2016 has been a tough year for all those who care about democracy and human rights, and for all those who want to see more tolerant, open and inclusive societies. This is why I urge you to do your bit, and to participate in Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign this month.
Oleg Sentsov, Ukrainian film-maker, illegally imprisoned in Russia
We have conflicts raging around us with no end in sight, and more and more countries seem to be sliding towards authoritarian jingoism. Whereas once upon a time we could rely on a common baseline of democratic values in the so-called ‘Free World’, Donald Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum have thrown that seeming consensus into the wind.
While we have been absorbed with threats posed by Trump and Brexit, repressive regimes elsewhere have used the opportunity to clamp down on dissidence and inconvenient opposition. The EU’s pressure often acted as a restraint in the past, but now those who violate human rights sense that no one is watching, and even if they are, there are bigger fish to fry.
Beyond just holding onto power, we are seeing a worrying model of illiberal authoritarian government establishing itself as an alternative to liberal democracy. It comes equipped with ideologies of chauvinist strongman nationalism, ultra-conservatism, sophisticated propaganda and a rabid online social media presence.
The list of hotspots is long, and growing longer, with varying degrees of press coverage. Turkey’s government has launched a massive crackdown on its civil service, judges and lawyers, academics, NGOs, artists and journalists, as well as opposition MPs from the HDP party. At the same time it has resumed a brutal war against its own Kurdish citizens in the south of the country, with war crimes going unreported and unchallenged.
The Russian government continues its efforts to stir up and sustain conflict in Ukraine and the Middle East, while cracking down on journalists, activists and artists at home. Dozens of Ukrainian citizens taken from Russian-occupied Ukraine have been in imprisoned in Russia on trumped up charges.
Iran has used the cover of its nuclear deal and the global fight against ISIS to increase the number of executions (the highest of any country in the world), imprison journalists and dissidents, and also UK citizens. The situation of women’s rights in the country continues to deteriorate and Western powers tiptoe around the issue.
The Bahraini government has imprisoned human rights defenders and political opposition, a trend mirrored in Saudi Arabia and the region. Theresa May recently said, while on a visit, that such abuses should not get in the way of trade with the UK, including various dubious weapons deals.
The Israeli government has embarked on a large-scale campaign of demolitions of Palestinian houses in the West Bank, working to evict vulnerable communities, and expand settlements, seemingly trying to bury the two state solution, while at the same time demonising NGOs who work for peace and justice.
One of our highest civic responsibilities as citizens lucky enough to live in a democracy that upholds human rights, apart from fighting to protect what we have, is to show solidarity and support to those whose human rights are being grossly violated.
We are privileged to be living in an environment where our human rights are guaranteed by the rule of law. It is a fundamental human duty to provide support to those who suffer abuse, and who stand up for their rights, and the rights of others. I see this as a crucial part of my role as an elected representative, and a member of the European Parliament’s Culture and Education Committee, which promotes citizen engagement.
At times like these, all those who want to protect democracy, human rights, and the rule of law must stand together internationally and support each other. We must make our voices heard in every way we can.
Before I went into politics, I worked to do this through arts and culture, promoting democratic values through cultural diplomacy and dialogue. Now as a politician, I work to promote that dialogue, and support those who work to achieve it, particularly artists, writers, thinkers, and journalists who are imprisoned for their work.
One of the ways I decided to be more proactive was by focusing on specific regions, and “adopting” certain cases of political prisoners that have been brought to my attention over time.
One of the first was Nabeel Rajab from Bahrain, a renowned senior activist imprisoned for a tweet. The international campaign on his case secured his release twice, before he was re-arrested. The pressure does sometimes work. I have followed his case, and have subsequently developed a relationship with Bahraini activists.
I began to highlight human rights abuses in Iran early in my mandate, particularly the situation of women and children. I have recently begun to follow the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British Iranian citizen who was sentenced to five years in prison for no apparent reason and whose wellbeing is of particular concern due to her enforced separation from her baby, Gabriella.
The Ukrainian film maker Oleg Sentsov was detained in Crimea by Russian forces, and has since been transferred to be imprisoned illegally in Siberia. As an artist I felt strongly I should give a platform to his case and participated in a panel discussion with exiled Ukrainian artists as part of Belarus Free Theatre’s ‘Burning Doors’ production, which was live streamed by Ukrainian TV, and included a reading of my letter to Sentsov’s chief prison guard. I continue to work with the Open Dialogue Foundation on human rights in Ukraine, as they campaign tirelessly to improve prisoners’ conditions and effect their release, with some notable successes.
Since the July coup in Turkey, I have been active trying to do what I can to bring pressure to bear in a country that is fast becoming a fascist regime. I have made two recent visits to the Kurdish regions, and have been paired up as a sponsor to one of the imprisoned HDP MPs, Leyla Birlik. In November I was denied entry to visit her in prison near Istanbul, but I will keep on trying.
None of us, politicians or citizens from any walks of life, would be able to do any of this, or know of any of these cases, without the brave, gruelling, and selfless work of activists and professionals in the NGO field. They work for little reward or recognition, and often at real risk to their personal safety, in order to bring this information to decision-makers and the public eye, to make sure that the truth is told, and that the victims and their families see justice. And yet, many of these smaller NGOs do not always receive the funding or support they need.
Getting involved in cases and doing your research on these subjects can lead you to connect with and support these vital NGOs, and I recommend you do so.
Ahead of this holiday season, please think about participating in Amnesty’s Write for Rights campaign to show your support to those around the world who are imprisoned for expressing their beliefs. The letters are meant to pressure governments to release these political prisoners, and also reach out to the prisoners directly, so that they may have a glimmer of hope from the outside world.