Attacks on Human Rights Defenders are Reaching a Crisis Point Around the Globe

The land rights movement Via Campesina marches in Indonesia on their 20th anniversary in 2013. (Credit: Global Justice Now/Flickr)

(IPS) – Globally, the people working to defend our human rights are increasingly under attack, reaching a “crisis point.”

More than 150 human rights defenders (HRDs) from around the world gathered in Paris this week to set out a vision for the enduring fight for human rights at the second Human Rights Defenders World Summit.

Among those who attended was United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet who highlighted the key role that HRDs play in societies.

“When you see someone in chains—someone whose rights are being denied—you don’t turn away. You challenge injustice. You stand up for the rights of others,” she told participants.

“Every step towards greater equality, dignity, and rights which has been made…has been achieved because of the struggles and the advocacy of human rights defenders,” Bachelet added.

The meeting marks the 20th anniversary of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by the international community during the first summit to ensure all can enjoy “freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want.”

However, governments have fallen short on their commitments as HRDs continue to be killed around the world with impunity.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Michel Forst recently expressed alarm over such trends, stating: “The Declaration has become a milestone in the human rights project…however, I am more concerned than ever.”

“We are facing an alarming panorama for human rights defenders. Their situation is deteriorating all over the world despite States’ obligations to ensure the protection of human rights defenders,” he added.

Amnesty International’s Secretary General Kumi Naidoo echoed similar sentiments during the summit, stating: “The level of danger facing activists worldwide has reached crisis point. Every day ordinary people are threatened, tortured, imprisoned and killed for what they fight for or simply for who they are. Now is the time to act and tackle the global surge in repression of human rights defenders.”

In a recent report, Forst found that at least 3,500 HRDs have been killed since the adoption of the Declaration.

In 2017 alone, over 300 HRDs across 27 countries were killed, double the numbers from 2015, Front Line Defenders found.

Almost 85 percent of the recorded murders were concentrated in five Latin American countries: Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico.

Colombia, which is currently the deadliest place for HRDs, saw a increase in the number of murders of HRDs following the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

In 2017, over 120 social and environmental leaders were killed by paramilitary or unidentified armed groups largely in areas where FARC has since left, contributing to struggles for power and land.

In May, Luis Alberto Torres Montoya and Duvian Andres Correa Sanchez were killed. They were a part of the Rios Vivos Movement which has rallied against the Hidroituango hydroelectric dam for its environmental and human rights impacts including the displacement of local communities.

In fact, Front Line Defenders found that 67 percent of those killed in 2017 were defending land, environmental, and indigenous people’s rights, and almost always in the context of mega projects, extractive industry, and big business.

The Wayúu Women’s Force, an indigenous environmental group, have been facing death threats for its opposition to a coal mine operating on their ancestral territory. A right-wing paramilitary group Aguilas Negras, or Black Eagles, reportedly dispersed leaflets promising to “clean” the region of the indigenous Wayúu.

“Every case of an attack on a human rights defender constitutes an attack on human rights – the rights of us all,” Bachelet said.

However, impunity continues to reign in many countries including in Colombia where human rights groups have said the government is failing to investigate crimes and prosecute those behind them, and have urged the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open a formal investigation.

But even in cases where the perpetrators are brought to a court, justice still remains elusive.

In Guatemala, the head of security of a mine—then owned by Canadian company Hudbay Minerals—was acquitted for the 2009 murder of indigenous activist Adolfo Ich Chaman and shooting of German Chub despite witness testimony and physical evidence.

The 2013 lawsuit also included 11 women who were allegedly raped at gunpoint by the mining company’s security forces during a forced eviction in 2007.

Following the ruling, the judge requested that criminal charges be brought against those involved in the prosecution including Chaman’s wife for “obstructing justice and falsifying information.”

“The systemic, widespread impunity is a very bad signal sent to the families of the victims and to anyone standing up for human rights…beyond these attacks and killings, it is ultimately our rights, our democracies that are in great danger,” Forst recently said to the General Assembly.

There has been some progress in recognising the importance and achievements of HRDs around the world. Most recently, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Yazidi activist Nadia Murray and Congolese gynaecologist Denis Mukwege for their role in the fight to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

Both Forst and Bachelet stressed the need to take action and for all stakeholders to use this opportunity to move forward, particularly in the wake of the 20th anniversary of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders as well as the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted at the Palais de Chaillot where the Summit aptly held their closing ceremony.

“The Summit is a key opportunity for human rights defenders around the world, facing vilification and increased attacks, to come to together and discuss next steps on their own terms,” Forst said.

“What human rights defenders teach us is that all of us can stand up for our rights and for the rights of others, in our neighborhoods, in our countries and all over the world. We can change the world,” Bachelet echoed.

This year has seen numerous events focusing on HRDs including the three-day summit and an upcoming high-level meeting to take place in mid-December in New York to address good practices and new opportunities in the Declaration’s implementation.