Expat Living: What Do You Do When You Witness Abuses Abroad?

Do you ever struggle to know when you should be the hammer, and when you are better off being the nail?

How can you make a difference (the hammer),  and how can you be part of the solution (the nail)?

Picture of protestors in Kiev

Voices United In Dissent

Recently Maria French posted a thoughtful piece asking how expats can square their values with those in their new countries, especially when rights are not freely given.

How can we be part of a solution to make life more equitable (at least from our perspective)?

For those of us who have spent time in less progressive regimes, these are serious concerns: Do we turn our heads at local injustice, avert our eyes when someone gets arrested, or do we ourselves protest against things we believe are unjust? What if there is no mechanism for voicing dissent?

Here are a couple of key clips that Maria used to open her post:

“This is my first time living in a country where there is no culture of protest… and I’m still working on finding non-confrontational and flexible ways of holding onto my values… “

And this thought:

I’m only one person and who does it help if I spend too much of my time obsessed about taking a stand on the dozens of issues I follow on a week to week basis?  … On the other hand, I carry guilt for not having the wherewithal to support everything I believe in ….

I’m omitting the country Maria refers to because I want to ask you what you think in a minute, and for you to think without having any pre-conceived notions of certain places to color your impressions.

Please take a moment to read the whole post for background- Maria asks some very good questions that will make you think about how you support your own convictions while abroad, or, maintain them once you repatriate.

This post resonated with me for several reasons, not the least of which was that I spent 10 years living and working in a place that, according to Transparency International’s survey that year, was only marginally better (tied for 98th place) than Chad and Cameroon as being among the “least transparent” nations of the 100 countries around the world that were investigated. (Transparent being the term used to describe issues such as lack of citizen recourse, bribery (rent-seeking activities), and corruption.)

Bottom line, there were lots of violations at that time and certain expats took advantage when it suited them to do so. Were we part of the problem? Certainly some were. (I like to believe that this is a small percentage, but just because we are expats doesn’t confer sainthood on us all, either.)

Maria could have been talking about my work location, or many others- nationality and/or history certainly play a part in sowing the seeds of corruption, human rights abuses, and the like, but these are not totally to blame.

Thinking about where you are today, if someone was being beaten by a crowd, as Maria described, what would happen?

Would people turn away, gather around to watch, or call for help?  What would your role be as a bystander?

Aliyev Mourners 3

I have written before about being in the taxi during an election protest, violently rocked back and forth, fearing we would be tipped over or that clubs would break the windows and more, begging my driver not to get out to defend me- to stay the course and slowly slide through somehow.

It was not our fight, not our protest. But that isn’t to say that other expats didn’t get involved.

And that’s the slippery part of Maria’s question… Just where is the line? When do we feel it is up to us as outsiders to get involved?

How & When To Take Action

I use a few guidelines, developed through experience.

1.  Balance your position as basically a guest in country just as you would if you were a guest at a neighbor’s home and they began to argue. You most likely would excuse yourself and let them discuss in private.  Use the same reasoning abroad.

2.  When human life is in jeopardy, use common sense as you would at home: call the authorities for help- if you don’t speak the language or don’t know the number, call your Embassy for advice or assistance. They cannot intervene in civil matters but they should have contacts that can, and may call for you.

(Life Lesson: if you don’t know your Embassy telephone numbers by heart, learn them, program them into your phones- all of the family phones.)

In the event that the police or military are the offenders, do not overtly capture the scene with your cell phone or camera- that’s asking for trouble when you don’t need it.  Blend into the background, take note of names and details if you plan to pursue actions later, take a video only if you can do so discreetly. This is risky territory and not worth a night in jail or worse.

3.  If you continually witness abuses, talk to your Embassy to see how these issues are being raised by the Ambassador or Deputy Chief of Mission, or even the Public Diplomacy Officer (they may have a different name now, but usually there is a “cultural” attaché of some sort.)  There may be ways that they are broaching the subject through channels more effective than your getting arrested from chaining yourself to a lamp post in protest.

