By Christian Thomas, Freetown :

Laws to protect and promote human rights are indispensible.  But quite often, progress comes down to people—courageous women and men—determined to make rights real in people’s lives” said Ms. Beatriz Balbin, Chief of UNIPSIL’s Human Rights Section, at the National Stadium on Friday, following a procession to celebrate International Human Rights Day. 

Themed “Speak Up and Stop Discrimination”, this year’s International Human Rights Day  marked the pinnacle of a series of events organised by Sierra Leone’s Human Rights Commission and UNIPSIL over the last two weeks, all aiming to stimulate national action on critical human rights issues in Sierra Leone.  

Building on the momentum generated by the previous week’s National Consultative Conference for Persons with Disabilities, International Day of persons with Disabilities and the Sixteen Days’ of Activism Against Gender Violence, this year’s event celebrated human rights defenders: ordinary people who stand up and speak out to protect the rights of women, disabled people, and others who experience discrimination.  

A human rights defender is a person who speaks out against the neighbour who beats his wife; a businessman who employs a disabled person.  

“Defenders are a diverse group”, said Ms. Balbin.  “They might be part of a civil society organisation, a journalist, or even a long citizen, spurred to action by abuses close to home.”

Human rights defenders are responsible for many of the rights that many of us now take for granted.   Nelson Mandela, who led the struggle to replace apartheid regime of South Africa with a multi-racial democracy is a human rights defender.  Rosa Parks, who in 1955 refused to give up her seat for a white person on the orders of a bus driver is also a human rights defender: her action sparked a protest movement that championed civil rights for all. 

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years before his anti-apartheid vision materialised, while Rosa Parks was arrested for her actions.    Such treatment is not unusual: human rights’ defenders’ commitment to expose wrongdoing often puts them at risk.    Their friends and family members are also frequently subjected to harassment and intimidation.

Ms. Elizabeth Alpha-Lavalie, Chair of the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee and flag holder candidate for SLPP reminded all present that the State bears primary responsibility to protect human rights advocates.   She explained the role of Parliament in making human rights defenders’ work possible, by protecting freedom of information, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly.  Ms. Alpha-Lavalie explained that women and the disabled are “the most vulnerable groups in Sierra Leone”, and that Parliament looks forward to the passing of the Disability Bill and revision of the Matrimonial Causes Act to help bring about an end to discrimination them.

Ms. Alpha-Lavalie commended the tremendous courage human rights defenders show in their fight against discrimination, and urged all present to be “inspired by those seeking to make our world more just.”    “Everyone, no matter what their background, training, or education, can be a human rights defender.” 

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