By: George Amos, PHRGE Fellow at the Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD)
No one can tell my story better than I. Sometimes, I may not have the means or the capacity to tell my story, but even then, the help that I may need should be such that will enable me to tell my story. The empowerment I need should be such that enables me to give a narrative that is a true reflection of my situation, condition, experience, and history. Empowering others to find their voice, I believe, should be the framework for those of us who have an interest and passion to fight for human rights, especially in those communities and regions where human rights abuses exist.
My interest in human rights is prompted by the desire to serve others not the way I would want it, but the way those I intend to serve want it. The world is getting smaller, not by physical distance, or by a common understanding, but by the manner and way information is accessible via the Internet. The people we talk or write about are real people, with real history and culture, and concrete experiences. Therefore, no matter how we claim to own information about such people through the internet or printed materials, experiencing such people and assisting them to tell their story by themselves is more empowering than talking or writing on their behalf.
My decision to work with the Niger Delta people of Nigeria within the human rights parameter will not be effective if I do not encounter these people with the eye of a human rights advocate. Even though I am from this area, it makes a great difference, with my theoretical knowledge of the human rights legal framework, if I experience these people who have suffered so many human rights violations as a result of crude oil and gas exploitation.
The Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) fellowship, and the Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD) now affords me the opportunity to make such an encounter possible. As a PHRGE fellow, I am able to do my co-op with CEHRD, which is an NGO working in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria with a special interest in human rights, the environment and development. It is a research and advocacy organization, which works to hold oil companies accountable for their operations, educate the people on their rights, and empower them to take steps to enforce their rights. It is also involved in conflict resolution and peace building within the region, bearing in mind that there could be no meaningful development without peace.
During my co-op in CEHRD, I was privileged to be part of a team that planned and participated in a Media-Civil Society and Citizens Forum designed to ‘feel the pulse of the communities.’ The program, which was part of an ongoing intervention project on human rights and corporate accountability in Nigeria and funded by the Dutch Embassy in Nigeria, was to create the forum to hear the voice and the narrative of oil producing communities in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. The theme of the forum was “Feeling the Pulse of Communities: Oil Corporations and Human Rights Violations in the Niger Delta.” It brought together civil society organizations, the media, and some members of selected communities to essentially hear the voice of these communities on their experiences with oil companies doing business in their communities. From questions around the business and human rights domain, especially as it concerns their economic, social and environmental rights, the communities narrated their experiences vis-à-vis oil exploitation activities in their communities over the years.
It was a refreshing, informative, and an expository experience for me as we listened to them, and hearing the media making a commitment to publicize their voice. This experience is central to human rights work. Following that forum, I began working with the Governance Team of CEHRD to document the outcomes of the discussion in a policy document that will provide public sensitization and information on the human rights challenges facing communities in the Niger Delta. The policy paper will also provide an avenue for institutional engagement and dialogues with policy makers, regulatory agencies and oil corporations on how to ameliorate the suffering of communities impacted by oil exploration in Nigeria.
Encountering and engaging victims of human rights violations is at the core of whatever success human rights activists and advocates hope to achieve. The human rights movement should not and is not intended to be self-serving and pushing a particular agenda of states or individual organizations. Human rights advocacy is to eradicate human rights abuses wherever they may exist, and against whoever may be the victim. Donor agencies and individuals must also know that whereas human rights are indivisible and are of equal value, hearing the voice of victims of abuse is equally essential. Hearing the voice of such victims will help in a great way to ascertain the priority of the people or communities so as to avoid the suspicion of carrying out an agenda that is foreign culturally and socially to the people they seek to assist.