A Success Story: Before & After

Here is happened in Baku, and what we did to respectfully raise the issue of unfair treatment:

Through the American Chamber of Commerce in Azerbaijan, we made it a priority that we would raise matters that resulted in obstacles to business. This may sound far off the human rights path but stay with me here.

We knew that local and foreign businesses were being targeted for bribes by the local Tax Authorities at that time. We also knew that there were retaliatory actions that were ordered for certain non-compliance cases. One man was thrown in jail for something an employee did, and his brother lost his job as well. How could we not protest actions like these?

In the Labor area, people were forced into unsafe conditions, afraid to speak out because they needed the job, bad as it might be.

There were lists of customs infractions where luggage was confiscated until payments were made, items were “appropriated” unnecessarily, travelers were targeted for inspections over and over. Harassment made lives miserable.

To me these are the kinds of things that make Maria ask these questions. The things we did next may give you a way to change the system and make you feel like one person really can make a difference.

As a group of foreign businesses, we often were targeted for bribes, or blackmailed because someone had paid a bribe and was now forever stuck in that world.

Local employees were caught between doing their jobs and being local, sometimes subject to harassment for helping the foreigners (some viewed foreigners as robber barons, taking resources and raping the country in the process).

So we held a round table meeting and proposed to write a report, identify the abuses, recommend changes, and present it directly to the head of state.

Expat Business Meeting With The President- I Captured This Moment For History

Meeting With The President- I Captured This Moment For History

When the local business people heard this, they wanted no part of it- too much at stake to say anything like what we were asking.

But we agreed- no, promised– that it would all be totally anonymous, confidential, that I would be the only one who would ever know where the data came from.

We interviewed more than a hundred people, received hundreds of tips and case examples.

Long story short, we worked on that thing for over 6 months, documenting every allegation. And then the call came: come and present to the President.

Did we get it all correct? Nope… some business people “forgot” to say they had been guilty of payoffs to get something and were later complaining about the government doing the same thing… they simply  said, oops, my bad! And we looked foolish.  

(Life Lesson: There are always more sides to an incident than meets the eye. Usually there is history we know nothing about.)

But, did we make a difference in the long run?  Absolutely.

We presented that report to the President alright… on national television for 2-1/2 hours. It was perhaps a sham, a big show used for political points making. Yet, all in all, it had a profound effect. We did make a difference when:

Ambassador Stanley T. Escudero, Taking A Stand for Rights (AmCham Azerbaijan presented a Paper to President H. Aliyev on abuses in 2001

US Ambassador Escudero, Taking A Tough Stand

  • We opened the door for dialogue.
  • One of the most troublesome Ministers was sacked on television; later replaced with a less corrupt, more modern man.
  • Tax harassment nearly ceased. When it happened, we had a government-business working group to discuss the cases directly.
  • 42 Labor laws were changed.
  • The Minister of Justice was chastised for holding up registrations of NGO/PVO groups and instructed to cut down the process (18 months in my case) to get licensed. It became the norm to be all set in 3-4 months once all the papers were verified. A huge success in itself!
  • The President set up the Entrepreneur’s Council and held a Town Hall meeting in the capital city with more than 600 business people in attendance, allowed to speak anything they wanted, directly to him. And, he had someone taking notes and making changes… Unprecedented.

So, Maria, my take on this, from having been in a similar situation, is that one person can make a difference. And many “ones” together can move the seemingly immovable and impact life for everyone.

It takes thought and deliberate commitment to pick the battles you want to engage in, but if your values mean you must take a stand, find like-minded groups to work through. Become familiar with your Embassy representatives.

There is both strength and safety in numbers! We can choose the tools that fit the need, and use them to great advantage.

Sometimes you may be the hammer; sometimes you are just the nail that others need.

Go make a difference!

(Any thoughts to add to these? What’s your take on this issue? Would you speak up or let it go??)

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