Rights Today in the Americas – 2018

Courage under attack

One of the struggles dominating the Americas region throughout 2018 has been for territory and land, particularly that belonging to Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, coupled with the fight for a healthy environment.

Environmental and land-rights activists throughout the region have demonstrated exemplary bravery in the face of continued threats and acts of violence. Both men and women human rights defenders face these dangers because they dare to raise their voices to denounce environmental damage caused by major economic interests and the damage to their ancestral lands caused by projects that exploit natural resources.

Among these brave defenders, women play a vital role. They face specific risks both relating to their activities and because they challenge the traditional roles that society has assigned to them.

For being “too vocal”, these women are ostracized, intimidated, threatened, subjected to forced disappearance and even murdered. They are not lone victims: their children and families are also targeted. Moreover, women defenders are commonly targeted with sexual violence or threats of sexual attacks in an attempt to intimidate them.

Amnesty International’s platform Speakout4defenders tells the stories of these brave women who do not renounce their fight, even in the face of threats and violence.

Magdalena Saavedra, who was released after over five years in prison, where she was raped and tortured by members of the Mexican Navy.

I am going to keep fighting. I did it during my imprisonment for 5 years, and I am not going to stop now.

Intimidation and threats

In one such incident in August, three armed men intercepted the taxi in which Amada Martínez, a member of Paraguay’s Indigenous Tekoha Sauce community, was travelling with her sister and their three young children. When they stopped, one of the men pointed a shotgun at Amada’s face. He accused her of having a “loud mouth”, and told her to beware that, one day, they would find her alone on the road. Amada has been vocal about the suffering faced by her community, which has been displaced by the construction of a hydroelectric plant. The three armed men were wearing the uniforms of the hydroelectric company.

A month earlier in Chile, defence lawyer Karina Riquelme Viveros was similarly intimidated for her work as a defender of Mapuche Indigenous rights, when two men aimed a laser through the window of her home, where she lives with her six-year-old daughter. The previous day, she had noticed an intimidating group of police intelligence agents taking photos of her in the court where she works. This occurred during a hearing against police intelligence agents accused of trying to frame Mapuche community members as terrorists. Days later, one of the agents returned to the court posing as a member of the public. Although the Chilean Supreme Court has ordered police not to interfere with legal representation during criminal investigations, Karina fears that these intimidation tactics could turn into violent attacks.

Amada Martínez and Karina Riquelme Viveros are not the only women to have discovered that the children of human rights defenders are at risk of intimidation and even specifically targeted to exert pressure on their parents. In April, police illegally raided the home of the son of Liliam López, co-ordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), and took photos of him. Their activities were not known to the local police department.

Attacked with impunity

There is deep concern about the role of the authorities in attacks against human rights defenders. In July, a member of the Venezuelan state armed forces accused Lisa Henrito, defender of the rights of the Indigenous Pemón group in Venezuela, of treason on national television. The official also called on Venezuela’s military forces to monitor the activism of the Pemón people – whose land rights have not been recognized by the government. The Pemón communities have organized and campaigned against threats to their land rights caused by a recent government power line project, and the lack of consultation. They fear the project is a precursor to the opening of new mines in the area.

Those who attack human rights defenders often do so with impunity: few criminal investigations into the attacks against women defenders result in those responsible being identified or brought to justice. This includes those who order the attacks. The lack of sanctions against perpetrators sends a dangerous message to society: a women defender can be attacked without fear of punishment. In Ecuador, for example, an unidentified man threw rocks and broke the windows of Patricia Gualinga’s home, while yelling death threats at her. Patricia is the leader of the Kichwa Indigenous Peoples of Sarayaku and a member of the Amazonian Women’s Collective, and has been campaigning against oil extraction projects in her community. The authorities have hindered Patricia’s attempts to get justice, refusing to show her CCTV images that could have helped identify the perpetrator. In the past year, three other women human rights defenders from the Amazonian Women’s Collective – Nema Grefa, Salomé Aranda and Margoth Escobar – have suffered similar threats.

Voices silenced

Justice systems in the Americas have been misused to harass and silence human rights defenders. In Colombia in April, the authorities detained Sara Quiñonez and her mother Tulia María Valencia, both defenders of the rights of Afro-Colombian people, and accused them of “rebellion”. Since 2015, Sara has twice been forced to move to a new house after receiving threats because of her activism. Indigenous and Afro-Colombian advocates are targeted with alarming regularity in Colombia, while the government fails to address the dramatic spike in killings of human rights defenders in the country. It is estimated that in Colombia one activist is killed every three days.

Governments’ failure to protect human rights defenders, and in some cases their deliberate actions to target them, are demonstrated by the events surrounding the death of Berta Cáceres. A Honduran environmental human rights defender and Indigenous leader, Berta successfully pressured the world’s largest dam builder to pull out of a project in the Río Gualcarque, which would have severely affected the livelihoods of the Indigenous Lenca community and compromised their access to food and water. Berta was murdered in her home in 2016, having received numerous death threats in the preceding years. Despite the previous threats and attacks suffered by Berta, she was not under any protection on the day of her death. International recommendations were made that the Honduran government should provide round-the-clock security, and yet the protection offered was severely lacking.

Seeking justice

While the examples above paint a bleak picture, there are rays of hope that some perpetrators of attacks on human rights defenders could be held accountable. Two years after her death, justice for Berta seems finally to be on the horizon as nine people have been arrested for her murder, including individuals connected to the Honduran military. However, it will be a slow process, and justice will only be fully served when those who ordered her killing are identified and brought to trial.

Yet, these glimmers of hope are insufficient in an environment where impunity is not an exception but rather the rule. On 28 July in Guatemala, the neighbours of Juana Raymundo alerted the police after finding her body by a small river between the Nebaj and Acambalam communities. Juana, a Mayan Ixil nurse, campaigned tirelessly for peasant farmers’ access to land and rural development. Her killers have yet to be found.

To protect human rights defenders, it is imperative that protection measures are enforced, not just for individuals, but for whole communities, particularly Indigenous groups. Women in the region, and their families, often bear the brunt of attacks designed to silence defenders and prevent them from carrying out their vital work. For as long as human rights defenders, and women defenders, continue to bravely stand up and speak out, governments across the region have a duty to protect them.