This article was originally published at Huffington Post online.
On Human Rights Day last year, activists across the world united in demanding justice for Salwa Bugaighis, the Libyan human rights defender murdered as she returned from voting in that country’s general elections. A year on there has still been no serious investigation into this appalling attack on one of the bravest of human rights defenders, but we will not give up.
Salwa’s story is told in a new film that features her former colleagues in the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace. A fiercely intelligent and engaging women, Salwa had emerged as one of the leading voices in the Libyan revolution. She had joined with other lawyers protesting outside Benghazi’s courthouse, and went on to be a key figure in post-Gaddafi Libya as a member of the National Transitional Council and vice-president of the National Dialogue Preparatory Commission. After she had cast her vote in the general elections in June 2014 – and encouraged others to do the same – masked men burst into Salwa’s home, shooting her dead and abducting her husband, Essam El Gheriani, who is still missing to this day.
The lack of accountability for human rights violations in Libya – the fact that militias have been able to carry out their murderous acts with impunity – has only made the situation more dangerous for human rights defenders. Less than a month after Salwa’s murder, former congresswoman Fariha Al-Berqawi was shot dead in Derna. Though the security situation in Libya remains parlous, Salwa’s friends, colleagues and family continue her struggle for a democratic Libya, as well as demanding for justice for Salwa, Essam, Fariha and all those dedicated to securing universal respect for human rights.
The strength and the importance of human rights lie in their universality and indivisibility. It means that for all the differences between the experience of human rights activists on the streets of Tripoli and those on the streets of Washington, DC, our goals are shared. Our demands are simply that a girl in Kinshasa has the same right to liberty as a pensioner in Tokyo, that education should no more be denied to Yemeni children than it should be to Swedish children, that freedoms of thought, conscience and religion should be the same in Raqqa as they are in Rotterdam.
Though the demands of human rights activists across the world are universal, the threats and challenges that they face from country to country are varied and particular. In too many parts of the world, to demand respect for human rights is to invite great risks into your life. The justice that we still seek for Salwa does not end in holding her killers to account, we are seeking a UN resolution to afford greater protection to human rights defenders, wherever they might be.
The women’s rights organisation AWID has an ongoing project to pay tribute to powerful voices for human rights that are no longer with us. Their tribute includes not only venerable names who lived long and full lives dedicated to the cause, but far too many brave voices that were brutally silenced – campaigning journalists who challenged authority and criminality, LGBT activists who stood up to bigotry, women who challenged the status quo in the streets only to be murdered by their partners at home.
Despite the threats, intimidation and the slow, slow progress that we face as activists, we carry on in their names and the names of all who face the denial of their basic rights. As long as the intimidation remains, we know we must continue the struggle, as long as those who kill our friends and colleagues go unpunished, we shall not shrink in our demand for justice, as long as our sisters in Libya, in Syria, in Yemen, In Iraq – wherever – continue to be denied the rule of law, denied their freedom to marry without coercion, or denied their security, then we cannot cease our support for them.
We continue to honour and remember Salwa. On Human Rights Day 2015, the Libya HD channel will be screening the film on her life and legacy. It will also be presented at a special screening hosted by the ambassadors of the Netherlands and Canada at the Canadian embassy in Tunis, followed by an expert discussion. Further screenings and discussion events will be held across the world to highlight the risks that human rights defenders like Salwa take and the need to offer them the strongest protection.
We still wait for justice for Salwa; women in the Arab region still wait for many of our basic rights to be respected, just as many men and women do across the world. As we fight on in this long struggle, we ask the international community to support our call for a resolution to protect human rights defenders. No one should ever have to fear for their life simply for demanding their fundamental rights. If we can ensure accountability for human rights violators and greater protection for human rights defenders, then justice for Salwa will truly be justice for all.