“You must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right.”
“Each person must live their life as a model for others.”
The late American civil rights activist Rosa Parks may have met the standard of both statements just by living her life.
The term “human rights” has become somewhat of a buzzword among urban youths today. In the work that I do, it is not uncommon to encounter young promising Malaysians who express their desire to become human rights activists. With their well-meaning intentions and idealism, I often wonder how many will eventually become citizens who truly champion human rights?
I bet Parks did not wake up one morning and decide she would become a human rights leader. She worked as a seamstress and was an active member of a minority rights group. In 1955, she certainly didn’t expect or plan that historic moment where she stood up – pun unintended – for her right to remain seated on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Parks said she did it because she was “tired of giving in.”
A reality check
Parks’ story was told to illustrate that being a human rights leader is not a profession you check off on a box in a visa application form. Neither is it a dream or fantasy – you know, like how many of us once idolised some movie star from a distance and thought to ourselves: That is exactly who I want to be when I grow up.
Holding a human rights job and dreaming of becoming a human rights leader don’t make you one. I can tell you this because human rights is my job, and I once looked at Aung San Suu Kyi and dreamed of winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and yet, those are not the things that make me a human rights leader.
Now, when I say being a human rights leader is not something that is created out of a fantasy, I mean it in two different ways. One: it isn’t something you dream of as a child but know deep down that is probably out of your league; and two: it isn’t a fantasy because it is actually achievable in real life – much more so than becoming a movie star.
To be a movie star, you need talent, personality, charisma, good looks, and probably a bit of luck. This combination of qualities is not easily honed. Whereas, to be a human rights leader, you only need one thing – conviction. Conviction that comes from understanding what human rights is and believing in it.
Many of you are probably asking, if it is as simple as that, why are there not many human rights leaders in this country?
My take on this is that there are probably more human rights leaders out there than we think but because many of us may synonymise Malaysian human rights leaders with public personalities such as Ambiga Sreenevasan, Irene Fernandez, Maria Chin, Edmund Bon and Adam Adli, we downplay the conviction and work of ordinary people – people you have never seen or heard of but are championing human rights in their own individual ways.
A misconceived notion
The stereotyping of human rights leaders, visualising them as individuals who are public, fearless, influential, vocal, rebellious, political, hardcore and tortured is flawed. Such stereotypes should be discouraged as it prevents ordinary people from potentially becoming champions of human rights because they think it is political and dangerous, and should only be left to those who are brave and incalcitrant.
The notion propagated by many of our state leaders that human rights is political and a Western concept is fundamentally wrong. It shows their tremendous lack of understanding of the concept, and I want to dispel that misconception today because it is important in answering our questions.
Human rights date back to ancient civilisation when human beings began to form communities and understand that in order for them to survive and flourish, they needed to live by a code of behaviour. This code is what we call laws today. Laws are created to regulate our actions towards one another so that not only do we not harm one another, but we also empower ourselves to have better lives.
For example, murder is a crime because everyone has a right to life. Burglary is prohibited because we each have the right to own property. An employee cannot be sacked without reasonable cause because he or she has the right to livelihood. Many of us see these examples only as laws and do not connect them to human rights.
When we start to make the connection, we will see that human rights are common sense and only becomes political and perceived as a Western concept when local governments refuse to recognise rights and understand them as evolving concepts. When we start to understand that human rights are not something political but a fundamental essence of our natural being – that is to say, how we should treat one another so that we can sustain and flourish together – we will see it as necessary and a part of our everyday lifestyle.
What does it take to be a human rights leader?
My answer to that is conviction. That is what drives you to champion human rights as part of your everyday life. Also, recognising that it doesn’t have to be a profession or for you to be a public figure to manifest that conviction.
So for instance, if you are starting out as the owner of a café, think about how you can champion human rights in your role as an entrepreneur and employer. Who are the people you will be working with and serving? What rights do they have and why is it important for you to recognise and protect these rights? You may be fearful of granting your employees decent working hours because that would mean spending resources to hire more people. After all, you’re just starting up and every ringgit counts. What if by doing so, your business collapses within a year?
A human rights leader will ask him or herself: Should my business concern be a top priority at the expense of my employee’s well-being? Can I not reconcile my interest and their rights? If yes, how can I make it work?
The moment you have conviction that people around you have rights, that these rights cannot be compromised, and that you have a responsibility to work out a solution to protect these rights, you become a human rights leader.
A good teacher teaches his or her students the modules laid out by the school curriculum and makes sure they excel in their examinations. A human rights leader educates his or her students human rights values by incorporating them in everyday lessons.
A world-class cardiac surgeon saves lives by performing highly intricate surgical procedures on his or her patient. A human rights leader makes sure her dying patients are treated with dignity and respect by her team of staff.
An insightful editor-in-chief of a widely distributed news daily has the knack of identifying consumable stories but a human rights leader is not afraid to publish the truth even if it may land him in trouble.
A junior accountant who calls out on his senior male counterpart’s sexist and derogatory remarks about a female colleague during lunch break is not just an ordinary staff but a human rights leader.
A CEO of a multi-national corporation implementing a zero-tolerance policy against all forms of discrimination at the workplace is not only a business leader but also a human rights leader.
What it means to be a human rights leader?
So we have established that anyone can be a human rights leader as long as they have conviction, but what does it mean to be one?
Rosa Parks said, “Each person must live their life as a model for others.”
To me, that sums up what it means to be a human rights leader – someone who lives his or her life as a role model for others.
I have had the privilege of working with human rights activists for many years. While I acknowledge the efforts and sacrifices they make, it is extremely rare to come across a leader who has been an inspiring role model to me.
As a young human rights officer many years ago, I had the opportunity to work with an esteemed senior constitutional rights advocate. I recall an experience where this particular person took offence and reprimanded me when I offered polite suggestions because he perceived them as a challenge to his seniority. His egotistical nature was antithetical to what a human rights leader should be. Not only did I feel I was being shut down, shamed and left disempowered, but I was also not treated as equal.
I also had an experience where a senior human rights lawyer did not come to my defence when I was bullied by his peers. There were also those who had broken their promises and commitments to project deliverables, displaying a total lack of professionalism and respect for work ethics.
As a woman, I’ve encountered sexist human rights activists who disregard women rights and gender equality. They pride themselves for defending the rights of political detainees and death row prisoners, but cannot conceive of the idea that feminism is a valid and important human rights concept.
Hypocrisy and egotism are two terrible things but made worse when it is being practised by the very people who pride themselves as human rights defenders. We can all learn the principles and theories of human rights but to really understand, believe and practise them are what sets a human rights activist and a human rights leader apart.
I acknowledge that human beings are fallible and it may seem that I was conjuring up the image of a saint when I described the qualities of a human rights leader. On the contrary, my point is that all human beings make mistakes but a leader knows when and how to apologise for it.
In summary, your activism in the public’s eyes does not make you a human rights leader. How you treat every person in your daily life and being accountable for your actions, do.