Once a month, sometimes more frequently, I meet three good friends – an Albanian, an Indian, and a Greek – for a few drinks at a local bar. Over beer and nachos we talk – OK, sometimes argue, but the way good friends do – on a wide range of topics from the latest hockey scores to a variety of human rights issues. When we met back in March, we revisited the issue of justice for pedophiles. A couple of friends were quite comfortable with the death penalty for offenders, one neutral or at least not divulging too much of an opinion, and finally me, opposed to putting them to death even though I thought their acts were absolutely heinous.
For our April get together (with an extra guest doubling the Greek quota at the table this time) we discussed humanitarian assistance in Haiti. Apart form the terrible misery faced by the victims, one friend mentioned how difficult it would be for those providing the assistance and how they would be deeply scarred by what they saw. One of the guys told us of a friend who went to Kosovo to assist in picking up corpses after the conflict there, and how he was never the same after that.
I have never done such a grisly job, nor have I been to Haiti either before or since the earthquake. But the conversation resonated with me and made me realize that there are probably many humanitarian workers and human rights defenders who are emotionally walloped by the misery and human rights abuses and violations they face in their work. It has occasionally happened that I am overwhelmed by the pain and suffering I have seen and heard from human rights defenders. The violations some defenders have witnessed or investigated in the Middle East have been unbearable to listen to. The anguish recounted by survivors of the tsunami has been equally draining. Four years living in Africa, bearing witness to extreme poverty on a daily basis, kept me up at night plenty of times or gave me nightmares when I did sleep.
A lot of human rights defenders don’t have an off switch. They don’t go home at night and forget about their work; it often permeates and preoccupies much of their lives. But offering support for human rights defenders – emotional, psychological support – is not something you hear much about. Whether you’re an educator working with abused children in Winnipeg or war-torn orphans walking the streets of Baghdad, sometimes you yourself just need someone to talk to. I am by no means diminishing the violations perpetrated on the victims, but I am saying that those who help those in need may need a little help themselves once in a while.
To end (although I would like the discussion to continue), I quote a statement from a female journalist in Columbia who recently recounted the abuses she has faced as a human rights defender. It goes without saying that emotional or psychological support for human rights defenders is only part of what should be done to protect them. In the words of the journalist Jineth Bedoya: “Almost 10 years ago on 25th May I was kidnapped when carrying out my work as a journalist, I was tortured, raped by three men and then however I decided to stay in Colombia and didn’t want to go and choose the exile path, but to continue with my work in Colombia because I believed that was my responsibility but I have to say that there are no guarantees, there are some security guarantees, but there is no justice guarantee for me to carry out this work and it is very difficult to carry out this work when you know that the perpetrators of these crimes are free.” Her account is one of many described in a recent report on the protection of women human rights defenders by the Conservative Human Rights Commission.
Upon returning from my two-year stay as a teacher in Africa, an experienced consultant in development offered me these words: “You’re going to come back home with plenty of stories of hope and despair, of joy and of misery, and you’re going to want to tell all your friends and family about all that you experienced and how it changed you. And unfortunately, nobody will care.” He wasn’t far off the mark: only a couple of people listened to me. And so a humble suggestion to anyone who knows of someone who tirelessly defends the rights of others: take the time and listen to what they have to say, they’ll appreciate it.