Fighting for Native American rights, poetic justice and Mali’s women

Front Line Defenders making sacrifices ‘so that life can be a little better for the next generation’

More than 100 human rights defenders from 80 countries arrived in Dublin this week for three days of meetings on how to overcome the challenges and dangers they face in their work.

Front Line Defenders, which is based in Dublin, works to protect hundreds of human rights defenders across the globe who face these risks on a daily basis. Three women spoke to The Irish Times about their efforts in promoting and protecting the rights of their communities.

For Kimberly Smith, working as a human rights defender in the United States is vital for her community's survival. The Native American activist and artist has spent years fighting oil development in her home state of Minnesota.

“Where we live we’re facing all types of resource extraction,” says Ms Smith. “We have uranium, coal, oil, gas, water and so our communities are continuously threatened. In order for us to continue as indigenous people and continue our practices of living off the land, we have to fight.”

Without access to these vital elements, Ms Smith says indigenous communities will lose their identity. “We believe our deities are these elements, they’re water, land, wind, fog. We want to be able for our children and grandchildren to protect the land and protect the water”.

Ms Smith is an arts campaigner with the Honor the Earth environmental justice group. Since 2016, Honor the Earth has been actively supporting the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. Ms Smith also campaigns to raise awareness of the sexual violence suffered by indigenous women in the Great Lakes region. She says the expansion of the fossil fuel industry and establishment of temporary communities of oil workers inevitably leads to the exploitation of local women.

“These are temporary communities of oil workers, particularly non-native workers, that come onto our indigenous land. They are predominantly men and they bring drugs and trafficking. They make trade routes for the exploitation of indigenous women. There is also no tribal jurisdiction on them if they do anything.”

“We have to make sure that those stories are told, that those sisters are not forgotten, and that we will continue to stand up for them and fight for them and bring to the surface that this is a reality in our community. This is not something that can be swept under the rug.”

Laila Moghrabi has always enjoyed writing. However, it was only after the fall of the Gaddafi regime that she finally built up the courage to write more journalistic pieces, take photographs and make short films. Born in Syria to a Lebanese mother, Ms Moghrabi says she was always taught to show tolerance and an acceptance towards diverse opinions. However, for a woman in Libya to speak out about human rights is a dangerous business.

“In Libya there has always been discrimination and after the fall of the regime I saw it was important to disseminate the values of human rights. Women who work as human rights activists in Libya are often accused of being immoral and going against social norms because they travel. The work is difficult but it is crucial.”

In 2013, Ms Moghrabi helped establish a group called Tanweer which launched a used books festival. Members of the group quickly began receiving threats from Islamic extremists and Ms Moghrabi decided to take a break from writing. However, in 2016, she edited a collection of essays and poetry which included work from prominent Libyan literary critics. The collection, entitled Sun on Closed Windows, was condemned by the Libyan authorities as being immoral while a passage of the book with sexual content was photographed and shared by Islamic extremists.

In August, Ms Moghrabi and her husband, who is also a journalist, decided to leave Libya and relocated to Tunisia for the safety of their children. "I hadn't actually written any of the book, I was just the editor, but the threats were directed at me and my family. But literature is of valuable importance in disseminating the values of human rights and reaching young people so we can build a free, democratic society."

Fatouma Harber began blogging in 2012 following Mali's coup d'état and the occupation of Islamist armed groups in her home of Timbuktu. Her posts spoke about the human rights abuses being committed against people in northern Mali, particularly woman, in the hopes that the rest of the world would pay attention to the plight of her West African home. While she began by writing anonymously, Ms Harber was nominated for a prize for her work, and then became well known. She and her family began receiving death threats.

“I’m giving a voice to the citizens of the north. It’s very difficult for a woman from Timbuktu to speak out in this way. In our country when you are a woman you do not have rights. You don’t inherit land and you can’t take medication without permission from your husband. Women are raped in public here. In May . . . teenage girls were kidnapped by armed groups and taken into the desert where they were raped.”

Ms Harber, who spent three days travelling across rivers, dirt tracks and finally by air to reach Dublin for this week’s conference, knows the high risk of speaking out as a human rights defender in Mali. She continues to be threatened both online and in person for her blogs and tweets calling for peace, democracy and safety for women in northern Mali.

“It’s very dangerous but I have to do this work for my daughter. I want her to have a peaceful life and leave something good for her. In every society there are always people who have to make sacrifices so that life can be a little better for the next generation.”