A Night for Courage with the Human Right’s Watch

Taken By: Aisa Villanueva

Aisa Villanueva

“We’re not just journalists. We use the information we get to make change,” asserts a Human Rights Watch volunteer. The Human Right’s Watch (HRW) held its annual dinner on November 15, 2009 at the Fess Parker Doubletree Hotel to honor extraordinary people who risk their lives every day in their quest to uphold human rights. These individuals were presented the Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism. Those present at the invite-only event were HRW’s stakeholders, sponsors, and of course, the tireless people behind the organization.

HRW’s main objective is to stand for and to defend human rights. Its basic methodology revolves around collecting empirical evidence on countries who violate human rights and publicly “naming and shaming” those governments to the world. HRW Santa Barbara Committee Vice Chair, Susan Rose, reiterates this point. “The critical role that the HRW [plays] is in sounding the alarm.” Executive Director Kenneth Roth echoes, “This oppression [atrocities done against human rights] brings forth a response to a burgeoning global movement for human rights, one that is getting stronger despite the attacks against it.” As such, the event focused on all the positive acts that the group has participated in. The event organizers showed various video clips of programs that actualized this.

One local video clip exhibited how far the efforts of Santa Barbara elementary and high school students combined with that of students the world over could prove to be powerful in pushing for helpful change. These students stood united in their support of the “Red Hand Campaign,” which is facilitated for the awareness and the end of child soldier usage. Red imprints of the students’ hands were collated, and in a move to pressure the United Nations (UN), were given earlier this year to the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon.

Other local acts championed by the HRW are their programs that advocate the management of Rape Kits in the L.A. County and the on-going campaign for support of SB 399. Rape Kits contain materials used by medical personnel to collect evidence after a sexual assault has occurred. HRW did research on Rape Kits in the L.A. County and discovered a back log, all the potent evidence that could have been used against sex offenders were not capitalized on and were instead sleeping safely inside storage rooms. With their support, this has changed and the LA County is currently working to catch up on all the untapped kits. SB 399 or “The Fair Sentencing for Youth Act” forces an amendment in the present California law that has the power to put youth as young as fourteen years old who are implicated in a crime to be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. The organization and its supporters are steadfast in this continuing movement.

The bulk of the event, though, focused more on the four people who were being recognized with the Alison Des Forges Award for their determined efforts to fight for human rights in their own countries. The honorees were: Mathilde Muhindo from the Congo who stands as a voice for women empowerment after sexual violence, Bo Kyi from Burma who works for the release of Burmese political prisoners, Daniel Bekele who is a renowned human rights lawyer from Ethiopia, and investigative journalist for Novaya Gazeta, Elena Milashina, who exposes the truth of critical Russian events against the behest of her government. Two of the four (Muhindo and Kyi) could not attend the event, but even with just the other half (Bekele and Milashina) present, one could already feel an electrifying sense of motivation and hope coming seeping through these people.

Awe-inspiring videos were shown of the work done by Bekele and Milashina, including a picture of a badly beaten up Bekele portraying the risk he undertook in 2005 after his desire to combat a shady Ethiopian election put him in prison, and the story of how Milashina’s colleague and mentor was killed in 2006 after pursuing the same truth that Milashina fights to uphold. Both awardees spoke up with unwavering courage, challenging those present at the event to join in the life-long battle for human rights. At the same time, they spoke highly of all the generous aid that the HRW has helped pass on to their advocates.

Other groups choose to make their voices heard through different channels, but the manner in which the Human Rights Watch has chosen to do so is deafening. Their fact-finding methodologies and the backbone encouragement they provide to fearless individuals coalesce to form a solid, booming “scream” for human rights. For as Susan Rice put it, “On the one hand, human rights is about compassion and love for fellow man, but it is also about violenc, we are idealists, but we are not naive.”