Working for Human Rights: The Work is Never Done

March 20, 2017

“Working in this field is a dedication,” explained Keith Begg during a presentation at CEU’s School of Public Policy on March 17. Begg, who is Communication and Advocacy Officer for Civil Rights Defenders, spoke about the organization’s work in Sweden and abroad; what motivates their policy and practice priorities; and how they empower, support, and advocate for human rights defenders who are working with local civil society organizations on four continents. 

Begg noted that many countries have passed laws recently curtailing human rights. He pointed to Eurasia, a part of the world where Civil Rights Defenders has been active since the 1980s when it was known as the Swedish Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, as a place that is “keeping us busy.” Another country that is attracting a lot of attention is Turkey that recently extended the State of Emergency it imposed after the failed coup attempt in July 2016.

Civil Rights Defenders has expanded dramatically since 2010 and now has a presence in southeast Asia, East & Horn of Africa, and Latin America. Begg described some of the ways that Civil Rights Defenders works: filing legal cases, organizing seminars and outreach, monitoring state authorities, and disseminating information. “People must have information to make informed decisions. That is a basic tenet of what we do,” he said. Begg stressed also the importance of following up to make sure that legislation that is passed is implemented. “Even in countries like Moldova where we’ve had some success,” said Begg, “we still have a job to do to make sure that legislation is actually enforced.”

Another area in which Civil Rights Defenders is active is innovation. It has, for example, launched Natalia Project, the first security alarm system for human rights defenders. The “alarm system” is actually a bracelet that uses a mobile signal to transmit a GPS location in the event of a kidnapping.

Begg observed during his presentation that every country has “human rights issues” noting that even a country like Sweden “has problems.” He described how police authorities in southern Sweden had set up a registry of Swedish Roma men, women, and children who were included solely because they were Roma. This “blatant case of ethnic profiling” prompted Civil Rights Defenders to file a legal case against the Swedish state.

Civil Rights Defenders’ global mission distinguishes it from many other Helsinki Committees such as the one in Hungary. Márta Pardavi, who is co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, explained that HHC works only in Hungary and that it focuses on the law. “We try to use the law to help people enforce their rights,” she said. Pardavi explained that one of the ways HHC does this is to “take on strategic cases” noting that this was an important aspect of human rights work everywhere. “You pick a case, hope to win it, and then use that victory to bring about systematic change,” she said. One issue that HHC has pursued through the courts with some success is prison overcrowding. It is currently working to leverage a pilot judgment that it received from the European Court of Human Rights in March 2015 to pressure the Hungarian government to take action to address the problem of prison overcrowding. “This is a developing but a happy story” she said.

Begg and Pardavi were invited to SPP by Professor Sara Svensson who teaches the two-credit elective course, International Policy Practice. “Keith and Márta gave our students really valuable insight into what it’s like to work at a Helsinki Human Rights Committee,” said Svensson. “Their perspective on how employees in these organizations handle challenges such as prioritizing among competing policy goals and changing these priorities over time, was especially valuable given the other discussions we have had during class.”

Begg and Pardavi agreed that those who work on human rights issues are busy. “There is always work to do, always people who are being marginalized,” said Begg. Pardavi noted, “Human rights work is never done. These issues never go away.”