Libya Tribune

By Samer Muscati

Over a decade of chronicling human rights violations around the world, I’ve taken thousands of photographs. But there is one that is especially dear to me.

In July 2012, on the eve of Libya’s first democratic national election, I was working with Human Rights Watch researching barriers to women’s political participation.

I happened upon a slight, elderly Libyan woman wearing a traditional white hijab, holding lonely vigil in the square outside the Benghazi courthouse.

Haja had spent many evenings supporting the revolution the previous year. She was a local icon because of her steadfast participation in the protests that eventually led to the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi.

Haja’s kind eyes, gentleness and uncompromising conviction reminded me of my own hijab-wearing grandmother, who had passed away a few months earlier. I admired the fact that she was a woman defiantly standing in the midst of a throng of men in a conservative society, refusing to be silenced.

A few years later, in the summer of 2015, I was in South Sudan documenting the civil war. It was there, in the world’s newest country, that I met another inspirational woman, Nyacour, outside a small, muddy shelter at a camp for displaced persons.

She was one of dozens of women who had escaped marauding government forces and allied militias committing horrific human rights abuses. When Nyacour invited me inside her shelter, I did a triple take: underneath a mosquito net, in a makeshift crib, were her tiny newborn triplets.

When it comes to human rights advocacy, how the story is told and who gets to tell the story is just as important as the story itself. As a human rights advocate, I collect information that I use to produce a compelling story to push policy-makers to act.

I hope that this information will help end abuses, hold perpetrators accountable and lead to remedies for victims.

In today’s digital age, advocates must rely increasingly on multimedia to help make their case.

Images have far more impact than words alone. They present enormous advocacy opportunities but also a range of ethical challenges.

Researchers should obtain people’s informed consent before any interview or photograph, which can be tricky in situations when someone has rarely (or never) encountered a camera.

I try to teach my law students that the most important trait of a successful human rights advocate is humility. Our role is never to “give voice to the voiceless.” Survivors of atrocities and other oppressed people already have a voice.

The problem is that those in power refuse to listen. Our role is to provide a platform.

Haja, Nyacour and I come from different cultures, generations, genders, religions and distant corners of the world. But we share the same hope that our children and grandchildren will be able to grow up in a better world.

On some days, this dream feels more possible, even if only for a moment: after Libya’s first democratic election, or after the miraculous arrival of triplets in the midst of chaos. When these extraordinary women are captured on film they invite us to imagine that world, too.

When it comes to human rights advocacy, how the story is told and who gets to tell the story is just as important as the story itself. As a human rights advocate, I collect information that I use to produce a compelling story to push policy-makers to act.

I hope that this information will help end abuses, hold perpetrators accountable and lead to remedies for victims.

In today’s digital age, advocates must rely increasingly on multimedia to help make their case.

Images have far more impact than words alone. They present enormous advocacy opportunities but also a range of ethical challenges. Researchers should obtain people’s informed consent before any interview or photograph, which can be tricky in situations when someone has rarely (or never) encountered a camera.

I try to teach my law students that the most important trait of a successful human rights advocate is humility. Our role is never to “give voice to the voiceless.” Survivors of atrocities and other oppressed people already have a voice.

The problem is that those in power refuse to listen. Our role is to provide a platform.

Haja, Nyacour and I come from different cultures, generations, genders, religions and distant corners of the world. But we share the same hope that our children and grandchildren will be able to grow up in a better world.

On some days, this dream feels more possible, even if only for a moment: after Libya’s first democratic election, or after the miraculous arrival of triplets in the midst of chaos.

When these extraordinary women are captured on film they invite us to imagine that world, too.

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Top Photo: On the eve of Libya’s first democratic national election, Haja Nowara held a vigil in the square outside the courthouse in Benghazi, where she had spent many evenings supporting the revolution since early 2011. “I have waited my whole life for tomorrow, which will be a new day for Libya,” said Nowara, who would be voting for the first time in her life. “We sacrificed a lot to get here.”  (Samer Muscati / Human Rights Watch)

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Samer Muscati is director of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law’s International Human Rights Program and a former senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. His photography exhibition, Uprooted and Dispossessed: Portraits of Women Caught in Conflict and Colonialism, is on display at U of T’s Hart House until May 31.

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