Front Line Defenders asked me to write a piece on the recent death of Rebecca Masika, a human rights defender from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I met her briefly in 2013 while I was working with Front Line Defenders in Dublin. She was such a strong character and had already suffered so much at that point in her struggle to advocate on behalf of the people she represented.
She passed away on 2 February 2016 following a heart attack. This blog was originally published on the Front Line Defenders website.
I met Rebecca Masika in my very first week of work in Front Line Defenders (FLD). Two moments stand out in particular; one involved her voice, and the other her energy.
During the Seventh Platform in October 2013, Mama Masika spoke to FLD about what had happened to her family back home in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I could not believe her courage and the conviction she showed in that moment. Her belief that we should hear the details of the violence that had been inflicted on her husband was so strong that she spoke through a flow of tears. We listened to the music of her native tongue as an interpreter translated her story into words we could understand. But I knew that I could never fully comprehend what she had been through. And yet, here she was: in Dublin advocating for woman who were suffering just as she had, defending their rights and doing her best to protect them from rape and murder.
The other moment I remember was when she danced. To mark the end of the Platform, FLD hosted a party in central Dublin with gorgeous food, abundant drink and excellent music. As the traditional Irish rhythms took hold of the room, Mama Masika absorbed it all and moved to the beat. And she did not stop dancing all night. Her diminutive stature only made her groove all the more contagious. Her smile lit up that room as the jigs and reels continued into the wee hours.
Of all the human rights defenders I've encountered at the Dublin Platform and during my time working at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, Rebecca Masika's story remains with me. She was an inspiration because she shared her sorrow and her joy with us. With her words, she was an honest advocate for the families who needed her help. Her energy was so human - so bright and so dark - and I feel lucky that she shared that with us.
I wrote the following blog shortly after I met her in 2013:
Last month, I met Rebecca Masika from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) while she was visiting Dublin Front Line Defenders' Seventh Platform. The ordeal to which she has been subjected by paramilitary groups and the resultant stigma affecting her extended family is nothing short of horrifying. As a result of her personal experiences, Mama Masika has dedicated her life to supporting survivors of rape in eastern Congo.
I see her scarred face on a billboard in Blackrock D.A.R.T. station during my daily commute, and hearing her testimonial in person was remarkably touching. It has prompted questions on the role of human rights law in the daily lives of those who suffer the most.
The first sobering point she made was that the DRC is not a country anymore. She believes that what the international community perceives to be the Democratic Republic of Congo is merely an idea. This idea is projected outside of the DRC, but she suggests that no governable entity exists within the ravaged, anarchic territory where she lives.
Second, she described a terrifying moment when paramilitaries asked her whether the white people with whom she was associating (referring to organisations like Front Line Defenders) would come to DRC to help her. Would the white people come when they rape her? When they rape the women in her care? When they kill her? This hostility appears to be rooted in the view of the human rights movement as a direct challenge to the authority of both governments and paramilitary forces alike.
These attitudes provoke consideration of the tangible impact of human rights law on Mama Masika's life.
By definition, human rights law examines the relationship between the citizen and government, and necessarily challenges the authority of the state to address any imbalance. In a democracy, any challenge to the government's authority can be construed as a “threat to national security”. As the source of human rights law's authority is principally international, its effectiveness relies on diplomatic, inter-state pressure. The human rights movement exists at grassroot level, but its legitimacy is far from global. Its credibility is challenged across the world because of the perceived threats to authority.
However, the pro-establishment narrative of “threats” cannot be a definitive one; security is relative to the political priorities of any state. Thus, depending on economic and cultural interests, some states prioritise human rights and others do not.
(Another debate is whether the human rights model – so connected to European liberal democratic values – is actually suitable for global difussion when it blatantly conflicts with widely-held socio-cultural beliefs outside of Europe.)
Peaceful promotion of certain behaviours is enough to give rise to forceful governmental resistance. Frankly, in a system of majoritarian democracy, the state is obliged to oppose such challenges to its authority where they might compromise the will of “the people”. Therefore, it is often difficult for individuals to challenge official decisions in cases where the majority – as represented in mainstream politics – appears to oppose it.
To relate this back to Mama Masika's scenario, it seems practically impossible for rights-based ideals to filter into a lawless, human chaos like the DRC in 2013. Without a functioning government, human rights are impracticable because the protection of human rights depends on a model of citizenship. In the vacuum of statelessness, existing without meaningful citizenship, the law ceases to be significant and human rights are non-existent.
The human rights movement does have legal significance in a European liberal democracy, though – due to conceptions of national sovereignty – the interpretation of those rights will inevitably vary. Human rights have been embedded into these legal systems, but there are many states across the world where this is not the case.
Unfortunately, the current rights-based mechanisms existing in Europe (replete with their many, many flaws) cannot manifest without a foundational infrastructure. As Rebecca Masika suggests, an idea of democratic citizenship is not strong enough; what is needed to protect people from oppressive authority is representative structural stability. Even then, democratic structures will represent only those valued by the mainstream cultural norms, necessitating the discrimination of some in favour of the protection of “valuable”, obedient citizens.
I desperately hope Mama Masika can continue with her humbling, life-saving work. I hope the human rights movement continues to trickle into every possible crevasse long enough to congeal into a sustainable and substantive system of protection. Hopefully then, humans will have the capacity to invoke the protection they have been granted under international law in the 21st century. I hope so.