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States worldwide failing to prevent killings and disappearances of human rights defenders

States around the world are failing in their duty to effectively protect people who defend human rights, leading to an escalation in preventable killings and enforced disappearances, Amnesty International said today.

The organization’s new report, Deadly but Preventable Attacks: Killings and Enforced Disappearances of Those who Defend Human Rights, highlights the growing risks faced by human rights defenders – people from all walks of life who work to promote and defend human rights.

The report includes testimonies from friends, relatives and colleagues of human rights defenders, including environmentalists, LGBTIQ and women’s rights activists, journalists and lawyers, who have been killed or disappeared. Many described how victims’ pleas for protection had been repeatedly ignored by the authorities and how the attackers had evaded justice, fuelling a deadly cycle of impunity.

“We spoke to families of killed and forcibly disappeared human rights defenders all over the world, and kept hearing the same thing: these people knew their lives were at risk,” said Guadalupe Marengo, Head of Amnesty International’s Global Human Rights Defenders Programme.

“Their deaths or disappearances had been preceded by a string of previous attacks, which authorities turned a blind eye to or even encouraged. If states had taken their human rights obligations seriously and acted diligently on reports of threats and other abuses, lives could have been saved.”

Amnesty International’s new report brings together stories from around the world to illustrate the rise in preventable attacks on HRDs and highlights a chilling pattern of impunity. Cases include:

Berta Cáceres, a Honduran environmental and Indigenous activist who was shot dead in 2016 after years of threats and attacks.

Xulhaz Mannan, an LGBTIQ activist who was hacked to death in Bangladesh, along with his colleague, in 2016. Over 18 months later, justice is yet to take place.

Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, founder of a human rights organization in Burundi, who was shot in the face and neck in 2015. Months later, while he was recovering abroad, his son and son-in-law were killed.

The “Douma 4”, four Syrian activists who were abducted from their office by armed men in December 2013 and have not been seen since.

Pace of attacks increasing

When the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1998, the international community committed to protecting them and recognizing their crucial work. But Amnesty International’s report shows that championing human rights continues to be highly dangerous work, with thousands of human rights defenders killed or forcibly disappeared by state and non-state actors in the two decades since.

According to the NGO Front Line Defenders, at least 281 HRDs were killed globally in 2016 alone, an increase of almost a third since 2015. The true figure is likely to be much higher, as many defenders killed or forcibly disappeared may not be identified as such.

Amnesty International’s report reveals the motives behind these attacks are multiple and layered. Some people are attacked because of their occupations (for example, journalists, law professionals, trade unionists), for standing up to powerful actors violating human rights, for sharing information or raising awareness.

Others are at heightened risk of attack both for what they do and who they are, facing discrimination and violence. These people include those defending the rights of women; sex workers; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people; Indigenous peoples and other minority groups. Others are attacked in context-specific situations, for example during conflict or where communities are in the grip of organized crime and violent crackdown.

“Although the motives behind these attacks may vary, what lies behind them all is the desire to silence anyone who speaks out against injustice or challenge powerful interests. This silencing has a ripple effect in the wider community, creating a cycle of fear and undermining everyone’s rights,” said Guadalupe Marengo.

Impunity increases risk

When threats and attacks are not properly investigated and punished, the resulting climate of impunity erodes the rule of law and sends the message that HRDs can be attacked without consequences.

Bertha Zúniga, daughter of Honduran environmental and Indigenous activist Berta Cáceres (the founder of the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras – COPINH –                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  who was killed last year), said:

“Prior to my mother’s death, there was a clear alliance between business interests, private security agents, state officials and organised crime. As these parties were complicit in my mother’s death, a thorough investigation is proving more and more difficult. My mother [Berta Cáceres] deserves justice and it’s imperative we shed light on the conspiracy that took place. It’s fundamental if we are to prevent further killings.”

Recommendations

Amnesty International is urging all states to prioritize the recognition and protection of human rights defenders. Authorities must publicly support their work, and acknowledge their contribution to the advancement of human rights. They must take all necessary measures to prevent further attacks on them, and bring to justice those responsible for attacks by effectively investigating and prosecuting killings and enforced disappearances.

Crucially, governments should send a clear public message that these human rights violations will not be tolerated.

“The brutal attacks documented in this report are the logical end point of a disturbing trend, where instead of standing up for human rights defenders many world leaders are putting them at increased risk through smear campaigns, the misuse of the criminal justice system or by falsely portraying them as opposed to national interests, effectively signalling contempt for the human rights of us all,” said Guadalupe Marengo.

“To reverse this dangerous narrative, states need to publicly recognize the key role that human rights defenders play. We owe it to all those who have bravely defended our human rights at the cost of their lives to protect those who are continuing to advance their vital work.”

Background

This report is part of Brave, Amnesty International’s campaign launched last May calling on states to recognize the work of human rights defenders, and to ensure they are able to carry out their work in a safe and enabling environment.

Who are human rights defenders?

HRDs come from every walk of life. They can be community leaders, journalists, lawyers, health professionals, teachers, trade unionists, whistle-blowers, victims or relatives of victims of human rights violations and abuses, members of human rights organizations, politicians, and members of security forces or other state agents.

They may defend human rights as part of their profession, or on a voluntary basis; they may be organized and working to defend human rights on a regular basis, or simply have taken an action to stand up for human rights. In other words, a HRD can be any person, irrespective of their age, occupation, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, nationality or other social group, who speaks out against human rights violations and abuses or promotes human rights in other ways without resorting to or advocating hatred, discrimination or violence.