Americas: Violence on the rise against those defending human rights

Campaigners, lawyers, journalists, community leaders and trade unionists, all human rights defenders who put their lives and liberty at risk in the fight for human rights, continue to suffer intimidation, harassment and violence across Latin America and the Caribbean according to a new Amnesty International report published today. 

Launching on International Human Rights Defenders Day, Defending Human Rights in the Americas: Necessary, Legitimate and Dangerous gives an overview on the situation of human rights defenders in the Americas region. The report focuses primarily on over 200 cases of attacks and abuses on which Amnesty International took action during the last two years. 

“The tragic reality is that many human rights defenders in Latin America and the Caribbean are constantly persecuted and attacked in reprisal for their work. In various countries we have seen a worrying and shameful increase in the rate at which defenders suffer violence and repression just for standing up for human rights and justice,” said Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International. 

“It is harrowing to see the type and frequency of cowardly attempts to silence and intimidate those that are working to shine a light on human rights abuses. But these admirable defenders fight on, even in the face of such repression. It is imperative that the leaders of the Americas step up and do more to effectively protect and support human rights defenders.” 

The report is based on cases from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Dominican Republic and Venezuela. 

The research found a particularly high level of violence and repression suffered by those working on rights related to lands, territory and natural resources, those working on women and girls’ rights, the rights of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) and migrant rights; as well as against journalists and trade unionists who defend human rights. 

Death and violence

Some countries have seen a meteoric rise in threats and attacks against defenders. Meanwhile state authorities across the region are failing to address the growing problem. 

Colombia featured with one of the worst records. At least 40 human rights defenders were killed in the first nine months of 2014 according to the Office of the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights. Between September and October this year more than 100 human rights defenders and activists received a series of email death threats sent by paramilitary groups. 

“All too often the killing of human rights defenders could have been avoided if state authorities took proper notice and investigated the threats and acts of intimidation they face. State leaders in the region must do more to address these issues and to effectively protect human rights defenders at risk,” said Nancy Tapias Torrado, Americas Human Rights Defenders Researcher at Amnesty International. 

Land rights and territory 

Across the region Amnesty International’s research found those working on human rights in relation to land, territory and natural resources paid a heavy price for their work. 

In one emblematic case in Honduras, on 27 August 2014, Margarita Murillo was shot dead. She had reported previous threats and intimidation. She was a defender and community leader, who had worked for more than 40 years fighting for rights to improve the lives of peasant communities. 

Gender violence and discrimination 

Those working on women and girls’ rights and the rights of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) are also at particular risk. 

Amnesty International conducted scores of interviews with women defenders. They not only face repression for their human rights work, but battle inequality, discrimination and endure threats and attacks based on their gender. 

In El Salvador, women human rights defenders fighting against the total ban on abortion and its deadly consequences have been repeatedly intimidated and stigmatized. Some have been threatened to be taken to court, if they carry on with their work supporting vulnerable women who have been unjustly imprisoned for miscarriages. 

States are yet to adopt and implement specific and enhanced protection measures for women human rights defenders in order to overcome the particular risks they face. 

Likewise LGBTI defenders are often targeted because of their work. It has been a particular problem in the Caribbean. 

In August 2014, Javed Jaghai, a member of the Jamaica Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG), dropped a constitutional challenge against laws criminalizing sex between men, following the receipt of death threats against him and his family. 

Punished for defending human rights

Amnesty International has also observed judicial systems being used to repress human rights defenders and stop their work. 

Bettina Cruz Velázquez is a member and co-founder of the Assembly of Indigenous Peoples of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Defence of Land and Territory (APIITDTT) in Mexico. She faces unfounded criminal charges of illegal detention of public officials and damage to public property since 2011. Her only “crime” has been to protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples in relation to the construction of wind turbines on their land. 

“Sadly in Latin America and the Caribbean it is increasingly common to see human rights defenders facing unfounded accusations and unfair detentions. It is of the utmost concern that the authorities are failing to stop the misuse of the justice system as a means of repression,” said Nancy Tapias Torrado. 

Steps forward

The report highlights how progress enshrined in regional and international law are yet to filter through to governments across the Americas. 

“While international standards on the protection of human rights defenders have moved forward, there is still a long way to go before those at the very frontline of human rights work are afforded the respect and protection they so clearly need,” said Erika Guevara Rosas.   

“We urge governments throughout the region to rise to the challenge and fulfil their obligations to protect those who defend human rights so these inspirational activists can continue their fight for rights.” 

Standing up for human rights in the Americas

In the past few years, Amnesty International has documented hundreds of attacks on human rights defenders in the Americas region. In this map you will find 6 real cases of human rights defenders from the North, Central, South America and the Caribbean. They face great risks for stading up for human rights. They show some of the challenges and risks defenders are facing across the region.

View Americas EN in a larger map