Q&A: AJWS CEO on supporting human rights defenders in a hostile climate

Robert Bank, chief executive officer of the American Jewish World Service. Photo by: AJWS

NEW YORK — As the stakes become ever higher for global human rights defenders, the international organizations supporting them feel the strain of protracted conflicts, impunity, and funding shortages.

An estimated 197 land and environmental human rights defenders were killed in 2017 — and this number likely falls short, according to Robert Bank, chief executive officer of the international human rights grant and policy organization American Jewish World Service.

“We only know about the ones we hear about,” Bank said during a recent interview in his New York office.

Last year, AJWS invested $29.4 million to support 457 social change organizations across Asia, the Americas, and Africa. Bank sat down with Devex to discuss the changing political and social dynamics many grantees are facing, and how it’s shifting the nature of AJWS’ work.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Within some of the countries you’re working in, are emerging needs and stresses on human rights appearing more?

Yes. We are living in a time of all the “isms.” Certainly the old “isms” — racism and sexism — but also the new ones: Authoritarianism, populism, nationalism, and tribalism. As a result, our work has become more fraught, on many levels, because we have more to protect, retain and resist. For us, it is following four thematic areas.

“There is a direct correlation between the erosion of human rights in the countries we have been working in for many years and the Trump administration.”

— Robert Bank, CEO at American Jewish World Service

The first is stopping violence against women and LGBT people. The second is protecting the rights of indigenous people and ensuring people have land and water. The third — and probably the one we have ramped up the most in light of the political context in which we find ourselves today — is the area of civil and political rights. Which is essentially building, repairing, supporting democracies.

The political context encourages deep damage to the human psyche. The lack of moral leadership in the world today creates greater need for everything, from refugees fleeing from war and civil strife to climate refugees.

And finally, humanitarian relief and response to natural disasters. We are always looking at the gaps, and how we fill them.

The pressure on democracy and human rights felt in a lot of the places you are working in — is that something independent, or do you think there is a ripple effect with the situation in the U.S. right now?

There is a direct correlation between the erosion of human rights in the countries we have been working in for many years and the Trump administration. It goes back to moral authority and America as a leader, hopefully, of the free world.

In Cambodia, for example, there’s a grantee that might have used their voice to advocate for a changing policy. And protesters might have been thrown in jail and released if a community organization sought out that solution.

Now, I believe there is no watchdog in Cambodia. It becomes more acceptable for people to “disappear.”

What is missing is this voice of America standing for the dignity and human rights of people who are poor; women and girls; indigenous communities; disabled communities; ethnic communities — all are hated for the wrong reasons.

Are you seeing an increase in grant proposals trying to take on some of these human rights issues, and is it becoming harder to organize if the climate is getting worse?

“I always think there is a civil society that is willing to, capable of, and if given the support, will resist and rise up.”

I am from Cape Town, South Africa, and I grew up during the height of apartheid. I always think there is a civil society that is willing to, capable of, and if given the support, will resist and rise up.

Am I realistic that it becomes much, much harder to fight the oppression? Yes. Do our grantees have a much harder time gaining the wins they used to gain? Yes. But we have also had big wins, mega human rights and policy wins just in the last year.

We had a victory last year — El Salvador convinced the government finally, after building coalitions and movements, to become the first in the world to ban metallic mining. So, little El Salvador at 6.3 million people, is leading the world on that.

The work you do with LGBT communities is interesting, and somewhat unique in the space of aid and development. Why do you think it is still fairly rare to see funding or support for LGBT communities?

More than a third of the countries at the U.N. have a law against homosexuality. There is huge homophobia in the world and I think transphobia is even worse. It is just very difficult for people to get their heads around the issue of gender identity.

The violence against and hatred of LGBT people where we work is so grave and deep that we made a commitment a long time ago.

It is complicated — we are partnering with an international development organization doing really good work in Uganda, but was very concerned to be associated with us ... because that would mean they are antigovernment in some way. They are dependent on the government to do their work in the country.

That is not our reality, we are mostly supporting grantees who are advocating against the government — as is their right.

What does it mean to be Jewish and doing this work? Does it influence how you present yourself to communities; and what is the impact of faith?

It is this amazing experience in which we introduce ourselves as an American Jewish organization — people might not have met someone who is Jewish. There is this remarkable thing that happens — we connect across faiths.

Oftentimes the communities we support come from a faith-based tradition — Muslim, Christian, Hindu, or Jain. They are quite intrigued by who a Jew is, and why would we do this, and why are we not coming to proselytize to make them Jews.

We explain there is this value in Judaism called “tikun olam,” to repair the world, and “b'tzelem Elohim,” which means in the image of God. We believe in the essential dignity and rights of each person on this earth to have inalienable rights.

And a beautiful thing happens — a connection between people who are different to one another, but coming together in this common space.

About the author

  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.