“We have to take care of the human rights standard at home”, Maria Dahle of Human Rights House tells The Oslo Times
Let me begin by thanking you, Ms. Dahle, for taking the time to interview with us today. Your work with Human Rights House Foundation interests us greatly.
Can you tell me a little bit about what the Human Rights House does?
When you ask about Human Rights House, it is actually the Human Rights House network. We are one of the seven organisations under the Human Rights Foundation. The Human Rights House in Oslo is based on the same model as you have in different other countries. It started at the end of the 1980s when there were rather small Human Rights organisations and they needed more support. They needed to get close to learn from each other and the thinking was to get these human rights organisations together under one roof.
After a few years of its establishment, colleagues in Russia and Poland — after the fall of communism — said now we need to learn how to work for human rights on our side. For that we needed to work closer and we thought a House with such a network would be beneficial for us. We came with the first House in 1989 and gradually expanded, first initiating the Human Rights House, which was followed by National Human Rights House and then in 1994, the network was set up between these initiations. And since then it has been a step by step development of the network to refine the niche.
The development of the network has been done by the members of the local organisations and today there are 18 human rights houses in 13 countries and all together there are 90 human rights organisations in the network. Since there are 5-10 human rights organisations in one house, we are creating a better working facility and evaluating how the organisations can become more professional and stronger on a national level. In addition to these horizontal networks that we built within local societies, there are also the local owners of the institutions running on their own.
When you say advocacy, is there some sort of legal representation for people in various parts of the World who are persecuted?
Yes, within our network there is. I will focus a little more on the houses because they are a group of human rights organisations covering different human rights issues that are important or are very specific in the country. Different organisations may have lawyers in the field of legal aid. While some provide medical or psychological assistance to the victims, others will be focused on training and capacity-building programmes for civil society or cities. These houses consist of prominent professionals and well known human rights organisations. In order to have better access to victims, these organisations focus on making these houses. They go to different places to establish help. Then people who need help in these places can find it more easily due to the network.
What we have seen over the years is that human rights has deteriorated in many of the countries where we have members. The human rights defenders join us with lawyers helping victims of rights violation. In the last 10 or 15 years, the conditions have improved in some of the countries spending more time in protecting themselves and colleagues.
What are the factors leading to this deterioration?
After the terrorist attack in 2001 there has been international focus on terrorism. On the back of this so called war against terrorism, many countries implemented new laws which effectively violated human rights. The focus on security mechanisms has reduced the focus on human rights. Gradually, new laws were made in conflict with international human rights standards.
There was also the 1990s when many new democracies emerged in Europe and around the World. We saw many laws for aid organisations and freedom of expressions changing. In the 1990s, we witnessed an explosion of civil societies working on human rights. In many of the countries where we worked, we saw they were actually able to perform their duties. And while they were becoming stronger and matured, they also had a stronger voice at home and became more and more visible in the international arena and criticizing governments. But the political leadership we saw in these countries from 2000 onwards did not want to lose or share newly gained power. Many different trends in this regard have come out in the last 10 to 15 years. In many of these “new democracy” governments, the documentation of human rights situations was different from what the government wanted to present to the international society and at home. When this was evolving, new laws came into implementation and there were campaigns agains the leaders of NGOs, against editors, journalists and human rights lawyers. We also witnessed a parallel attack against individuals and civil society leaders. We have also seen that the numbers of governmentally sponsored organisations and NGOs funded by governments have been on the rise in the last 10-15 years. The growth of these government-sponsored organistions has more effectively prevented the truth from coming out. These organizations are of course not critical of the governments that fund them, and instead have actually supported the official policies of such governments at the direct expense of human rights initiatives.
So these NGO’s and “human rights” organizations actually served as propaganda channels for supporting governments?
