Democracy & Justice

Fighting for a Future World Where Human Rights Are Respected | Meet Our Members

Meet Martynas Jockus, Director of the Human Rights Monitoring Institute. Using storytelling as a form of activism, he hopes to shake up Lithuania's monocultural society and create a new future where diversity is celebrated.

by Eleanor Brooks

Meet Our Members is a series where Liberties introduces you to our network of human rights defenders. We hear the stories of the people behind the organisations and why they do the work they do. Liberties is an umbrella network which coordinates campaigns with its expanding network of national civil liberties NGOs in 18 EU Member States.

Martynas didn’t plan to pursue a career in the civil society sector, it happened accidentally. Still, having studied political science for his undergraduate followed by a master’s degree in social and political critique, he describes his work as Director of the Human Rights Monitoring Institute (HRMI) as a natural continuation of his education. Both involve analysing current social trends in political and social discourse and juxtaposing the current reality with an imagined future world, one in which human rights are respected.

As part of his studies, Martynas spent time in New York, and “found it really exciting how diversity interplays on the streets and how the culture is vibrant”. He praises his time as a student as the formative years that shaped his appreciation for multiculturalism. New York was worlds apart from Lithuania, at a time when there was little diversity on the streets and the currents of racism were much stronger than they are today. Lithuania has always been a homogenous society, but according to Martynas, his university was one of the few pockets where diversity existed. After graduating, he joined the university’s staff as an equal opportunity and social inclusion coordinator.

In 2022, Martynas became part of HRMI’s 4-person team as a project coordinator, and attributes his rapid ascent to the position of Director as “having caught some kind of momentum”. Leading a close-knit team, the role is a balancing act between administration, directing and some hands-on advocacy work.

Dousing the flames of anti-migrant rhetoric

One arm of HRMI’s advocacy work is to create a more inclusive society for disadvantaged social groups and protect the rights of migrants and asylum seekers. Much of this involves countervailing the government’s narrative on human rights issues, particularly migrant rights. When the number of asylum seekers and migrants crossing the Belarus border into Lithuania rose sharply in 2021, the government agitated public fear by framing it as a hybrid attack by a hostile dictatorial regime. Despite the relatively small number of state-labelled ‘illegal’ migrants, it was classed as a national security issue. Mainstream media further stoked the people’s concerns by publishing articles predicting that migration would lead to a rise in crime.

Martynas says the fear-inducing narrative spun by the politicians and the media buried the individual stories of migrants, who had been reduced to pawns in a cross-border political spat. According to research by HRMI, roughly 97% of the articles published were anti-migration, while only 2% represented migrants' stories. By weaponising the public’s fear and using dehumanising language, the Lithuanian government hardened the public to their ill-treatment. Violent pushbacks at the border were legalised and those who managed to enter endured degrading conditions at detention centres, including limited freedom of movement.

Martynas Jockus giving a speech at HRMI's 20th Birthday

Storytelling as a form of activism

HRMI and other civil society organisations responded by highlighting the individual stories hidden from public view. Through social media, conferences, and cooperation with sympathetic news outlets, HRMI broadened the public discussion on migration to counterbalance the overwhelming disinformation. Central to this was telling the stories about why people fled and the heavy price they paid at the hands of Lithuanian authorities in their attempts to reach safety. Martynas says that initially there was an uproar after it emerged that an individual had his feet amputated due to frostbite after being refused entry into Lithuania. As a country familiar with migration during the Soviet occupation, the personal stories struck a chord.

When I ask Martynas whether HRMI’s efforts changed hearts and minds, he answers that first and foremost, migrants deserve the lion’s share of credit for debunking preconceptions. By getting involved with their community, joining the workforce and building relationships, migrants proved to locals that the fears peddled in the media were little more than hot air.

The work is the reward

Pushing for change can often be an uphill struggle, but the work is rewarding. “I noticed that this is the job in which I get the most thank yous, which was quite novel”, Martynas tells me.

Looking towards the future, Martynas says HRMI’s advocacy goals include reversing the legalisation of border pushbacks and restoring dignity to the treatment of migrants in Lithuania.

HRMI has a successful history of using strategic litigation to end discriminatory practices. To ensure asylum seekers can access their basic rights, HRMI has initiated a number of such cases in national courts and the European Court of Human Rights, where favourable court rulings reign in abuses by state institutions and set human rights respecting precedents.

Human rights are universal and inalienable, a principle that HRMI reminds the Lithuanian government of time and time again. Even if it takes a trip to court.

More articles in the Meet Our Members series:

From Activist Journalist to Co-Creating an Organisation Supporting Grassroots Movements

Giving Birth Pushed Adéla Holeček to Fight For Maternal Justice

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