing their personal details on the internet, sexual violence and attacks against their children and loved ones, are used to silence women human rights defenders,” he added.

The report notes that women face the same risks as men defending rights, but it makes clear that women defenders face additional and different threats that are shaped by entrenched gender stereotypes and ingrained social perceptions of women.

“We have documented how the obstacles and risks faced by women human rights defenders are shaped by their gender. Women are attacked for promoting and protecting human rights simply because of their identity as women and because of what they do,” said Forst.

The process and reality of the past few days has been difficult. It was painful to write a letter criticizing any UN Special Rapporteur – particularly at a time when I know the special procedures are under attack by states who would like to limit their power to criticize. It was particularly painful to speak out against the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, a position once held by my dear mentor Nigel Rodley. This week, I thought of him often and wished I could again turn to him for advice. 

But, the most painful aspect of this week was remembering – constantly – that while this was difficult for us, the realities facing women human rights defenders globally are much worse. 

What happened to ATLAS women this week was unacceptable. I also know it could have been worse.  I sit in a position of relative privilege as a US academic working at a UK university. I was speaking out alongside knowledgeable allies who independently saw and understood the same concerns I did. I am even more privileged than others as I work at one of the world’s foremost human rights centres, with people who believe in my work, know me, know what I stand for, and support me. I was never alone in this, even at the loneliest moments. And I knew that. I also know that I didn’t even get the worst of these attacks. Blocking and muting tweets was a quick and easy response for me, one that shielded me from some of the pain.

This week revealed a small example of what women human rights defenders face globally. Too often, they are harassed, arbitrarily detained, tortured, disappeared, or killed. When I think of that, I care a little less about this week and a lot more about saying their names and telling their stories:

Wini Omer, a Sudanese activist (and my student) who has been arrested and prosecuted for her work on freedom of expression and democratic rights

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, who has been under threat from the Philippine government for her human rights work

Nasrin Sotoudeh, the Iranian human rights lawyer jailed for 38 years and 148 lashes, in part for insulting the country’s supreme leader.  

Belin Benezra Yensarfati, a Turkish PhD student, and Nóemi Lévy-Aksu, a Turkish academic, who have been sentenced to prison for their work with “Academics for Peace.”

Marcela Foster, who was beaten for her work on indigenous rights in Nicaragua.

Sadrine Julien, the Vice President of a Mauritian LGBTQI rights organisation who was beaten for trying to assist a woman suffering familial abuse.

Liu Ximei, who has been harassed and intimidated for advocating for the rights of AIDS patients in rural China.

Lara Aharonian, a women’s rights defender in Armenia who has been threatened for her work. 

Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a free speech campaigner in Myanmar who is being prosecuted for participating in a peace protest.

Agnes Kharshiing, who ended up in intensive care after being beaten for environmental and labour conditions associated with illegal coal mines in India. 

Eleana Borjas Coello, who, like other journalists in Honduras, faces intimidation and harassment. 

Nahid Jabrallah, the founder of Sima Centre for Women and Children’s Studies in Sudan, who was beaten during a paramilitary crackdown in Khartoum.

Sutharree Wannasiri, a Thai human rights defender who is being prosecuted and harassed for her work on the labour rights of migrant workers from Myanmar.

Francisca Ramírez, who is advocating for the land and environmental rights of indigenous and rural communities in Nicaragua. 

Helena Maleno, a Spanish migrant rights activist who has received death threats for her work in Morocco.

Sirikan “June” Charoensiri, my friend, who faces arrest and prosecution for serving as a lawyer to pro-democracy activists.

Berta Cácares, winner of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize who was killed in Honduras in retribution for work on indigenous land rights.

Francia Márquez, the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize winner, who was harassed and threatened for opposing illegal mining in Colombia.

Seham Osman, a member of the Nubian Southern Free Women Foundation who works on land and non-discrimination rights in Egypt. She was arrested and imprisoned for her work. 

Asan Juma, who is now seeking asylum due to her work on LGBTI+ rights in South Sudan.

Razan Zeitouneh, a Syrian lawyer who went in hiding after being accused by the Syrian government of being a foreign agent, and who, on 9 December 2013, was kidnapped reportedly by an armed group. Her fate and whereabouts remain unknown.

Pyo Let Han and Nandar, women’s rights activist in Myanmar who face harassment for putting on the first portrayal of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues.

Audes JiménezErlendy Cuero, and Bessy Ríos, Colombian women’s rights activists who face harassment and threats for trying to raise the plight of women human rights defenders in Colombia.

Ángela Murillo Bardales, Wendy Yadira Pineda López, Alizon Lourdes Pineda López, the indigenous women defending Tolupan territory, who have been harassed and threatened for their work. 

The Oddar Meanchey Community, who are working to protect their rights and receive adequate redress after being displaced for a sugar plantation. 

The women of Sudan, who have been murdered and raped because they seek democracy.

The women detained at the US’s southern border who spoke about their conditions of detention despite knowing they would punished later.

There are so many more that I cannot name them all.

 If you would like to learn more and support women human rights defenders, here are some of the organizations who could use your support:

·      Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition

·      Inciativa Mesoamericana de Mujeres Defensoras de Derechos Humanos

·      Association for Women’s Rights in Development

·      Scholars at Risk

·      Frontline Defenders

And, of course, you should continue to follow the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, to learn about his work protecting all human rights defenders. 

Dr. Tara Van Ho is a lecturer and the educational director of the post-graduate programmes in human rights at the University of Essex’s School of Law and Human Rights Centre (UK). She is a Vice President of the Global Business and Human Rights Scholars Association and the Conference Chair for the organization’s 2019 annual workshop, which will be held in Essex in September. Follow Tara on @TaraVanHo

Sareta Ashraph