“Communities must become more empowered, and empowerment is key because there is no real worth in creating a great international scandal about a company if there is no real local resistance where the company will be located, and if there is no strength in the community that lives there.”
Miriam Miranda, general coordinator of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduraas (Ofraneh).
Q: Why are people who stand up for human rights at risk from companies, organized crime and extremist political groups, and what can be done to protect them?
Well, those of us who defend human rights are at risk for various reasons. In my case, I feel that countries are more and more weakened institutionally. In some places we face failed states, governments that do not guarantee security to its citizens. And also, citizens of these governments and states answer to the interests of powerful interest groups and transnational capital. I think a very important topic to take into account is that governments or states have no autonomy with respect to companies, institutions and international financing, transnational capital.
And I think it is important to stress this because there is an absolute dependence on foreign investment, there are no long-term plans wherefore the states can guarantee the welfare of society, and therefore they administrate, they carry out external plans and programs, with external agendas. I think this is one of the great reasons why today human rights defenders are more at risk than ever, because there is no interest on the part of the state to guarantee the wellness of society as a whole, and especially for human rights defenders, as is their obligation. That it is not only the responsibility of the government, but also the duty of the State. The State owes itself precisely to the citizens that make up the State.
What can be done to protect, to guarantee the physical, psychological, moral integrity and all that a person’s integrity entails? There are no established recipes. We are learning to protect ourselves as we go. But I do think that there are extremely important elements that we must continue to strengthen, we must ask for, and try to demand social responsibility from businesses and from states, to guarantee protection of defenders. We must also look into protocols that must be respected and followed internationally.
There is something nowadays that we must talk about, which is cost/benefit, and what it means. In other words, how much does a government or state lose by allowing exploitation of common natural goods? This is especially important to calculate now that we are more at risk than ever, because of climate change, and a lack of awareness of risks on the part of local governments. It seems to me that we must work on raising awareness of the cost/benefit among members of the state and society as a whole, and of the persecution against human rights defenders. We must insist that defending common natural goods is not only a defense of the human rights defender, but also a defense of humanity, a defense of the human rights of society as a whole.
I think that it is also important to insist on raising awareness of this problem, and demand answers and solutions to this problem from the part of the state. Not only for human rights defenders: the situation that leads to the violation of human rights, to the violation of human rights defenders, must gradually be changed. I do not think that it is the person herself, but the situation that generates the reiterated and systematic violation of human rights against human rights defenders. I think there are many things that can be done, and these are the ones I can think of at the moment.
Q: Why is it important to understand how power structures and gender and race discrimination shape this threat?
I think it is important to understand how important power structures, racism, and discrimination are in this context. We live in highly sexist societies, with so much discrimination and racism, in a patriarchal and capital system that privileges the material over the human. I think that is something we must understand.
And so power has many diverse forms of pressuring other powers, because there is not one only power. I feel that our states have all of the conditions necessary to perpetuate impunity. There is no guarantee on the part of the state that, firstly, these attacks will not be repeated, and secondly, there will be a minimum of security for the entire population, especially those who defend human rights, as a human right, and this means that those in positions of power feel at ease. They can do what they want with impunity, because they feel that they have the right to violate others’ human rights.
The situation has become so terrible that state powers and non-state powers and companies all feel that there is a guarantee that they will not be punished if they violate human rights. It’s a rather complicated issue. It seems to us that as long as we cannot establish strong states, strong nations, societies that can fight violence and crime and where violence is not normalized, where crime is not normalized, where human rights violations are not normalized, where being a witness to murder and death is not normal, to that extent we will be able to build more livable societies, more livable countries, more livable environments and spaces.
What is most serious, I feel, is that with these great crises our countries are facing, our societies are deteriorating in every way; our morals are deteriorating. It is a breeding ground where groups with economic power can act with the utmost impunity. Because at the end of the day, economic assets and everything the economy is based on, and those who manage the capital have the power to do what they desire and take the lives of those who are defending life. When we defend nature, we defend natural resources, defend the air, defend the forests, the water, we are defending life. This is contradictory, because why, if we are defending all of life, not just ours, are we hindering these powers? It is because they are accumulating wealth through indiscriminate exploitation, and at the cost of the common goods of Nature.
So if we are not going to analyze and debate the structural problems in our country, tomorrow we will only be responding to the murders of comrades and companions; responding to emergencies. We must consider that there is a structural problem, and we must analyze it to figure out how to change it, and work out long-term processes. This work is not just for today or tomorrow; we have a great responsibility with the future of humanity, with our children’s children, and with the children of our children’s children. This can guarantee the survival of humanity.
So this struggle is not a game. It’s not something to be taken lightly. It’s the fight to prevent humanity from disappearing. I believe, and I feel deep in my soul that we are in a sort of race at the moment, a suicide that we are being forced into by transnational capital and the owners of the great wealth of the world, who are not interested in humanity. And yet we have only one planet. I do not know any other planet than the Earth, any other planet that can give us what the Earth gives us, which is why we must be more responsible in this fight. And that is the essence of what it means to me to defend human rights: it is not a label, but a defense of life.
