“Wake Up & Write About Us”

A Stanford Journal of Human Rights
Spring 2004

A Testimony by Oyungerel Tsedevdamba

If you are a volunteer in a human rights organization, youprobably don’t earn much money from your job. Instead, youprobably have to donate to your office from your pocket. Yourfamily and friends must have repeatedly reminded you that youcould earn much more with your brilliant ability. But you stay with your human rights job at least part-time, because you believe it is something worth doing and something of value to society. Well, this is my situation, too.

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This is the situation of Oyungerel Tsedevdamba, agraduate student at Stanford. She grew up in Tarialan,Mongolia and obtained her undergraduate educationin Moscow. Though her mother was a prominentleader of the Mongolian Communist party, Oyuna’s ownbeliefs were more democratic. In the early 1990’s, shejoined a small faction of the communist party, whichlater separated due to its democratic views. As theleader of this party, Oyuna began forming coalitionsand merging with other political parties throughoutMongolia under common democratic principles.

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At 12am of September 16, 2003, my 16 year-old son callednervously to my office: “Mom, we are going to go in six hours,haven’t you finished working?” I felt guilty before my family. Mynine year-old daughter was awake, waiting for me, because I wassupposed to leave for Stanford at 6am. She would be home inMongolia without me for 10 months. I told my clients, who werestill sitting in my room, that I had to stop working and go home.They understood, finally. They usually did not stay at my office that late, but when they heard that I was about to leave for the USA they came to discuss their cases while I was still at the Liberty Center in Mongolia.

The Liberty Center is a non-governmental organization in Mongolia aimed at the pursuit and defense of civil and political rights, strengthening democracy in Mongolia, and supporting the rule of law. Oyuna founded the organization upon the request of the Prime Minister of Mongolia, as there were no organizations that addressed the protection of political and civil liberties. It was difficult to obtain funding for the organization, as most potential donors believed the mission of the organization to be too political.

Thus, Oyuna was forced to raise the money for the organization’s expenses for the first two years of its existence. One of the major functions of the center is to post alerts on the internet regarding specific and urgent cases of rights violations with the aim that transnational actors (other organizations, individuals,states) will respond. Every single alert posted as of now has been successful.

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Many who come to my office have their case written and spread out via Internet and newspapers. Sometimes, I write at my own initiative. From 2000 to 2003, as a human rights activist andexecutive director of Liberty Center I wrote 40 alerts in Englishand in Mongolian. I also did a number of new things I have neverdone at any of my other paid jobs. These included free socialactivities to raise money for the center, organizing campaignsagainst human rights violations, maintaining websites, settingup a new library, publishing handbooks and leaflets, organizingtraining, giving legal advice, and working with the domestic andinternational human rights communities. While learning myself,I have been training non-lawyer activists for all provinces ofMongolia.

While some cases take a long time and require meticulous collection of information and data, some cases require immediateaction.

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One of these cases occurred in May of 2003. In a move away from Communism, Mongolia began to privatize land ownership. However, local authorities reserved the right to sieze the land without due process. Farmers as well as suburban land owners (whose land was most desirable and thus most likely to be taken) demanded full property law ownership protection. In protest, farmers stormed the capital with their tractors. Complaining that the tractors were aesthetically displeasing, the police did not allow the farmers to continue their demonstration. As a result, the city inhabitants joined the farmers in demanding their right to demonstrate in a public place.

One night of 2003, my phone rang at 3am. A young journalist called me: “Oyuna egchee, here I am being arrested at Sukhbaatar Square while I was doing my work…” I was too sleepy to wake up and go to the main square of Ulaanbaatar. I lay back and slept again, but the phone ran for the second time, approximately half an hour later. “Oyuna, I am arrested. I see hundreds of policemen standing outside of this building blocking the Democratic Party headquarters. Wake up and write about us.” This was too shocking for me to sleep again. I got up quietly so that I could make sure not to wake up my father sleeping in the next room. I thought he would scold me as usual for not resting, but surprisingly, he got up by 4am and made hot tea for me, whispering “Write…write well my daughter.” So I sat behind my computer and made calls and started writing a story about farmers who came to the capital city to demonstrate, and how the police took midnight action to remove them and their tractors from the main square. This news was spread out via Internet by 6am. At 9am, the Ministry of Justice and Domestic Affairs held a press conference where the Vice Minister declared, “There was no arrest last night.” But the government could not lie any longer than three hours. All arrest-related photographs were put on newspapers and online. Arrested journalists, demonstrators, and their supporters were freed by 11am of the same day.

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“We had no money, no power, no weapons, just the power of words.”

The first question I am usually asked by interested scholars,potential donors, and interviewers concerns my profession. Theyask, “Are you a lawyer?” and, “Are you a journalist?” The answerto both is “No.” So, “How come you write a lot and give legaladvice to clients,” meaning “Are you competent enough?”That was one of the reasons why I never charge for my services. I was (and still am) professionally not competent enough to offer a paid legal defense or to report on court decisions, for example. I am merely an activist with an advanced degree in Economics.

Human rights, especially civil and political rights, are my passion, but not a profession. I honestly say to my clients thatI am not a professional lawyer or journalist, and that I can offer my advice only in the simplest and most evident violations I can see from their cases. Paradoxically, clients who come to my office often find the Liberty Center to be the final place to turn for justice.

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From Professor Terry Karl’s classroom of “Global Politics of Human Rights,” I look back to my earlier writings. First of all, I find my English awkward. Secondly, I am so grateful to those who read my bad English and responded to me very supportively. Ireceived many passionate responses to my alerts and cases brought to international attention. Thirdly, I find myself a part of a very dramatic, dedicated movement, with a long history of human struggle—the magnitude of which I did not realize before, although I enjoyed frequent international contacts.

Tonight I happened to have another sleepless night. When my class ended at 11pm, I thought I was going to bed by midnight. A long day of study was about to end after watching “Judgment in Nuremberg” in Building 420 of the Main Quad, but when I checkedmy email as soon as I got home, I saw a request from the LibertyCenter to discuss a new case. A phone discussion on that casereinvigorated me. I began thinking back and writing this piece for the Stanford human rights magazine Six Degrees.

I wonder how many students of this famous school will dedicate their time, work, and life to human rights. I wonder if my story is the same as yours. If you are not one who has already made your decision to be a part of this global movement, I find Stanford a wonderful place to begin thinking about the importanceof human rights to us, individually and collectively.