By Andrea Salguero
As states around the world have moved to adopt the strictest of public health measures in the face of an unprecedented global health crisis it is difficult to imagine any sector of society that has remained untouched by the effects of this global pandemic. In addition to the millions of people that continue to face serious risks to their health, still more remain vulnerable to the economic repercussions of the crisis as industries struggle to regain stability. In the midst of these great global changes, at the outset of my internship I was apprehensive about how human rights work in Canada and around the world would be affected by public health restrictions. However, my experience this summer at the Raoul Wallenberg Human Rights Centre (RWCHR) has given me confidence that the field of human rights, and advocacy work in particular, possesses a resiliency that will assist it to emerge from this period stronger than ever.
This summer, the RWCHR was involved in several human rights initiatives including sustained advocacy for political prisoners in different parts of the world, promoting greater accountability for crimes against humanity in Venezuela and promoting freedom of the press. RWCHR staff and interns worked on these issues in collaboration with partners and collaborators in other countries, and were able to continue this work throughout the height of the pandemic despite serious lockdowns and restrictions on travel. While in person meetings were no longer possible past March 2020, the existing infrastructure for communication between partners was utilized to shift educational activities and the coordination of advocacy strategies to online platforms. It was gratifying to see that the work of drafting proposals, coordinating events, hosting webinars and panel discussions, and even developing sophisticated advocacy projects was able to continue remotely, and may even have intensified through the weeks and months of lock down.
The ability to shift in the face of crisis, utilizing existing international networks, points to a wider resiliency within the field of human rights. This resiliency has perhaps developed within a field accustomed to facing challenges in day to day work. Grassroots human rights advocates often face personal danger from state or civil groups in documenting human rights violations, and advocates in more open societies still face barriers in the form of states’ unwillingness to act on particular issues or in public apathy to particular human rights issues. While the pandemic has presented new challenges for human rights advocates and exacerbated other existing patterns of human rights abuses, it appears the energy and creativity of those dedicated to the cause of human rights will continue to move the field forward even in the most difficult moments. At a time where human rights matter more than ever, this direction offers much hope for the future.