Q: What changes could be made by human rights activists and movements – and the protection groups and donors who support them – to make more effective their approaches to protecting against threats and violence from non-state actors?
I think that in all of the groups that are involved in the defense of human rights, be they activists, defenders, companions, donors (I do not like to use the word donors because we must bet on them being organizations that are accompanying processes), there are some aspects that I find to be fundamental. Today we cannot speak of an advocate or a human rights defender as an individual, or think that they are up there, defending something ethereal. We are on the ground, in territories organizing collective defenses of collective rights. And one of the fundamental changes is that we must promote processes to articulate and strengthen organizational processes, so that we have greater strength. And we must build that strength up from a local level.
Communities must become more empowered, and empowerment is key because there is no real worth in creating a great international scandal about a company if there is no real local resistance where the company will be located, and if there is no strength in the community that lives there. We have been able to verify this many times; communities have been one step ahead of some of the organizations accompanying human rights defenders, because communities know what they are going to do in that moment. And so we must strengthen communities, precisely so that they feel much more empowered, and this will guarantee a stronger fight for a free, prior, and informed consultation process.
All of humanity has the right to be asked what they want. There is a grave situation. Every day communities’ rights are being violated, more and more. In my case, as a garífuna, I work with indigenous peoples, and I can tell you that not only indigenous peoples have a right to be asked. Everyone: women, men, peasants, all sectors, the LGBTI movement; we must all work hard on the consultation process, we must work hard on being consulted, so that we can say no or yes to a situation that may affect us. And this is at every level and not only in the field, it is when developing regulations, LGBTI laws, laws for women, laws for peasants, laws for workers, children… we must ask ourselves how we want to serve, what we want our future rights to be, and how we will ensure that these rights will contribute to our well-being.
The theme here is wellness, enjoying the life that we have been given. And we must see that it is not only for me, or for this or that person, it is for all of us. It seems to me that this is fundamental, and that is why we are committed to accompanying the processes for building collective responses to these struggles. Because we have to understand that the power of wealth is strong, and that investors have everything on their side, from the judicial authorities to the military, as well as states and central governments that do not even collect taxes from them. The road is cleared for them.
When you live in a country such as the one we live in, there is no guarantee that the state will support you, or that the government will answer for you. The problem is only yours. So then we must strengthen local communities in resistance, and articulate them. We must give each other a hand, but we must also weave this together, fight together, fight so that there are no groups in resistance that are targeted by repressive forces. That is something that we have seen. And if we don’t multiply the struggle, multiply the resistance, then that community over there, that group of the most vulnerable people, will be targeted and receive the blow. This is something that we have been able to observe and verify, which is why it is important to organize, mobilize, educate.
We must educate ourselves, and above all we must recover and strengthen our own identities, our resistance, our cultural and spiritual struggles. That is one of the things that I think are important, because as we recover our identity, when we know what we are and are proud of who we are, this allows us to fight against the evil forces upon us. That is one of the most serious threats that we are facing today, because communities that are forced, end up losing their identity and culture, becoming easy prey to anything that comes, and accepting anything that comes as divine.
As we already talked about, there are many challenges, and in the case of our communities and our indigenous peoples, our greatest challenge is precisely how to continue to strengthen ourselves as culturally differentiated people. How to appreciate our value in society, our importance, and the value of what we can contribute to a society that values competition and the individual above all else. A society with anti-values that are destroying it, such as a lack of solidarity, a lack of accompaniment, a society in which material goods are more important than humanity. A society dehumanized by technology, where instead of taking advantage of technology to advance as a society we are talking more and more with machines and less with humans. This is very serious, because every day we become more dehumanized.
That is why I said in the beginning that we are part of a collective suicide mission that we must cancel, because humanity is the most precious resource, end we must save humanity. That seems to me to be key. And to do this we must be creative in our struggle, we must understand that although we have our weaknesses, we also have great potential. And understand that we are part of a whole, and that articulation, accompaniment and an understanding of how all parts complement each other can help us move forward, and especially to win battles.
We powerful women, powerful men, can create ourselves, although we must also understand that we can also fail, and that failure is human, and that sometimes we must fail and rectify, and accept that we sometimes fail, and understand that we are not perfect and that we must therefore understand and accept when someone tells us Miriam, something is not right. We must do things better. But we can only do this when we speak from the community, when we understand that we are complementary, and understand that we must change structures to improve this world that is in a great and deep crisis. I think that very few people understand the change that is coming in United States, and that will affect the whole world. A change that will demand an organized and structured response to the North from us in the South, such as had never happened before.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Human rights defenders are at a greater risk than ever today because our states, our governments are actually responding to the interests of transnational capital in our countries, and really have no policies in place to protect human rights defenders. This is one of the great problems that we face today. Another problem is the approval of laws that criminalize human rights defenders, which prosecute us, persecute us. That is very serious, to accuse human rights defenders of being people who attack the state and who are criminals. It is a serious problem that we face today in Latin America: they are telling us, human rights defenders, that we are criminals, and that we are attacking the state.