When I meet people outside of WITNESS and talk about what we do, I get this question frequently: “What motivates you and your colleagues to dedicate your lives to dealing with some of the darkest aspects of humanity?”
My constant reply is that in a tumultuous world, partnering with and supporting people who fight for human rights change is the exact opposite of what makes humanity dark.
I thought about this question when the news of the most recent ISIS attacks in Beirut and Paris reached us last week, and shock and concern about the state of humanity was echoed by so many.
In our work to support people to expose human rights abuses through visual imagery, we see many cases of brutal, horrific crimes being committed. Often, the lives of people who are the most vulnerable or marginalized are the most affected.
And every time that a new violent act is committed, such as those committed by ISIS in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen and France, we cannot help but be saddened by it.
Yet, it is the unwavering belief of our partners and peers, in dignity, in rights, and in a just society that, time and time again, gives me hope and faith in humanity. The light of their beliefs shines brightly these dark moments.
When I heard about ISIS newest attacks, my thoughts went to Youssef, a lawyer who lived a quiet suburban life in Aleppo with his family, until the conflict broke out in Syria. When the Assad regime started indiscriminately killing civilians in his neighborhood, he made it his purpose to collect evidence of human rights crimes, ensuring that stories of the brutalities against his neighbors and friends would not be forgotten.
I remember the moment that Youssef reported that he was now facing yet another threat: ISIS had entered his community and was brutalizing it. Many brave Syrian civilians, turned human rights defenders, have been documenting ISIS’ crimes in the towns and villages that once were the places where they would walk their children peacefully to school. Faced with Assad’s barrel bombs as well as ISIS’ unspeakable acts, Youssef told me that he was doing this work because he believed in human rights. “Some day,” he said, “rule of law will return and Syria will be a humane and just society again.” His resolve gave me hope.
At WITNESS, we show up every day because we are committed to promoting and protecting human rights. Each one of us has a deep, personal sense of purpose. For each of us there may be different, personal reasons why we chose to work in human rights. Those range from growing up in a conflict zone to having mothers who instilled a sense of responsibility for others in us, or both.
None of us at WITNESS believes we are doing anything extraordinary. We all operate on the simple conviction that we want the world we all live in to reflect the universal values that many of us share: dignity, freedom, security. And we will work in solidarity with people around the world to ensure those values are extended to each and every single person, that is our purpose.
Every day, we are inspired by and work with citizens like Youssef. He and many others like him around the world are the beacons of light that will root out the darkness.
In the past few weeks, I have seen so many messages of empathy and solidarity emerging from human rights defenders around the world. People who in different ways in different countries, stand up against perpetrators who take away or threaten our dignity, our freedoms, our lives. They all share one thing in common: their steadfast belief that what makes us human are the human rights values we uphold.
Our daily work at WITNESS reminds me of this commonality every day. “There are many more of us,” I say silently when I see news headlines that would lead us to believe that evil is winning the battle.
In the middle of these tumultuous times, what is needed most is our collective commitment to universal human rights, to defending rule of law, to solidarity with others around the world who share the belief that human dignity is the (only) corner stone of a stable, safe future for all.
This is a moment when global solidarity and standing up for the rights we all treasure truly matters. In the words of our co-founder, the activist, and musician Peter Gabriel: “The move toward global citizenry has never been more urgent.”