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Human rights defenders are being killed or forcibly disappeared. It needs to stop

By Guadalupe Marengo, directora del Programa Global sobre Defensores y Defensoras de los Derechos Humanos Londres, Reino Unido,

International Human Rights Defenders Day (9 December) is a day to recognize and celebrate the work of so many courageous individuals who stand up against injustice. This year, we are honouring the thousands of lives that have been taken in the struggle to make this a better world.

Human rights defenders from all walks of life have been killed or forcibly disappeared for what they do or who they are. Teachers, students, political activists, factory workers, journalists, lawyers, environmentalists and so many others. People from marginalized communities, LGBTI activists, Indigenous leaders, farmers demanding their rights. What all these people have in common is that they have taken injustice personally and raised their voices for human rights.

Almost 20 years ago, the UN adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders by consensus, committing to recognise and protect the right of all to defend and promote human rights. This was a landmark resolution that sparked a light when we were about to enter into the 21st century. It was a glimmer of hope for so many human rights defenders around the world who were facing appalling risks for standing in the way of powerful interests. It looked like human rights were at last being taken seriously in the hallways of power.

But something went wrong. Twenty years since, and we have counted at least 3,500 women, men and children who have been killed or forcibly disappeared simply for defending human rights. That is approximately one every other day.

We published this week a report highlighting this alarming situation, a concern that has only increased throughout the years.

Deadly but preventable attacks: killings and enforced disappearances of those who defend human rights tells the story of over 90 human rights defenders from 40 countries across the globe who have lost their lives in the name of human rights. Some of them have been killed or forcibly disappeared for what they do, others were also targeted because of who they are. But what they all had in common is that most of these deaths came following a string of escalating attacks.

If only states had taken their international obligations seriously and acted diligently when these threats were reported, if only had they publicly recognized the work of these individuals and investigated those responsible of the attacks, most deaths could have been prevented.

But instead they left them unprotected and allowed those responsible to walk free and continue attacking.

Today, on International Human Rights Defenders Day, we are standing together with the friends and families who have been touched by the killing or the enforced disappearance of a human rights defender. We are taking a stand with those communities who have lost a dauntless voice but who refuse to be left voiceless. We are standing up for all those who are still being intimidated and deterred from taking up the struggle for human rights.

We must keep raising our voice and demand our governments to thoroughly investigate all these attacks and effectively protect human rights defenders who are still at risk.

We owe it to all the brave people who lost their lives for defending our human rights, and to all those courageous defenders who are still raising their voices regardless of the risks they are facing.

Let’s mark this International Human Rights Defenders Day by honouring those lives and work together to ensure that human rights defenders around the world are recognised, protected and free to go about their crucial work – this will benefit us all.