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Profile: Marcel Wetsh'okonda, Congolese Human Rights Defender

Marcel Wetsh'okonda fights for human rights laws to be passed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country where 1,000 people die each day from disease, hunger, and violence. It is no easy task.

Wetsh'okonda found support, however, at the Carter Center's Human Rights Defenders Policy Forum last May, where human rights advocates from around the world gathered to discuss ways they can make a difference in their countries.

Human rights defenders can be lawyers, policymakers, or just ordinary people wanting to make a difference. They often work under pressure in fragile democracies to hold governments accountable for human rights standards.

Participants at last May's forum discussed how to help defenders working in new democracies to support human rights. Representing countries like Haiti, Bolivia, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Kenya, the defenders agreed that despite recent elections in several countries that have raised the hopes of millions of people for freedom and justice, democracies - both fledgling and established - are falling short in their support of fundamental human rights.

"Defenders work in countries long after the world loses interest in an election or other political events," said Karin Ryan, director of the Carter Center Human Rights. "The international community needs to stay engaged after elections to ensure human rights are embedded in the institutions that are likely to be weak in countries emerging from conflict."

In the DRC, where Wetsh'okonda works, elections were held in August for the first time in over 46 years. Though civil war there ended in 1997, fighting remains in the East and stability in capital Kinshasa is shaky.

"Now is the time we need to show our commitment to the long-term development of democracy and human rights in places like the DRC," said Ryan.  

Wetsh'okonda regularly sees human rights violations like sexual harassment and abuse of power by authorities and hew views fighting for the rights of ordinary people as the only natural thing to do.

"As I work I discover even more reasons to do this," he said. "If I didn't push so hard perhaps these laws would not be accepted or would not be respected or implemented."

He is encouraged by the presence of international election observation groups in the DRC like The Carter Center and hopes the Center remains involved there.

"DRC has a baby democracy," he said. "When you have a baby do you leave it, or do you take care of it as it grows? The Carter Center can help hold the new government accountable for its promises."

Carter Center Photo: D. Hakes

Human rights defender Marcel Wetsh'okonda stands outside the Global Rights office in Kinshasa, the DRC, where he works to pass human rights legislation in the troubled country.

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