Patrick Barigbalo Naagbanton is a well-known human rights activist. Born in Rivers State, Nigeria, he trained as a journalist before working as a trade unionist at the Port Harcourt factory of the Union Dicon Salt PLC, where he was elected chairman of the workers union, Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN). He was eventually fired for campaigning for improvement in working conditions. Naagbanton recruited many workers to join human rights/pro-democracy groups like the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), Campaign for Democracy (CD), and Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR). Naagbanton served as a board member of Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), representing the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. He also worked with the Environmental Rights Action (ERA) and Friends of the Earth Nigeria (FOEN), documenting, researching and campaigning against human rights and environmental degradation in Nigeria. In recognition of his role in promoting and defending victims of rights abuse in Nigeria, Naagbanton received the Indianapolis University Human Rights Award in 2001; and in 2002, the Rivers State branch of the CLO conferred on him the Saro-Wiwa Award for human and environmental rights defender.
Under military rule in Nigeria, Naagbanton was arrested and held in solitary confinement. However he had to be freed, because there are some networks, institutional mechanisms and accountability of the state towards human rights activists in Africa. Naagbanton remains consistently vocal on issues of human rights and environmental issues and has continued to contribute opinion articles, along with writing news and features for several newspapers. He remains free, in spite of raising his voice against the misuses of government security forces and militia and their consequences on people, especially women and children.
Compare him with Dr. Binayak Sen, an equally well-known human rights activist, Vice President of the People’s Union For Civil Liberties (PUCL), and General Secretary of the Chhattisgarh unit of PUCL, and also a pediatrician, who will complete two years in a Raipur prison on 14 May 2009, on false charges of abetting Maoist activity in Chhattisgarh, sedition, waging war against State under various sections of the draconian Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 2004 (amended) and the IPC. Dr. Sen raised his voice against Salwa Judum, and disappearances and encounters in the State of Chhattisgarh. Though in the past two years, there have been several calls and actions within and outside India by Nobel laureates, medical professionals, academicians, journalists, human rights and health activists, students, workers and rural folk for the release of Dr. Sen, he continues to be in jail. Human rights and social movements have been protesting against the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act 2005 and the UAPA (amended) 2004, demanding for their repeal, and release of those arrested under it. Some 178 people have been detained under these draconian laws in Chhattisgarh. These include traders/businessmen, tailor, journalists, doctors, NGO workers, media persons, filmmakers, farmers, landless agricultural workers and cultural activists. There is no institutional mechanism to address the harassment and prosecution of human rights activists in India.
Thus, when 85 human rights defenders (HRDs) from 45 African States, and 33 partners from across the world, gathered at the All-Africa Human Rights Defenders Conference held in Kampala, Uganda from 20 to 23 April 2009, which was hosted by the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (EHAHRD-Net) in close collaboration with all other sub-regional networks, and came out with a Kampala Declaration on human rights defenders, it should ring a bell in India as well. Kampala meeting was a follow up of the Johannesburg meeting, where the All Africa Human Rights Defenders Conference took place in November 1998. This meeting had agreed to identify challenges facing HRDs in Africa; train them in all existing local, regional and international mechanisms, identify advocacy measures for their freedom of action, look into measures for their security, ask States to adopt legislation to protect HRDs, in particular women, ask all inter-governmental bodies to protect HRDs and organise themselves in networks to respond urgently to human rights. And there are several milestones achieved since 1998 in the Africa region: appointment of a United Nations Special Rapporteur on HRDs, adoption of a UN Declaration on HRDs, appointment of a Special Rapporteur on HRDs at the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), adoption of several intergovernmental international and regional legal instruments, including the EU Guidelines on HRDs, and non-governmental action on protecting HRDs, establishment of HRD regional networks in Africa, notably in the East and Horn of Africa, Southern Africa, Central Africa and West Africa.
Human rights defenders from across Africa say that they remain deeply concerned regarding the threats, harassment, intimidation and physical violence they face in carrying out their work. However, they have also resolved to build on existing sub-regional networks and create new ones where needed, based on the lessons learned from existing ones. They will be undertaking an updated assessment of HRDs’ needs in Africa. They will design a national, regional, and international strategy for their protection, and strengthen national HRD coalitions and sub-regional networks, to render them more dynamic and effective. They will work on the African Union to draft, under the auspices of the Special Rapporteur on HRDs of the ACHPR, and pass an additional protocol to the African Charter, which will protect and promote the rights of HRD. They will pay particular attention to vulnerable HRD groups, including women HRDs, and those working in conflict situations or oppressive regimes, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI), and minority rights activists. They will pressurize all the African States to ratify and domesticate international and regional Human Rights instruments without reservations. There will be a comprehensive Kampala plan of action in future.
Of course, 14 May 2009 will be marked by several activities in India and internationally, to demand the immediate and unconditional release of Dr. Binayak Sen. However, unless we begin our work specifically in terms of a clear recognition of the status and role of human rights defenders, have a better organisation and communication regarding the activists at risk, and evolve and strengthen protection mechanisms at the national and regional levels, these human rights defenders will always remain at the receiving end. Amongst the well known cases of vicitimisation recently, we can remember Ms Shamim Modi, a leading activist of Shramik Adivasi Sanghathana and the office bearer of Samajwadi Jan Parishad in Madhya Pradesh state, who was arrested by Harda police on 10 February and remanded to 14-days judicial custody by the Harda CJM court. Shamin, educated from Lady SriRam College, Delhi University and Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, has been instrumental in organising labour of 60 saw mills and plywood factories of the city. She had also taken up the causes of more than 1000 load workers of several Krishi Upaj Mandis in Harda district. Sanghathana and Shamim, along with her husband Anurag Modi, are raising the burning issues of tribal in the region, like minimum wages, bonded labour, ownership of forest land, illegal mining, atrocities, corruption and many more. Another burning example is of Abhay Sahu, president of the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), who is in jail since 12 October 2008. He was picked up by the Orissa police near Pattamundai in Jagtsingpur district while returning from a medical check-up. The police have registered as many as 25 criminal cases against him. For the past more than three years, the people of Dhinkia, Gobindpur and Nuagaon panchayats in Kujang tehsil of Jagatsinghpur district, under the banner of PPSS, have been agitating against the establishment of a 12-million ton mega steel plant by POSCO. The area has witnessed repeated episodes of intense violence.
Seeing the experience of Binayak Sen, it must also be said that the justice system needs to find new and concrete ways to protect rights activists, by giving teeth to the international and regional declarations that exist, and legislating and implementing them at the national level.