Speaking Truth to Power

Ambika Satkunanathan, Outgoing Vice Chair,
Regional Board, UAF A&P. Illustration by Shrujana N Shridhar.

Ambika Satkunanathan, a human rights lawyer and advocate from Sri Lanka, and has previously served as a Commissioner of the island’s Human Rights Commission. Her seminal work on prisons across Sri Lanka continues to be a much-referenced document in human rights research. Ambika was among the founding members that seeded Urgent Action Fund for Asia and the Pacific. This year, she gives up the mantle of the Vice Chair. In a free-wheeling conversation with Deepthy Menon, she lobs some hard truths on the need to change the prisms from which we view human rights defence, the importance of rapid response funds, and the need for accountability not just from the State but civil society actors too.

Deepthy: How do you see the growth of UAF A&P, a fund you were part of conceptualising in 2016–17?

Ambika: I think it is both an accomplishment and a work in progress. In the last four years, the number of grants that the fund has been able to give out is undeniably a big achievement. The profile of the fund is growing among human rights defenders and activists. In Sri Lanka, several small organisations and networks know of UAF A&P and what it does. It shows the fund has been successful in cultivating those relationships of trust. The fundraising that is being done is also commendable, and the pace and scale of mobilising resources is impressive. I feel the diversity of our board of advisors is a key strength, and we have also been able to expand their numbers across many geographies, since the diversity of regions we works across is huge too.

Deepthy: You also call it a work in progress, that is intriguing.

Ambika: I say work in progress because there are several experiments that continue. We are learning but there are several places where we have struggled, and acknowledging that is important. Let me look at three examples that immediately spring to mind.

It’s often widely believed across civil society and the non-profit world too, that funds like UAF A&P that support activists, should be run by activists — with activists in all Board positions and as team members too. But in my experience, good activists don’t necessarily know what it takes to manage or steer institutions. What we need are people that have the same values and the right ethos, without it being mandatory that their work be also within the human rights space.

“…good activists don’t necessarily know what it takes to manage or steer institutions. What we need are people that have the same values and the right ethos, without it being mandatory that their work be also within the human rights space.”

For instance, at inception, we decided on a Co-Leadership structure — it has gone through its birthing process and complications. The founding co-leads were consultants who were brought in to help conceptualise the contours of this fund, and they had skills to do what was needed. But managing a team and consolidating a fund’s work requires a totally different set of skills. Losing Jane after the foundational years showed us that Jane’s heart was in activism and not managing the day-to-day running of a fund. The skills needed to conceptualise the fund, are different from skills needed to run it. That was a big lesson to learn.

I see that in the Board too, our founding members were all from activist spaces and movements, new Board members from different spaces but with managerial abilities have brought in new energy and skills to our Board.

Deepthy: Talking of the Board, and how it has evolved, you played a pivotal role in how we built Board cohesion and accountability, especially since we had two boards in the countries we were registered in, and a regional Board that was more involved in its advisorial capacity to the UAF A&P team? How was the experience of navigating and guiding that process?

Ambika: The developments that led to the process were a bit difficult, but the journey of building consensus was relatively easier. When one of our National Board chairs resigned, because she felt the Board required her to assume legal and financial responsibilities, without advisorial power or oversight over UAF A&P’s functioning, which rested with the Regional Board, we knew we had a task at hand. UAF A&P’s regional board had power but was not the legal entity, it is the Regional Board that has the vision and is the holder of the values upon which the fund is founded — the guardian and guide as it were.

As a lawyer by training, I’m a stickler for rules and due processes, but I believe in flexibility and being practical. People often want power, but power without responsibility. It’s often seen in civil society too where they want to hold the state accountable, but are often averse to being accountable themselves. So, I volunteered to begin the process of a draft that all the Board members of all three UAF A&P Boards to discuss, debate and decide upon.

I was happy to sort out the legal mess by drafting initial frameworks that set out in clear, simple and easy to follow terms how these entities interacted with each other. And from then on, it wasn’t a particularly difficult process. Board members had a lot of good ideas, and it was easy to build consensus.

This process was important in not only solving the immediate crisis of figuring out an overlapping structure where members of National Boards were also represented in the Regional Boards, and vice versa, the documentation of the rationale and the structures also helped in building institutional memory — of how decisions were taken and why it was important at the time of decision making. I have previously been in positions where I have not known the rationale, so I believe it important for those reasons to be documented — it is important for purpose of historical record and to show the board acted with integrity. Actions we take have an impact on our reputations as well and it is beneficial to put it down on paper.

