Democracies Under Pressure. Authoritarianism, Repression, Struggles

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With the rise of hypercapitalism and strongman politics, human rights defenders are increasingly at risk

, by Front Line Defenders , FOLEY Michelle

Around the world, human rights defenders (HRDs) are on the frontline of the fight for human rights and for more fair and equal societies. These defenders can be journalists, lawyers, bloggers, academics, environmentalists, indigenous peoples rights defenders, LGBTI+ or women’s rights defenders. What they all have in common is that they work to realise the human rights of their communities and because of this work, they face tremendous risks. From losing their jobs to being subjected to travel bans, arrests and detentions, false or unfair accusations, smear campaigns, direct threats, physical attacks on them or their family, abductions, torture or in the most extreme circumstances, even assassinations. In addition, women human rights defenders and defenders working on LGBTI+ rights, face another layer of risk, as they are often the targets of misogynistic attacks and gender-based violence.

According to the 2019 Freedom in the World report by the NGO Freedom House, political freedoms and civil liberties have been on a steady decline around the world for 14 years straight, and at Front Line Defenders we would contend that we have seen a correlating increase in the number of attacks against defenders worldwide.

There are a number of phenomenon that have led to these increases – some global, worldwide trends and others, more local, regional or country-specific factors.

Global factors : hypercapitalism and far-right populist leaders on the rise

Firstly, at the global level we have a rise in hyper-capitalism, with its never ending thirst for profits and material gains, which pushes for a continual exploitation of natural resources and pits human rights defenders working on issues such as environmental rights, land rights and indigenous peoples rights against powerful economic interests.

We also have businesses and governments across the globe prioritising economic interests and returns, short term gains, which exacerbates the vulnerability of defenders on the ground.

We have seen a rise of strongman politics and populist rhetoric – Trump in the US, Bolsanaro in Brazil, Modi in India, Duterte in The Philippines – all democratically elected but displaying sometimes extreme authoritarian tendencies. All have invested in creating and compounding a popular narrative that human rights defenders are anti-development, anti-government, anti-national, foreign-funded, puppets of foreign-powers and this rhetoric ultimately results in the legitimate work of HRDs being delegitimatised.

Coupled with these economic and political factors, a key component in the increase in attacks is the fact that impunity remains the norm in the regions where attacks and killings take place. So much so that the perpetrators can be confident of escaping justice.

In a recent report by Global Witness, for example, it is estimated that 89% of the murders of human rights defenders in Colombia don’t end in a conviction, and in parts of the state of Pará in northern Brazil there is a 100% impunity rate in relation to the murders of rural workers in the last 40 years.

Even in the more high profile cases that have drawn international attention and condemnation, like that of Berta Caceres in Honduras, real justice continues to be elusive. Berta was a Lenca indigenous woman and human rights defender who spent 20 years fighting for the rights of the Lenca people and in March 2016 she was murdered in her home. After a hard fought battle, 7 men were found guilty of her murder, including men identified as employees of the company Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. and a member of the Honduran Army. However the trial of the alleged mastermind of the killing is still on-going, and major concerns have been raised by Berta’s family and legal team regarding deliberate delaying tactics by the defence with the intention of releasing the alleged perpetrator on the grounds of exhausted pre-trial detention.

Berta Caceres’s grave : this Lenca leader (Honduras) was murdered in 2016 because of her environ-mentalist and indigenous activism. Her grave has become a memory space. Credit : Trocaire (CC BY 2.0)

There are also other global factors at play. We have the recent MercoSur deal, the trade deal struck between the MercoSur countries, and the EU. Those operating in the human rights sphere believe this deal which will inevitably increase the demand from EU consumers, can only lead to further destruction of the Amazon and further conflicts with indigenous peoples, and ultimately further attacks and killings of indigenous rights defenders.

Additionally, in the past 6 months as a result of the global Covid 19 pandemic, the world has moved online and while this increased connectivity is affording certain groups of defenders increased access to the protection mechanism available and international and national supports and actors, it is also exacerbating the divide between those who are connected and those who are not. Rural communities, peasant communities, indigenous peoples communities – these groups are out in the cold so to speak.

On the other hand, in contrast to this doom and gloom and increases in attacks, today there are almost certainly more active human rights defenders, working on more rights areas, working in more countries than ever before.

So while the landscape they are working in continues to be high risk, there are more and more people becoming defenders and standing up and speaking out.

Region- or country-specific factors

It is worth noting that while the killing of a defender is the ultimate silencing of their voice – and the same countries in the Americas and Asia appear on the worst offenders list most years, including Colombia, Brazil, the Philippines, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala - in other regions, like in the Middle East and North Africa region, for example, it is much more common to arrest defenders on trumped up charges, try them in a sham court, and sentence them to long jail terms of 10 – 20 years. The end result, silencing the defender’s voice and their work, is similar. Both methods are cruel, unjust and brutal assault on the defender’s life and liberty.

