Hostile Environments

10 November 2007

Armed conflict

Armed conflict is one of the most hostile environments in which to defend human rights as it almost always entails violations of fundamental human rights, often on a massive scale. Whether the confrontation is between professional armies or armed groups, civilian lives and livelihoods are increasingly the principal casualty.

It is in such an environment that the work of human rights defenders is most needed, yet often least respected. In an atmosphere of tense polarization, their impartiality is called into question. In the context of a civil conflict or a war of occupation, denouncing government abuses can lead to defenders being vilified as disloyal, unpatriotic, even treacherous.

Criticising abuses by armed groups renders them government stooges in the eyes of those who support the group's cause, who see defenders and their organizations as legitimizing the government's agenda. These misperceptions can have deadly consequences: they can lead to defenders and their organizations being seen as allied with the enemy and thus branded a "legitimate target" by either side.

In situations of armed conflict defenders also face formidable problems of a practical nature. The security situation may make it impossible to gain access to certain areas to verify allegations of abuses, or may be used as a pretext to prevent the operation of human rights or humanitarian organizations.

Verifying breaches of international humanitarian law (the laws of armed conflict) poses additional methodological challenges - for example in assessing the legality and "military necessity" of a particular attack -- which can prove insurmountable in conditions where infrastructure has been devastated, resources are scarce and access to victims and communities is obstructed. Emergency legislation may place legal restrictions on freedom of movement, freedom of association and freedom of expression, severely constraining the ability of defenders to carry out their work.

New security measures introduced since 9/11

New security measures introduced worldwide since the attacks in the USA on 11 September 2001 have effected the environment in which human rights defenders operate. Many governments have used the so-called "war against terror" as a justification or pretext to restrict the legitimate activities of organizations working to defend human rights.

In some countries, newly introduced anti-terrorist legislation has had an inhibiting effect on human rights organizations concerned that their legitimate human rights activities could be brought within the scope of the legislation's vague and sweeping provisions.

Many human rights defenders have also had to contend with a governmental discourse that prioritises "security" (understood as prevention of terrorism) over human rights, and that sees the two as conflicting rather than mutually supporting policy goals.

In such circumstances, human rights has come to be equated with "being soft on terrorism" or concerned only with the rights of suspected terrorists, rather than with the victims of terrorism. The work of human rights defenders is thus mischaracterized as one-sided or irrelevant, and has come to be equated with terrorism or subversion in the eyes of some governments.

Undemocratic, authoritarian systems of government

Countries with undemocratic, authoritarian systems of government can also represent an especially hostile environment for defending human rights. In such states, the space for human rights defenders to operate is often severely curtailed by laws and policies placing draconian restrictions on freedom of expression and association in the name of national security or public order.

“Failed states”

"Failed states" - those without a functioning governmental infrastructure - can also pose formidable challenges for the work of human rights defenders. Where the institutions necessary for the delivery of basic public goods and services, from law enforcement to health-care and education, are either entirely lacking or dependent on weak and transient de facto authorities, human rights defenders must work creatively with and through other political and social structures in order to prevent and redress abuses and build a framework of protective safeguards at the local and community level.

The absence of the rule of law, and the prevalence of force over democratic dialogue as the main means of political contestation, pose huge obstacles to their task.

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