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Young defenders: voiceless dissenters or force for good?

Student activists gather outside Pathumwan Police Station in Bangkok, Thailand, on 24 June 2015 Associated Press Photo/Sakchai Lalit. All rights reserved.Once again the world is raising a toast
to Human Rights Day (10 December) marking almost seven decades since the
adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While many, including
young human rights defenders and supporters, vigorously raise their voices
observing on their achievements throughout the year, many are finding themselves
at risk for speaking up for human rights and freedom of expression. In Asia,
many voices have been systemically silenced for merely speaking about this. Human
rights belong to every ‘human’ since birth irrespective of who the person is
and what they represent, politically or otherwise; a quality that cannot be
taken away or given.

Human rights belong to every ‘human’
since birth irrespective of who the person is and what they represent,
politically or otherwise; a quality that cannot be taken away or given. Yet
across many Asian countries the perception of those defending or promoting
human rights are increasingly seen as negative if not pejorative; to many,
these two magic words are becoming analogous to toxic narratives. Taking
actions for or expressing opinions (peacefully) in the public about human
rights are frowned upon, from an uneasy awareness that those actions or views may
not correspond to the “official parameters”.

In fact, the civic space is shrinking
at an unprecedented rate.

The past few years have seen countless
instances of students and young activists taking actions in the public space – online
or offline – who face retaliation from state authorities and others. From
arbitrary arrest of a sixteen-year old blogger in Singapore for publically
expressing political opinions, to a massive crackdown on students for
peacefully protesting against restrictive Education Law in Myanmar, and a student
activist from Hong Kong denied entry to speak about human rights in Thailand.

One shared characteristic among these
young people perhaps is their conviction about what they believe in and their audacity
in speaking out against closed or repressive systems. However, due to their specific
identities, especially those associated with their age, young people are
particularly susceptible to different threats.

Some like to argue that being ‘young’
equates with being immature, idealistic and troublemakers – hence such inevitable
reprisals. While the validity of such claims can sway in both directions, a
lack of youth inclusion and representation in political processes means they
could all the more be dismissed and denied due recognition, respect and security in general.  

In
spite of the universal guarantees of human rights, these two magic words are hijacked
in reality. In the view of international legal standards and legal principles,
“youth rights” are defined as the ‘areas of law dealing with the rights of
young people’. In other words, these could be interpreted (purely) as a human
right-based foundation for the rights of young people.

In light
of this, youth are being placed in an even more ambiguous position in regions including ASEAN, where human rights standards are poorly
applied, without necessary instruments to provide essential formal legal means
and sources of protection. Despite States’ obligation to respect and promote
these rights, young people in the region are consequently
left to their own devices, especially when it comes to their civic engagement. National
security, economic and social development, religious norms and practices are a few
of the reasons given to justify attacks on those defending human rights.

National security, economic and social
development, religious norms and practices are a few of the reasons given to justify
attacks on those defending human rights. While these may not be altogether surprising,
they reflect the overall condition of society across different sectors
including the crucial public space.

In spite of all these challenges and
gaps, there is ample room for improvement in terms of public perception of
young people doing what they are doing (i.e. defending human rights and
freedoms). Young people need to be judged on the merits of their contribution
and the change they make in society while being understood and supported, in
the context of the shrinking space in which they are operating and the very specific
risks faced.

In the same vein, the aggressive
narratives (part of a global trend towards a right-leaning shift), which give
rise to the increased stigmatisation of “the promoters” of human rights, needs
to be confronted worldwide. Existing narratives need to be straightened out with
due recognition finally being given to those risking their lives in the fight
for justice. 

While it is the task of governments to
adopt and implement certain policies that provide adequate protection
mechanisms, as well as for organisations and activists themselves to work
better together, the legitimacy of young human rights defenders will only be safe
when there first exists public awareness and a sense of solidarity, holding
open the space for those who want to speak about human rights to speak out.

(Disclaimer: Aanas Ali contributed this article in his personal capacity. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.)

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