Yes, but under the label of Non Government Organisations. So these kinds of civil society organisations have grown and been allowed to work, while those non-governmental organisations working on human rights and that are being critical have been given less and less space. Many have even been targeted as well. There are some examples in Azerbaijan where, since last August, most of our colleagues are either in jail today or in hiding. Very few managed to leave the country. An independent civil society is non-existent today in Azerbaijan where it concerns independent human rights organisations. An independent media (in Azerbaijan) is more or less non-existent. They have kicked out many international organisations, including us, from Azerbaijan, and international media has been kicked out as well. The state-owned TV and radio are the only two mediums reaching out to people but they are nothing but a part of the propaganda machinery, which is actively suppressing voices.
It is a very interesting point how so called “national security” became a global trend after the September 11 attack. Starting from the U.S. it became a very fashionable model for other countries to exploit. Today, look at what Russia is doing in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin is a horrible person, a dictator. As the U.S. and NATO have increasingly moved eastward, which gradually included more and more influence in Ukraine, Russia got nervous and decided that they better fight. What better way to do this than play the “national security” card. This has all set a very bad precedent as other people seeking power within emerging democracies will no doubt attempt to do the same.
As a human rights activist, I am focused on monitoring human rights developments in a variety of countries over the years. The trend of deteriorating human rights instruments and mechanisms in Russia has been going on for a long period. They have had terrible wars in Chechnya in the 1990s. In 2008 they invaded Georgia. I know the context is Russia and its European influence, but if I did not know Russia, I could easily say it is due to corruption and money politics and the spanning and moving of power. That sounds almost like what is happening in the U.S. as well. So, it is almost like a mirror thing happening here. It is not exactly the same but certain elements are the same – there is money and power involved.
What is it that we can do to stop it from continuing?
I think that in general we have to take care of the human rights standard at home, first of all. We have to continuously focus on, and be proud of, the values and principles that we have built our democracy upon and use it as a positive example. It makes your influence weaker in bilateral or international talks when you fail to show that you are not actually cleaning up and improving the human rights situation at home.
When you see Belarus, it is not oil rich or a country where business can grow for other countries to take benefit of. In such countries, it is much easier for the EU and Norway to come up with sanctions, but the same will not be the case in a country like Azerbaijan, which is an oil rich country. If we come up saying that this is something that you should look at in regards to Azerbaijan, there are doubts. We have seen how Azerbaijan as a state is growing more authoritarian. My point is that in the countries which could be economical sound, human rights need to be guaranteed. We want to be secure but you cannot have good security development if you are also not looking into respecting human rights.
After the fall of Soviet Union, individual states became members of the Council of Europe. They began to change their laws, institutions and began opening up to building democratic states. In the beginning, you also had someone, or other members, monitoring human rights situations. You had to abide by the obligations and agreements set forth by the Council of Europe if you were to be a member. Such obligations included the promotion of human rights and there are some rules and regulations that you have to act upon and follow. After a few years, many newly admitted countries (to the Council of Europe) started to change the laws that were against weakening the national human rights laws. They were also using different mechanisms to more and more control independent civil society in their individual countries. And last year, when the Council of Europe accepted Azerbaijan as having the chairmanship of Council for Europe, what did they (Azerbaijan) do? They arrested the entire independent civil society and the Council of Europe remained mum. Now how can you guarantee human rights when you allow members of an organization (like the Council of Europe has allowed Azerbaijan to do) to disrespect your own values and principles?
Why do you think the Council of Europe‘s reaction has not been stronger?
What we see is diplomats and politicians have this thinking that it is better that we have dialogue and that we stay within the institutions than expelling a member. If you expel a member, then you do not know what is happening in their country, nor can you influence them as effectively, so it is better that we stay together and have dialogue because that will help more in promoting shared democratic values.
What can people do now, in very simple ways, to support democracy, human rights and human values in individual ways? What can readers do at the grassroots level to prevent this from spreading any further?
Well one important tool in democracy is that we have free and fair elections. We can actually vote for the party focusing on international human rights standards. Follow the political parties and their debates to see who they are because it has to do with the development of your own country. There are different things that you can follow and monitor and make your own judgment when you vote. It is important to follow the media and assess the situation to increase your own knowledge and understanding of human rights. Get involved to increase the strength of civil society and act individually or along with organistaions that promote human rights and democratic values.