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‘I Believe in the Power of People’ – Interview with Newly Elected Chair of FORUM-ASIA, Urantsooj Gombosuren

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2016 is a remarkable year for FORUM-ASIA. We are celebrating 25 years of the organisation’s existence. 25 years of promoting and protecting human rights; facing challenges and victories; and implementing trainings, campaigns and advocacy missions throughout Asia. We look back on both times of struggle and times of success, and creating milestones.

In January 2016, FORUM-ASIA started this remarkable year with the election of its first ever female chairperson, Ms. Urantsooj (Urna) Gombosuren. Urna is the Chairperson of the Centre for Human Rights and Development (CHRD) based in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

The following piece is the result of an interview with Urna in February 2016. We are pleased to share with you her story about: her inspiring journey of how she arrived where she is today; her main motivations for working on human rights; and the obstacles and inspiring moments she faced in her career so far.

1. How did you become the Chair of FORUM-ASIA? What path brought you here?

I first got involved in the human rights field during the time of transition in Mongolia in the 1980s and early 1990s. It was a time which inspired many people since they gained the right to freedom of expression and association. It was a time when people started talking publically about their concerns, about their issues, and started associating with each other on these.

At the time, several social movements were being established, and based on these several political parties. The communist Government peacefully gave up the power over the State to the union of newly established political parties.
While this period was marked by an increase of freedoms, at the same time the economy of Mongolia was getting weaker. The people experienced an increase in poverty as a result of: public budget cuts; the privatisation of state enterprises; the liberalisation of price; and other developments. Unemployed, poor people; street children; migrants coming from the rural areas; and prostitutes became a visible, every-day phenomenon of the new democratic society, and many people started to question the transition process in terms of the lack of justice and human rights.

I was educated in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) as microbiologist, and had been working in a research institute for more than ten years. As many others, I was inspired by the newly gained civil freedoms, but also concerned by the social consequences of Mongolia’s transition to being a market economy.

The main issue was, and still is, the lack of equality. Several non-governmental organisations (NGOs), many led by women, were set up to work on issues such as: poverty; street children; and unemployment. I started to work with one of those NGOs, the Women’s Information and Research Centre, and worked on research projects such as ‘Mongolian women’s economic status during the transition’, ‘Women’s access to microcredit’ and others. They helped me understand a variety of human rights issues.

Eventually, in 1998, a group of female lawyers and researchers, including myself, established the Centre for Human Rights and Development (CHRD). I have worked there since the beginning, and am currently serving as its Chairperson.

2. What motivates you to work on human rights? And what is, in your opinion, the importance of human rights work?

My main motivation for working in the human rights field is the need to guarantee justice through equality for all people. I do not want and cannot accept any discrimination for any reason, whether it is based on gender, poverty, or unemployment. Whether it affects children, the elderly or people from rural areas.

3. What excites you the most about your work and the contributions you are making?

What excites me the most about my work is to help people understand human rights principles. To empower them to use this newly gained understanding, to contribute to building the legal and political conditions, and other necessary pre-conditions, for them to be able to fully enjoy their human rights.

4. Please tell us one of the most inspiring or challenging moments in your work so far.

It makes me happy when our public interest cases are successful. When I see poor, urban and rural communities getting organised, and see them develop their collective power to engage with authorities to improve their livelihoods.

The most challenging part for me, however, is to see our public interest cases fail in the courts. When judges do not see the reality and ‘serve’ those with money and power. This makes me feel like there is no justice at all.

5. What, for you, are the main challenges of someone working on human rights?

The main challenge, I see personally in my work, is the lack of knowledge and awareness about human rights among the Mongolian people. This is a result of the fact that in Mongolia there is no systematic education on human rights.

6. How do you deal with upcoming obstacles in your work? How do you keep yourself motivated to continue?

I believe in the power of people. I experience in my work that if you can reach people, distribute information to them and provide them with a little help in getting useful skills, you can make a difference, see change. Many times, I have seen how and where people made a difference, where they were the reason for change.

7. If you could write a message to the new generation of people working on human rights or development, what would it be?

Living happy is enjoying human rights EQUALLY. Therefore, fight for equality!