If we look solely at the issue of killing defenders however, it’s clear that the situation in the Americas and parts of Asia are particularly egregious.

While HRDs are at risk and can be killed across the globe, in recent years approximately 80% of the killings each year occur in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and the Philippines. This year, preliminary figures would also indicate that Nicaragua has seen a rise in the killings of defenders, and we have yet to collate concrete data on India, which has seen an increase in violence and attacks against defenders in recent years.

In these countries land, environmental and indigenous peoples’ rights are undoubtedly the most dangerous sector of human rights defence due to the profit-driven exploitation of natural resources, combined with rampant corruption, weak governments and systemic poverty.

In the past three years as part of the Memorial project, we’ve documented the killing of 240 indigenous peoples’ rights defenders, over a quarter of the global total of human rights defenders killed. A shockingly high statistic, given that Indigenous Peoples are estimated to make up only 5% of the global population.

In November 2016, Front Line Defenders initiated the Memorial Project (see at In coalition with over 25 international and national organisations, the project aims to create a dedicated resource which will give a true picture of the scale of killings of human rights defenders world wide, illustrate the extent of the wide spread impunity and facilitate national and international advocacy on cases. It also seeks to commemorate the lives and achievements of those who have been killed fighting for their rights and those of their communities. A tribute to the defenders, both as individuals and as member of their communities. It is a record of their work and legacy for their families and communities: if the intention was to silence them, it is a way to say they will not be forgotten and that their struggle will go on. Ultimately, we want to challenge those who think that human rights defenders are expendable people who can be eliminated without consequence, and the Memorial project provides a basis for effective advocacy and campaigning to increase the political cost of killing a human rights defender.

Why do these attacks and killings take place?

The vast majority of the killings take place in the context of land grabbing and land clearing for agribusiness or exploration and exploitation of natural resources by extractive industries.

Many indigenous communities live in territories that are rich in natural resources. In defending their rights and their territories, by resisting large scale land grabs, deforestation, mega projects and the extraction of natural resources, indigenous rights defenders play a key role in combatting climate change. However increasing pressure on the world’s natural resources and unchecked corruption means they are often at odds with powerful actors including companies.

In the case of companies, as opposed to the situations of land grabbing in territorial disputes between paramilitary group or narco-traffickers, these companies are required to carry out consultations with the local communities to secure their “free and informed prior consent”, as well as to carry our environmental surveys to ensure that the natural environment, such as the water, air and plant life which the local communities rely on for their survival will be protected. However oftentimes, these consultations either do not take place, or they only take place with previously identified community members who have been bought-off by the company or by local officials who in turn are being paid off by somebody else.

In the context of Covid 19, and the restrictions on people’s movement and gathering, there are preliminary reports of numerous consultations having been abandoned and work commencing or continuing in this vacuum.

Why is the situation so bad in the Americas?

Latin American countries have long been afflicted by weak state controls and pockets where the state is quite simply not present at all. Organised crime, militias and predatory businesses operate with impunity, and the region’s governments have struggled to respond.

Additionally, there’s widespread corruption which further endangers defenders, as security forces and justice officials are susceptible to bribery and intimidation by criminal enterprises that threaten, torture, and murder those in their way.

So long as this broader insecurity goes unaddressed and governments fail to prioritise the protection of defenders, they’ll continue to work in a very risky environment.

Tania Carolina Hernandez (23), a young activist involved with COPINH, stands at a mural of Berta Caceres in the Honduran city of La Esperanza. Credit : Trocaire (CC BY 2.0)

There are often country-specific actors and dynamics at play -

In Mexico, for example, perpetrators tend to be narco-traffickers, criminals and corrupt authorities operating at the local level. The killings of defenders take place with almost total impunity because the political and economic structures of the state have been infiltrated to such an extent by narco-traffickers and other criminal elements that the state is both unable and unwilling to take effective action in defence of human rights.

In Colombia while the signing of the 2016 peace accords was heralded as the beginning of a new era after over five decades of civil war, the promised progress and increased security has been elusive. In the immediate years after the signing, the rate of general homicides decreased, but in contrast the rate of killing of defenders increased. In the rural areas, the territories formally controlled by the FARC are now being fought over by dissident FARC factions, a rival leftish guerilla group (ELN), the Colombian military, and drug cartels. In the middle of this violence and insecurity, you have human rights defenders – many of whom work solely at the local level, and do not have a national profile. They’re working in defence of the right to land or to protect indigenous peoples. Many are members of ethnic minorities, peasant communities, indigenous peoples, people of African descent or local community action boards.

While the situation in these states is dire, these governments (Colombia, Mexico) have at least recognised their obligations to protect human rights defenders and have set up formal, though largely ineffective mechanisms and structures to protect defenders. They are largely ineffective because they are under-funded, under-resourced and the demand for these protection measures are so high. In Mexico for example, a staff of 35 people are tasked with overseeing the protection mechanisms for over 1300 journalists and human rights defenders, and the 2019 the mechanism saw an additional budget cut.

