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By Bassel El Mrawed & Liz Shelbred

Every year, on Feb. 20, the international community commemorates the World Day of Social Justice. First celebrated in 2007, the United Nations established this day with a vision of a “society for all,” in which “all” enjoy equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities. Member states recognized that social justice and respect for all human rights are fundamental for such a society to exist.

But in a world where more than half of the population lives under authoritarianism, a “society for all” can’t be actualized. 

In dictatorial regimes, equal opportunity and progress are inhibited by the absence of an independent judiciary and the processes that allow civil society to express grievances and demands effectively. Furthermore, acts of social justice — such as peaceful protests and independent journalism — are perceived as threats to dictators and are often met with harsh repression. 

Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine is a powerful example of the need for global solidarity in the face of authoritarianism and social injustice. When we rise, tyranny falls; uniting in the cause for freedom and democracy is one of the most effective ways to stand up for social justice around the world. 

This year’s World Day for Social Justice theme, “Overcoming Barriers and Unleashing Opportunities for Social Justice,” comes as an inspiration to stand in solidarity with the activists defending liberal democracy, human rights, and social justice where it’s most at risk. Here are five human rights defenders you can support this World Day of Social Justice — and every day.

Anna Kwok is an exiled Hong Kong activist and the executive director of the Hong Kong Democracy Council (HKDC), the first Washington, DC-based nonprofit created during the 2019 Hong Kong pro-democracy movement. Kwok was previously one of the anonymous leaders of Hong Kong’s underground protest network and has led and organized several international advocacy campaigns. She spoke at the 2022 Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF) in New York.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara is a Cuban performance artist, human rights defender, and an alum of the inaugural Art in Protest Residency cycle. Alcántara has used art and cultural expression as tools of dissent against the Cuban regime’s violations of freedom of expression. He is a leader of the San Isidro Collective, one of Cuba’s leading opposition groups, and co-founder of the Museum of Dissidence, a website and public art project reclaiming and celebrating dissent. In response to Alcántara’s intrepid dissent, he has faced continuous persecution by the Cuban regime for his performances, including the confiscation of his work and arbitrary detention; he is currently in prison.

Malcolm Bidali is a Kenyan labor rights activist, blogger, and former migrant worker in Qatar. Like many migrant workers in the country, Bidali suffered from deplorable working and living conditions while working as a security guard in Qatar. Bidali was later arrested after speaking about his experience as a migrant worker at an online event. Bidali founded the civil society organization MigrantDefenders.org, which campaigns for the rights of migrant workers and calls attention to the poor conditions workers face in the country. Recently, Bidali won the 2023 International Nürnberger Human Rights Prize, a German human rights prize “for his undeterred fight against the exploitation of migrant workers.” He is part of the 2022-2023 class of HRF’s Freedom Fellowship and is a former OFF speaker.

Somaya Faruqi is an Afghan education rights advocate who has campaigned for girls’ right to education since the Taliban takeover. As captain of the Afghan Girls’ Robotics Team, Faruqi and her colleagues created ventilators for the country’s population using open-source ventilator designs. Now in exile, she continues to champion women’s and girls’ rights in Afghanistan, earning accolades such as UNICEF’s “Hidden Hero and Teen Activist” Award. Faruqi is a 2022-2023 Freedom Fellow.

Marina Dubina is a Belarusian environmental human rights defender, lawyer, and Freedom Fellow. As executive director of the NGO Ecohome, Dubina advocates for the protection of citizens’ right to a favorable environment and leads seminars on public participation in environmentally significant decision-making. Marina is part of the 2022-2023 class of the Freedom Fellowship.

You can also unite in the cause of social justice by attending the 2023 Oslo Freedom Forum, where you can learn more about the struggle for freedom directly from human rights defenders.

Social justice can only be attained with respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Donate to HRF today to support activists like these and join the global movement against authoritarianism.

Liz Shelbred and Bassel El Mrawed are Development Coordinators at the Human Rights Foundation, where they support the organization’s fundraising efforts.