“…the documentation of the rationale and the structures also helped in building institutional memory — of how decisions were taken and why it was important at the time of decision making”.

Deepthy: Very interesting perspective, are there other discussions that you have been part of in the Board that have offered such thought-provoking polarities?

Ambika: We have had a lot of discussions on who we should be as a fund and what values we should externally project. While we are all agreed that we are a feminist rapid response fund, there have been several conversations on what adopting a human rights approach means. For instance, when a regional or global crisis takes place, do we only support activists and organisations on the ground, or do we also issue a statement on our position on the issue? Since our politics is obvious and stated in our vision, I don’t believe that as grant-makers, we have to explicitly state our position regarding every issue. We need to be enablers of those who are engaged in struggles to further those values within the communities. So, in a sense, it should be about them and not about us.

“This also leads to the broader question of how we understand feminism and feminist values. Do we retain a narrow understanding of feminism that constructs what I call ‘false boundaries’ or do we adopt an inclusive approach?”

This also leads to the broader question of how we understand feminism and feminist values. Do we retain a narrow understanding of feminism that constructs what I call ‘false boundaries’ or do we adopt an inclusive approach? These are difficult conversations to be had amongst feminists, for instance about the carceral approach that many women’s organisations and activists adopt to addressing violence. We need to therefore inquire if incarceration is feminist. But such questions are rarely discussed and adopting the carceral approach is deemed feminist by many. Yet, at the same time we close the door to those we believe don’t adhere to our individual visions of feminism, which maybe be quite intolerant and restrictive or to those who don’t wear their ‘feminist credentials’ on their sleeve.

“We close the door to those we believe don’t adhere to our individual visions of feminism, which maybe be quite intolerant and restrictive or to those who don’t wear their ‘feminist credentials’ on their sleeve.”

The way to grow is to be inclusive and bring in more people who while not being from movements, are feminists, in the way they see the world, the politics they espouse, the values and the ethos and how they function — these are all conducive to institution-building.

Deepthy: You are the outgoing Vice Chair, and there are two key members leaving the Board too this year — as we fill these positions, what do you think are the most important qualities that will support UAF A&P’s vision and mission?

Ambika: From my previous experiences, I have realised that we tend to restrict our search for new members to narrow boundaries without being clear about the skills they need to bring to the board. We often end up looking in the wrong places.

The spirit to tap into is that of collaborative energies, and therefore we need to look differently, where we focus on qualities that are essential to advise and guide the UAF A&P team as a Board member. We need to look for a good mix of capable administrators as well as activists that understand the ground realities. If we try to become an activist Board in a grant-making fund, then there is bound to be confusion. It is a tightrope to walk, but it is important to make the distinction to maintain our unique identity as a regional feminist fund that supports human rights activists and defenders without turning into an activist organisation.

Deepthy: This has been a very interesting conversation, I have one final question — as we are emerging out of a pandemic, while wading through unprecedented humanitarian crises, do you see an overlapping and intersection of human rights defense with humanitarian interventions?

Ambika: Yes, indeed. Traditionally, our definition of who are HRDs has been narrow, but I now see that broadening. Historically, there has been a hierarchy in rights-based activism too with civil and political rights being right up there on the top rung. However, we are increasingly seeing that socio-economic rights of people are intricately linked to civil and political rights, and not being able to exercise their socio-economic rights will restrict people’s ability to access and enjoy their civil and political rights.

Covid-19 and the Afghanistan and Myanmar turmoil are humanitarian crises, but they have an indelible impact on human rights. I think UAF A&P has been very successful in identifying the interlinkages. It is important to look at crises and human rights defense from a social justice-based framework, where we also talk about economic justice. And I think UAF A&P is on the right track in that regard.

‘Love, Care, and Rebellion’ is UAF A&P’s blog series that celebrates conversations with our advisors, outgoing board members and Founding Feministas.

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Urgent Action Fund Asia & Pacific

Urgent Action Fund Asia & Pacific

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A regional women’s human rights and feminist fund that protects, strengthens and sustains women and non-binary human rights defenders in Asia and the Pacific