Elaine Pearson, Australian Director of Human Rights Watch, interviews Shan (not his real name) a 27-year-old Sri Lankan refugee who has been held on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea for four years

“On the same day that we were brutally bashed, a number of individuals placed flowers in their hair”, Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist in the fourth year of his imprisonment on Manus Island writes in today’s incredibly moving Saturday Paper cover story, A letter from Manus Island.

“A sick Rohingya man put two red flowers behind his ears and smiled even as his body was emaciated and in the worst shape possible. Our resistance was an epic of love… Resistance in its purist form. A noble resistance.”

Through his reporting on social media, the Iranian journalist has provided an unfiltered window for many Australians into the atrocities that have occurred on Manus Island in the month since the Department of Immigration began forcibly relocating refugees into three new camps. Despite the unimaginable horrors faced by those men who remained in defiance, Boochani writes that from resistance “a new manifesto for humanity and love” has emerged, even “when suppressed by every form of torture inflicted on them and when confronted by every application of violence.”

When Elaine Pearson, Director of Human Rights Watch Australia, visited Manus in September of this year, she too encountered an edifying form of resistance not grounded in violence, but in hope against the odds – one that, despite a year in which the fight for human rights on both a local and global scale has never appeared more beleaguered, gives her hope for the prospect of a better future for all.

“When I meet the victims of human rights violations and they tell me their stories you think, gosh, these people have already been through so much,” Pearson tells GRAZIA. She relays the story of Walid Zazai, a 23-year-old man from Afghanistan that Pearson met on Manus Island – his father was picked up by the Taliban and disappeared – has already spent 14 years of his young life outside of his country looking for a safe place. Walid loves to cook, and one day hopes to open an Afghan café of his own. “[If] someone like that hasn’t given up hope for a future and for safety that really invigorates you,” says Pearson. “It makes you want to keep going.

“We have a duty to the victims to tell their stories [and] that’s really at the heart of what we do,” Pearson says of the mandate that Human Rights Watch, which was founded in 1978, abides by through their work in more than 90 countries around the world. “It’s about shining a spotlight on stories that otherwise would not get told, whether it’s in prison or offshore detention centres. These are remote places where people don’t have access to talk to journalists or the public. And if we can help to humanize the conditions and tell the stories then I think the Australian public really need to know that. I’m absolutely hopeful that there will be a shift there. That one day we will get there.”

Sunday, December 10, is Human Rights Day. Each year, the occasion commemorates the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the core human rights treaty from which all other conventions and international law obligations stem. To mark the occasion, each year since 2013, the New York City’s Empire State Building – home to the Human Rights Watch global headquarters – has lit its spire blue to commemorate not only the historical day, but also the hope for a brighter future.

This year, for the first time, the sails of the Sydney Opera House will be cast in a blue light and join 22 other international landmarks in solidarity with the global human rights movement. Its icon status aside, that the Opera House should chosen to convey such a message seems especially fitting in light of recent protests that saw a group of activists arrested for attempting to unveil ‘Evacuate Manus’ and ‘Bring them here’ banners on its sails.

“This is a year in which we really need to be paying more attention to human rights,” Pearson says. “This year has been really terrible for human rights if you look at what has been happening in the region and around the world.” Within the last twelve months, the Rohingya refugee crisis taking place on the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh has been the focus of a great deal of work for Pearson and her team. The widespread use of sexual violence at the hands of the Burmese military perpetrated against Rohingyan women was the focus of a recent report compiled and published by the organization which, by thoroughly investigating and exposing abuses, presses for policy changes to improve human rights and seeks to both bring abusers to justice and hold governments accountable for their people. The United Nations recently described the situation in Myanmar as ‘a textbook case of ethnic cleansing’, and Pearson says that ongoing investigations into the crisis continually raises questions as to why Australia would want to prolong its relationship with the country’s military.

In one of the year’s few successes, the UN agreed to establish a fact-finding mission to investigate the abuses occurring in Myanmar. “While clearly the situation on the ground has gotten worse in terms of the ethnic cleansing campaign,” Pearson says, “I think we have seen throughout the year a number of countries that are members of the UN voting overwhelmingly in support of resolutions that condemn these human rights violations. [Last month] the General Assembly passed a resolution that Australia supported condemning the situation.”

Domestically, Australia’s track record on human rights is becoming increasingly untenable. Pearson says the organization is concerned greatly with the situation concerning off-shore detention on Manus Island and Nauru. Another report currently in the works currently will examine the status of people with disabilities in prison, both physical and mental health issues, and the ramifications for those conditions on both the incarcerated and the staff in charge. For Pearson, shining a spotlight on these abuses is the first step toward holding governments accountable for these injustices, while also raising the profile of the issues amongst the broader Australian public.

“But also in Australia, we’ve had some high points,” Pearson adds, somewhat – admittedly – wearily. “We didn’t want this marriage equality postal survey, that was something we thought was completely unnecessary [to] reduce basic human rights to a popular vote, but at the same time the fact that the Australian people voted overwhelmingly in support of marriage equality is absolutely something to celebrate. Lighting the Opera House is not only about shining a spotlight on these abuses, but celebrating the achievements of the human rights movement.”

October also saw Australia elected to the Human Rights Council. Pearson says that while she has “mixed feelings about [our] role on the council”, which will begin in earnest from January 1, 2018, “having that seat means there will absolutely be more scrutiny of our actions by the international community. The world is very interested in what’s happening on Manus Island and on Nauru and wondering why it is that Australia can’t do something to support a couple of thousand people who sought protection. We haven’t seen Australia making any strong statements about human rights concerns; we’re more concerned with trade and security and because of what’s happening with the asylum seeker and refugee issue, Australia has lost its credibility to be a force for human rights on the world stage. I think there will be more pressure on Australia to clear up its own act to be a credible voice for human rights on the council from 2018.”

Tomorrow evening, supporters of Human Rights Watch Australia will assemble on the rooftop of the Museum of Contemporary Art to reflect on the year past, to celebrate its successes and reaffirm their belief in the promise of a future where the human rights violations of the last twelve months are never again be repeated. The ticketed event is open to the public, and is one of the many ways Pearson says that Australians can affirm their support for the global movement for equal rights for all.

For those Australians wondering how they can contribute to remedying the injustices faced by victims of human rights abuses both locally and within the region, Pearson offers the following advice: inform yourself about the human rights issues that mean the most to you, be it the rights of women, children or LGBTQI people. Pick an issue or a country that you’re particularly concerned about. Take action, sign petitions and call your local member to voice your concerns about issues affecting other Australians. “Really try to inform yourself and then mobilise others to seek meetings, especially with your local MP. Make them aware that you’re concerned about these issues because otherwise they’re never going to change.”

Tile and cover image: (Edited) Craig P. Jewell/Getty Images

thoughts?