How regional engagement can benefit a human rights defender

 AprIGF 2016 websiteParticipants at AprIGF 2016. Source: AprIGF 2016 website

Early last year, I disclosed to a small group of people at work how unstimulated I have become. One of the terrifying words I had used at a group coaching session was “blasé”. I used it to describe my inability to be moved by the things that are happening around me. Identifying the reasons why was not exactly rocket science.

I have been working in the same non-profit organisation in Malaysia for close to six years. Serving in a senior management position inevitably means most of my worries revolve around grant applications, financial management and human resource development. It was only a matter of time before I put my concern over how my organisation is going to survive another year of budget cuts first before addressing real human rights violations.

My biggest suspicion of the real culprit, though, was how my worldview has become so insular as a result of working and socialising with the same like-minded people in the past six years. So much so that I have hit a plateau where three other terrifying words reside: “unstimulated”, “unchallenged” and “cynicism”. They toast with Cosmopolitans every morning when happy hour starts as soon as my alarm goes off. As I hit the snooze button and toss over, they plot against each other, competing to see who wins that morning.

Some days, they all win.

While these demons fight amongst themselves, I soon learned that another terrifying word (perhaps most terrifying of them all) has slowly crept in. It wasn’t until last July when I attended the internet governance workshop for women human rights defenders (WHRDs) organised by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and the Asia Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum (APrIGF) 2016 in Taipei, that I began to realise that I could be harbouring a dangerous word within me – “radicalism”. The thought that “this is my view and since everyone around me agrees with me, therefore it must be the only right view to have” is unfortunately what many human rights defenders have succumbed to, without realising it. (Thank you, Jac sm Kee, for articulating this at one of your panel sessions at the APrIGF on radicalisation of the internet and how to counter online extremism.)

My worldview was rocked momentarily when more than 20 WHRDs from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Malaysia gathered for two days at the APC workshop to discuss how internet freedom is experienced and applied in the context of gender, which was then used by APC as an advocacy strategy at the APrIGF.

This experience was illuminating to say the least. Something I have always suspected about what has been missing in my work life but never confronted finally hit me – the joy and fulfilment of working with people from other countries.

I am forever grateful to EMPOWER for extending the invitation to my organisation to attend the workshop and forum, as it came at a time when I needed a stimulation boost. Although this blog post speaks of only four of the many ways I have benefited from my time in Taipei, I hope it is useful for other activists who may be going through the same phase as I am.

1. Being challenged by new people outside my own circle

Working in the field of human rights since 2000 would probably qualify me as an “old timer”. Most of my human rights knowledge and skills were first honed from an academic and Western Eurocentric perspective in the late 1990s. Most of my peers come from more or less the same background.

At the internet governance workshop, I met many WHRDs whom I would term as a “new breed” of human rights defenders – activists who see rights and freedom as absolute and any form of protectionism or restriction is to be rejected. I can understand why, because many come from a place of complete distrust for governments and state actors. Their unbridled idealism and passion amazed me and they forced me to ask myself whether I am outdated in my own understanding of human rights and its philosophy.

I may not have succumbed to this school of thought yet, but it shows me how important it is to engage with younger human rights defenders regularly to nurture and grow my worldview of human rights.

2. Being inspired by people who are optimistic and see the glass as being half full

I often feel beat, beaten and bitter. Lately, it has become more bitter than anything else. Bitter for working hard yet not having a secure retirement plan, and then resenting myself for feeling bitter about it.

At the workshop, it was refreshing to meet young women who aren’t burnt out, cynical or believe that the United Nations is an ineffective institution. They have energy, passion and thirst for a better world, and they are infectious too.

3. Being humbled by strong women who are working in worse conditions

Sometimes, it is easy to feel like I am the only person who is doing good when other people have failed to deliver on their promises and deadlines. The feeling of being a rescuer and victim all at the same time can certainly put me in a self-pitying but arrogant place where I’m convinced that I am the only person who has made sacrifices while the rest are doing nothing.

Guess what? After talking to the women from India and Pakistan, it dawned on me that what I’ve done so far and the challenges I’ve faced are nothing in comparison. NOTHING.

4. Learned new skills and strategies

I begin to see why donors are keen on local organisations that do regional engagement. At the APC workshop, I picked up a few new strategies from the group of regional WHRDs on how to advocate issues at the APrIGF. The level of focus, direction, organisation and dedication these women demonstrated made me see what is lacking in some of the local NGOs in Malaysia. At the end of the day, it is easy for NGOs to want to do something, but it is the mapping out of the direction and actually going down the road map that is the challenge where many NGOs have failed.

Watching and learning these skills and strategies from other people confirm how little I know and how much more I have to learn, and here’s when I start to feel a little challenged.

 

 

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