In the Philippines since the 2016 election of Rodrigo Duterte, there is evidence of an anti-human rights agenda in the form of explicit and undisguised direct attacks by the president on the rule of law, independent media and state institutions designed to protect human rights. In 2017 for example, the National Human Rights Commission, which is tasked with investigating the human rights abuses in respect to the infamous “war on drugs”, including the killing of HRDs, was granted an annual budget of just $20. Now ultimately this was overturned by the Senate, but it gives you an idea of the hostile environment in which HRDs are operating in. Additionally, the president himself actively encourages the killing of members of the New People’s Army (NPA), an illegal paramilitary group that operates primarily in the Philippine countryside, by putting a bounty on the members’ heads. As human rights defenders are frequently and falsely branded with the tag of being members or sympathisers of the NPA, this makes them de facto targets with the highest levels of the state condoning their eradication.

Attacks on HRDs in democracies vs. in authoritarian regimes

It is worth noting that the countries where the most killings occur are in fact democracies. Yes, many have populist leaders and there are authoritarian strains but most were democratically elected.

While countries where there is totalitarian or hard authoritarian rule, such as in China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, the killings of defenders are much less prevalent. Much of this of course is due to the fact that there is much less civic space for human rights defenders to operate in. In China for example there are persistent state controls – freedoms of assembly and expression, are hugely limited, and defenders can be charged with broad offences include “picking quarrels and provoking troubles”. So, unlike in the Americas, there is much less freedom to organise and protest. Additionally, a number of years ago there was a huge crackdown on lawyers in China, many were arrested and others were disbarred, so now there are literally a handful of lawyers who are able and willing to defend human rights defenders cases.

In countries where there is more space for civil society, while there are many risks, there are also many human rights defenders, and extensive defender networks, sharing and learning. Human rights defenders by their very nature are incredibly resilient and determined.

Protecting HRDs : what can be done ?

FLD is primarily concerned with protecting defenders so that they can go about their work, and continue their fight for more fair and just societies.

This approach was instilled by its founder and now UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor who recognised that defenders on the ground are the most effective actors for social change because they know the context on the ground, they are often directly affected by the inequalities, exploitation and discrimination and they know what has to be done to change it. Our job is to protect them, and to support them, so that they can continue their work.

Generally Front Line Defenders endeavours to provide a tailored response, incorporating a selection of relevant tools and programmes when responding to defenders needs. We provide security consultations and training, in order to help defenders to map out the vulnerabilities in their daily lives and work. We offer security grants to purchase the necessary equipment, such as scanners and shredders, to enable defenders to store their information safely (especially the kind of information that could put other people at risk) and also purchase equipment to make their offices and homes more secure, like CCTV cameras, or alarm systems. We help defenders with computer and mobile phone security, to enable them to protect their electronic devices from malware attacks and ill-intentioned hackers, or if their devices are confiscated by the authorities. We network with other organisations in the field, coordinate actions with national and international actors. When it comes to death threats, we can facilitate an emergency relocation, relocating defenders temporarily within the country or outside, in the region or further away, depending on the level of danger. We want them to continue their work, for which they need to be present on the ground, but sometimes they simply need to step out of a heated situation. We also provide a 24h emergency phoneline, accessible in 5 languages.

But ultimately, duty to protect human rights defenders lies with states – so first and foremost, states need to publicly recognise the legitimacy of human rights defenders. They need to regularly and publicly acknowledge defenders and the value of their work, and reverse the trend of toxic language used in relation to their work. They need to investigate crimes against defenders, and end the impunity, because as we’ve acknowledged, the levels of impunity are so high that perpetrators can be almost guaranteed to escape justice. Where national protection mechanisms exist, they need to be properly funded so that they can become more robust and more effective. Where they don’t exist, they need to be introduced.

For other actors in the area, Foreign Embassies on the ground need to act as allies for defenders, especially in countries where the government is hostile. EU Embassies already have a set of EU guidelines so these need to be actively implemented and countries that don’t have such guidelines need to adopt them.

Additionally, companies also have a responsibility to respect defenders under the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights. So, when threats or attacks linked to a company’s activities or supply chains are highlighted to them companies need to take action in support of defenders, which too many companies have been too slow to do. This is especially true because often their voice would be a powerful and listened to voice as national governments court these economic enterprises.

Similarly, the International Financial Institutes who are financing these companies, the consumers and the companies themselves have a responsibility to push for mandatory human rights due diligence in the supply chains.

And lastly, there needs to be more regulation of hate speech by social media companies. They need to establish a more effective and timely response mechanism to requests to take down threatening posts and messages that endanger the lives of defenders, and support defenders to de-escalate the levels of threat.

There is so much that can be done to improve the situation and everyone needs to do more.