For many in Bangladesh, LGBTI activist Xulhaz Mannan was one of those people who only needed a first name. A bit like Cher, Voltaire, or Moses, people in Dhaka know about Xulhaz.
Before he was murdered in April 2016, he founded the nation’s first LGBTI magazine, was an employee of the U.S. embassy in Dhaka, and organized the largest public HIV testing event ever to happen in Bangladesh.
Xulhaz was also a friend, mentor, and “inspiration” to hundreds of young men.* At “working parties” in his living room, he coached them through the stages of researching, writing, editing, and publishing a magazine. He guided young activists who wanted to advocate for better police protection for trans people. He was also, as one LGBTI activist in Dhaka told me, the “walking center of gay social life” in Dhaka.
He was a smart, effective activist, working within the confines of a state cracking down on freedom of expression, extremists groups murdering human rights defenders, and a prime minister who tends to blame human rights defenders (HRDs) for not being “moderate” enough if they are killed. Despite (and in response to) these risks, Xulhaz worked to build and solidify the LGBTI community without endangering the individuals in it. Roopbaan, the magazine, was not available on newsstands for fear of inciting backlash and violence against the LGBT community, but could be ordered by phone. Activists who wrote for the magazine say that during the first print edition, hundreds of copies sold via Xulhaz’s contact book alone.
One year ago this week, when attackers with machetes murdered Xulhaz in his home, LGBTI rights work in Bangladesh – along with the queer community behind it – came to a grinding halt.
According to a report from Front Line Defenders, in the days after Xulhaz was killed, almost all known HRDs working on LGBT issues – approximately 40 activists – changed their phone numbers, deleted their Facebook profiles, and severed ties with friends and colleagues. The magazine was abandoned, the Twitter account remains untouched since his death, and the weekly advocacy meetings Xulhaz held in his kitchen are a distant, painful memory.
He was one of more than 15 human rights defenders murdered in Dhaka in a three year span. Few killings were as widely reported on as Xulhaz’, but each had devastating effects on the activist’s community. Communication lines are severed, Facebook accounts deleted, and WhatsApp groups abandoned as activists cut themselves off from friends and colleagues in order to survive.
Killings, threats and arrests do not always target the most famous HRDs, but they almost invariably target the well-connected. The influencers, the loved ones, the people who are dinner table regulars as much as they are protest stalwarts. The targeting and oppression HRDs face aims at stopping not only their documentation of violations and protest organizing – things for which HRDs are perhaps best known in the media – but also the quieter ways they enable their communities to struggle for rights.
Egyptian rights lawyers like Malek Adly are held in solitary confinement, receiving different treatment than other prisoners, so they can’t monitor and report violations against fellow cellmates – something HRDs around the world are known to do.
Dictators in the Gulf push HRDs like Hussain Jawad into exile, where they can no longer sit in village living rooms all night with the mothers of detained and tortured children.
Smear campaigns against rights defender Cristina Auerbach in Mexico claim she’s “financially profiting” from her work defending miners, in an attempt to distance her from the very community she fights for.
Bangladesh refuses to condemn and investigate death threats against an HRD, sending a message to the entire activist community that this person is dangerous and worthy of attack, so activists stop publicly supporting one another – something high ranking international figures have been known to do also.
When renowned environmental campaigner Berta Carceres was murdered in 2016, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, effectively said a few dead activists was the price of development. He stated, “you cannot do the work we’re trying to do and not have some of these incidents happen.”
His response wasn’t just heartless; it also showed a fundamental failure to understand the role HRDs play in movements and communities. When the world loses a person like Berta or Xulhaz, marginalized communities have one less representative, activist networks are severed, and other HRDs start to censor themselves, to limit their activism in an attempt to survive. The killing of an HRD is not one “incident,” but many. If we, as citizens with social media accounts, governments with embassies, or journalists with large followings, fail speak out against the persecution of one human rights defender, (or, worse, imply their murder was acceptable), we allow that single “incident” to terrify hundreds more.
Since the killings started in 2013, several European countries provided fast, life-saving visas and relocations to HRDs receiving death threats from extremists groups in Bangladesh. Yet, a majority of HRDs interviewed by Front Line Defenders in Dhaka were completely unaware of what sort of help the EU could provide. And when Bangladeshi authorities criticized murdered activists, (the prime minister issued statements warning writers not to provoke extremist militants), European embassies did little to publicly counteract the demonization of human rights defenders.
The EU and its member states need to make their support for HRDs public, by stating clearly that HRDs do legitimate, valuable work. They need to demand HRD protection and recognize that allowing an HRD to be persecuted means allowing a community to be terrorized into silence. HRDs tell us all the time that statements, visits, and resolutions from the EU do matter.
This is especially true when they go beyond vague calls for reform, and explicitly mention freedom and protection for HRDs, who, despite the risks, are continuing to work. Imprisoned defenders in Bahrain who are kept with others inmates keep reporting violations. (At Front Line Defenders, our Arabic desk regularly receives phone calls from women in Bahraini jails who say “[formerly imprisoned activist] Zainab Al Khawaja was handing out your number in prison, telling us to call you for help.”) LGBTI activists living in hiding in Dhaka are translating Roopbaan into English, in hopes they can publish their calls for equality in new media outlets. And after every smear campaign unleashed on her, Cristina Auerbach goes back into the mine to uncover labor rights violations.
It is not enough to call for “human rights” in Bangladesh (or Egypt, Honduras or Mexico). The EU and its member states must explicitly demand freedom and protection for activists like Xulhaz, Malek, Berta and Cristina. After all, human rights don’t topple dictatorships, humans do.
*Quote from activist speaking on the condition of anonymity to Front Line Defenders, as detailed in its November 2016 report.
Erin Kilbride works for Front Line Defenders and can be found on twitter @neo_chlo