Q&A Mary Lawlor: Defending the rights defenders

The founder of Front Line Defenders discusses the state of human rights today and defending those who protect them.

Mary Lawlor and Kenyan human rights defender Ruth Mumbi at the Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders in 2013.
Mary Lawlor and Kenyan human rights defender Ruth Mumbi in 2013 [Conor McCabe/Front Line Defenders]

Since 2001, Dublin-based Front Line Defenders has been protecting the rights of those who defend human rights on the ground – and whose safety is often compromised in doing so.

Mary Lawlor founded Front Line Defenders and after 15 years of leading the organisation is about to step down from the position. 

After taking some time off, Lawlor plans to continue as an adjunct professor at the business school at Trinity College, in Dublin, crafting courses on the intersection of business and human rights. 

Lawlor, 64, spoke to Al Jazeera about the state of human rights and rights defenders today.

Al Jazeera: Anyone paying attention to the news would want to ask, is this the best time for you to step down? 

Mary Lawlor: The thing is I started Front Line Defenders 15 years ago, and there is such a thing as ‘founder’s syndrome’ … it basically means that founders never know when to go. We have a really talented team in place and the organisation is strong … From the organisational point of view, it’s a very good time to go … If I stayed now I’d only impede their work.

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Now, if you talk about the situation for human rights defenders around the world, it’s a dreadful time. We’ve seen everywhere, the space for human rights defenders to operate and to do their legitimate – and I stress legitimate – work, is closing all the time.

We’ve seen the spread of legislation right across the globe, which is almost cut-and-paste at this stage, preventing NGOs from registering, from re-registering, to prevent them taking foreign funding …. In Russia, they have [the] ‘foreign agents’ law, in China they’re bringing in laws that would criminalise even contact with foreign organisations

As well as that, we’ve seen a rise in killings. We documented more killings of more human rights defenders last year than before … at least 156 were killed in 2015 and we’re already up to that in 2016. 

Al Jazeera: Given the security climate, it seems that an increasing number of governments are resorting to the national security/threat of terrorism argument to crack down on rights and those who might agitate for them. Is there any way out of that argument?

Lawlor: When I started in the 1970s the world was full of dictatorships and terrorists, and yet somehow or other, over time, people claimed their rights and governments, although they didn’t respect the rights, they started to embrace the rhetoric and the language of human rights.

In the 1970s and 1980s, it was “them and us” – it was a simple battle. You knew where you stood. You went at governments.

Now, the governments have taken over the language and the rhetoric of human rights, they’ve signed up to international conventions and the works, and they agree to international standards in theory, but they don’t in practice.

It’s a much more difficult environment to work in, from that perspective … They’re basically dismantling the human rights machinery … the only way out of it is to start again to do a lot of human rights education in societies, so they become strongly sensitised to the principles of human rights, and the interaction between rights and justice and development and security.

Al Jazeera: But of course your experience goes back beyond Frontline Defenders. You were the head of the Irish Section for Amnesty International. What made you leave Amnesty and start Front Line Defenders?

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Lawlor: The reason I left was that I’ve always been inspired by people who have that special kind of courage, the impossible bravery to stand up for the rights of others, not for themselves, non-violently, despite the great personal risks that they face.

They are ordinary people doing exceptional things.

There’s something in their spirit that demands action from people and there was no organisation at the time devoting all its activities to trying to protect these really great people, who are the ones who will bring about social change on the ground. That’s why I started Front Line Defenders.

Al Jazeera: As someone with the long view, how do you see the current state of human rights and those who stand up for them? When you read the news are you filled with hope or despair?

Lawlor: Each decade has its own atrocities. At the moment we have Syria, we have Yemen, we have Eastern Congo, and Iraq … but we’ve had Bosnia, we’ve had Rwanda, we’ve had Sierra Leone.

We’ve had all those dictatorships in Latin America … it’s almost like there’s always something awful going on. Always some huge inhuman, barbaric war going on.

What I think is different now, is the cruelty is always there, the barbarism is always there … what I find so sickening and gut-wrenching are the remote wars – you can use drones, you can use cluster bombs, chemical warfare, you can use biological warfare, if you want.  

And you can do this from a distance. And you can obliterate people without ever seeing their faces.

Source: Al Jazeera