A Wake-Up Call for NGOs

On the margins of the Oslo Freedom Forum, Tunisian activist Amira Yahyaoui offers a sharp critique of the professional human rights community.

Amira-Yahyaoui cropped

I’ve just returned from a trip to the Oslo Freedom Forum. Described as a “Davos for revolutionaries,” the OFF is perhaps the world’s highest profile human rights conference. The Forum is particularly known for its high-profile speakers, and this year did not disappoint: Charlie Hebdo columnist Zineb el-Rhazoui gave a stirring tribute to her murdered colleagues, former Hizb ut-Tahrir member Shiraz Maher shed light on the appeal of extremism, and North Korean defector Ji Seong Ho recounted his impossible escape from North Korea in a presentation that, by the end, left even his interpreter in tears.

Yet my favorite moment was the opportunity to talk one-on-one with Tunisian activist Amira Yahyaoui, who fled to Paris in 2004, at the age of 20, after being pursued by secret police for her opposition to the regime of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. After the Arab Spring swept his dictatorship away in 2011, Yahyaoui returned to her country, where she has become one of its highest profile human rights activists. That certainly hasn’t stopped her from speaking her mind. Taking the stage in Oslo, she delivered a stinging rebuke to the international human rights community, warning about the dangers of complacency and disconnection. Sensing that Amira had plenty more in store, I chased her down during a break between events, and heard both a stirring acclamation of her country’s democratic revolution — and a sharp critique of the world of non-government organizations.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FP: In your presentation, you talked about the lack of political participation among youth. Why did you decide to focus on that issue?

Yahyaoui: We’re very focused on human rights like freedom of expression, the right to believe, the right to attack sacred things — but not about normal people’s lives. In Tunisia, now that we have freedom of expression, it’s used by the tiny minority that has always fought for it. Of course it’s a very important right. But there are other issues that are not sexy enough for human rights defenders, like social justice, like political participation. We [activists] already have political participation; we took it, but for other people it’s not that easy.

I’ll give you a very simple example in Tunisia. We have a serious problem with rural women’s employment and social rights. And we spend half of our time talking about women’s rights — but for us women’s rights is the right to be in the parliament or to be president. But the basic rights — the rights of 99 percent of the population — are not at all discussed or even fought for. We do a revolution that began with social demands, and we change and reform everything but that. Can you imagine the people’s frustration? It’s a real hijacking.

But another thing I’m working on is creating a security and defense think tank. That’s a new thing that will be created in the next few weeks. And I’ll be working a lot with young people on radicalization.

FP: Is security a priority for you?

Yahyaoui: Absolutely, security is a top priority. We’re a very small country threatened by al Qaeda from Algeria and [the Islamic State] from Libya — that’s a huge mess, right? And more than that, one of the keys of success of Tunisia is that we don’t have Egypt’s military. Ben Ali was a dictator, and he made the choice to weaken the military, to avoid a military coup. But it’s now becoming a huge problem. Today the Tunisian military is really unequipped. The terrorists are very tech-y today, they use social media to organize, so this is one of the reasons I’m doing this.

But the second reason is that, for human rights activists, security is a taboo. Security means you are anti-human rights. But that gives space to those who are not very keen on human rights to take care of this topic. I think that people from a human rights background should be more involved in security issues, and stop thinking that security is a taboo. If we want to defend people’s rights, the first thing we need to defend is their right to live and not to die. That’s the first step.

FP: It sounds like a lot of your work focuses on what you see as weak points of the human rights movement — that it doesn’t focus enough on the needs of ordinary people; on security. Do you have a more general critique?

Yahyaoui: Absolutely. My problem is that, more and more, I see that the human rights topic is all about “bourgeoisie talk.” I mean, I love the [Oslo Freedom] Forum, but, [we’re in the] Grand Hotel, okay? When we were talking about Raif Badawi, I would have rather been in a less expensive hotel and given some of that money to his wife. I do have a problem with this, and I’m very critical in Tunisia about this, because I don’t believe in the activism of the five-star hotel. So I go and challenge it a bit. And I know many people are not okay with this criticism, but it’s a serious problem.

FP: So your critique applies to activism in Tunisia as well?

Yahyaoui: Yes. We do conferences where the same people always come. And of course, they agree with what we’re saying. So, why? Why are we doing this?

FP: In your work, do you make a special effort to reach out to new people?

Yahyaoui: We don’t talk much with people we agree with. That’s a waste of time. We are the only NGO active in every city hall in Tunisia. We help local citizens get access to the municipality, to the budgeting, to the decision-making. And we take local people to do that; it’s not us from the city going to help the “poor ones.”

But I really want to focus on this: This is not only Tunisia. This is everywhere, absolutely everywhere. You can see it wherever you go. Go to the United States, come here to Oslo, go to South Africa. This is how NGOs are organizing themselves today.

Wherever you go, you will see that the trust between governments and people is completely broke. But the trust between civil society and people is also going down. And this is one of the reasons why these revolutions — the Arab revolutions, but also other revolutions, like Ferguson for example — are not organized by NGOs or organized civil society. They’re organized by the people themselves. I think one of the reasons is that people don’t believe in these fancy elite organized things.

FP: Have you found it difficult to connect with people in your work?

Yahyaoui: Of course, there’s always that first step: “You’re not from us.”

FP: How do you get past that?

Yahyaoui: I hate “life savers.” I hate this idea of NGOs who will go and save you. I hate this philosophy. What we do is: We’re behind them. We’ll help if they ask for it. But they have to find a solution on their own.

FP: Is that why you’ve focused on government accountability in your work? To empower local people to keep tabs on their officials?

Yahyaoui: Absolutely. It’s very tempting to get people addicted to you — the “need to be needed.” This is very normal human behavior, but it has a very bad impact on people when you give them this hope that “we will support you forever.” It’s not true. We can’t support anyone forever.

FP: What about Tunisia’s transition in general? Are you happy with how it’s been going?

Yahyaoui: It’s incredible. Seriously, this country never experienced democracy. And in just three or four years, it’s a democracy like it’s been that way forever. I was really very active against the old regime, and I can’t recognize my country after a few years. The change is incredible. Not the change in the city or something — it’s a change in the minds of the people. It’s incredible.

And then there’s the impact of this example of the world, and especially in the Arab countries, with dictators everywhere explaining to their people that [the Islamic State] will come and eat them, that Arabs are not ready for democracy. Tunisia is an incredible example. We are a laboratory of explaining to the rest of the world that Islam, Arabs, the non-educated, poor people — they can all join in this club of democracies. For the first time, we can say yes to the question: Are human rights really universal? There are democracies in Asia, in Africa, in Europe, Latin America, America — everywhere except the Middle East, in the Arab world. And finally we can say yes, because now it really is everywhere.

But it’s very, very hard work. Our problem is that we’re really poor. We don’t have much. The only thing we have is the sea — and our brains. When you talk to other Arabs, they will say Tunisians are different because they’re smarter. It’s not that we’re smarter. It’s just that we can’t depend on anything. Actually, Tunisia is a country condemned to stay open, condemned to study, condemned to work. And maybe this is why it’s succeeding, too. Because we can’t say: Let’s lay down, we have money coming from the soil.

So, to answer your question, I live every day in the middle of history. Every day. And that’s very difficult, of course. But I am sure that in ten or fifteen years, it will be an incredible story to tell.

Photo credit: Oslo Freedom Forum

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