IACHR

Press Release

IACHR and Regional Branches of the OHCHR Concerned about the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in the Americas in the First Four Months of 2019

May 30, 2019

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María Isabel Rivero
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Bogotá/Guatemala City/Mexico City/Panama City/Santiago/Tegucigalpa/Washington, D.C. (May 30, 2019) – In the context of the Joint Action Mechanism to Contribute to the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in the Americas, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and branches of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in the Americas are concerned about the persistence in the first four months of the year of acts of violence and intimidation perpetrated against human rights defenders in the region.

The IACHR and regional branches of the OHCHR warn that the Americas remain one of the world’s most dangerous regions to exercise the defense of human rights. Some countries in the Americas head global rankings for murders of human rights defenders, and defenders also face threats, attacks, intimidation, stigmatization and smear campaigns, as well as criminalization for their legitimate work in defense of human rights. Several beneficiaries of precautionary measures granted by the IACHR and people who had been assigned protection by national authorities are among the human rights defenders and social leaders who have been murdered.

The IACHR and the OHCHR observe with concern that Colombia remains one of the countries with the most murders of human rights defenders and social leaders in the Americas. Between January 1 and April 30, the OHCHR received 51 complaints denouncing murders of human rights defenders in that country, at least 21 of which—3 women and 18 men—have been verified as such by the OHCHR.

January 2019 saw several attacks (including murders) on people who defend the human rights of victims of the internal armed conflict. For example, Maritza Quiroz Leiva—who pursued land claims and led Afro-descendant women who were victims of displacement in Santa Marta, Colombia—died in January 2019, after being shot by unknown attackers. On January 11, Alfamir Castillo Bermúdez—a defender who was the mother of a victim of an extrajudicial execution—was attacked in Valle del Cauca, also in Colombia, when the vehicle she was travelling in was hit by several shots. On the following day, January 12, there was an attempt to break into the Bogotá office of the NGO Nydia Erika Bautista Foundation. Both Alfamir Castillo Bermúdez and the Foundation assist and support victims of serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances. Further, the OHCHR continues to observe that the group of defenders who do community work still face the highest risk in Colombia and are in fact a majority among those killed to date. Other attacks and murders were reported in other areas in the country. On April 4, in the context of the social uprising known as Minga, the IACHR and the Colombian branch of the OHCHR joined forces to note the importance of dialogue to satisfy social demands, as the only way to contain violence. They stressed that an approach based on human rights always paves the way to strengthen democracy and the rule of law.

The IACHR and the OHCHR are concerned about the increase in the number of murders of human rights defenders in Mexico during the first four months of 2019, compared to previous years. According to the information both institutions have had access to, at least 10 human rights defenders—nine men and one woman—were murdered over that period. That figure is close to the total of at least 13 murders documented for the whole of 2018, which entails a significant increase in violence. The fact that eight of the murdered defenders were indigenous persons is a cause for particular concern.

On January 3, human rights defender Sinar Corzo—a member of the Citizen Committee for the Defense of Human Rights “El Coloso de Piedra” and who was subjected to an arbitrary arrest in 2013 in the context of his activities in defense of the right to water—was murdered in Arriaga, Chiapas. On January 17, human rights defenders Noé Jiménez Pablo and José Santiago Gómez Álvarez went missing while they were taking part in a protest camp opposite the town hall in Amatán, Chiapas. They were found dead a day later. Noé Jiménez was a beneficiary of the Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. Óscar Cazorla, an activist for the rights of LGBTI persons and a defender of the Muxe community, was murdered on February 9 at his home in Juchitán de Zaragoza, in the state of Oaxaca. Samir Flores, a defender of indigenous rights to land and territory in the face of megaprojects as well as a community spokesperson, was murdered on February 20 at his home in Amilcingo, Morelos. The murder of Abiram Hernández Fernández—an activist and human rights defender in the state of Veracruz—was reported on March 30. He was allegedly attacked in his home.

The IACHR and the OHCHR expressed their concern about the disappearance in Mexico of human rights defenders Obtilia Eugenio Manuel and Hilario Cornelio Castro. They were missing from February 12, 2019 until their kidnappers released them a week later, in the wake of a determined search. When they were abducted, Obtilia and Hilario had been travelling on public transportation from Tierra Colorada to Chilpancingo, in the state of Guerrero. In the past, Obtilia Eugenio Manuel was a beneficiary of precautionary measures granted by the IACHR. Since 2009, she has been a beneficiary of provisional measures granted by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The IACHR and the OHCHR also observe with concern defender homicides perpetrated in countries like Honduras, Brazil, Costa Rica, Peru and Guatemala. In Honduras, for example, the IACHR and the OHCHR condemned the February 2019 murder of Salomón Matute and his son Juan Samael Matute, both Tolupan indigenous persons who belonged to the San Francisco Locomapa tribe and the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (MADJ, by its Spanish acronym), in the Yoro department. Salomón Matute had been a beneficiary of precautionary measures granted by the IACHR since 2013, after being subjected to threats, harassment and other acts of violence in the context of his work as a defender of the environment and of indigenous peoples. In Brazil, the homicides of Dilma Ferreira Silva (Tucuruí Coordinator for the Movement of People Affected by Dams, MAB by its Portuguese acronym), her husband Claudionor Costa da Silva and friend Milton Lopes were reported in March 2019 in the Baião municipality, in the state of Pará. Dilma Ferreira Silva was a well-known defender and leader who fought for the rights of people affected by the Tucuruí hydroelectric plant. Environmental activist Rosane Santiago was also tortured and murdered in the town of Nova Viçosa, in the state of Bahia, on January 29.

Also in January, the IACHR condemned the murder of Bribri indigenous leader Sergio Rojas in Salitre, Costa Rica. As a member of the Bribri indigenous people in Salitre, Sergio Rojas had been since 2015 a beneficiary of precautionary measures granted by the IACHR. According to publicly available reports, Cristian Java Ríos—a Urarina indigenous environmental defender from La Petrolera indigenous community—was murdered by land invaders in Peru in April 2019. Several people from his community who were with him at the time were injured. Delfino Agustín Vidal, a member of the peasant organization CODECA, was murdered in the Guatemalan department of Jalapa in January 2019, in an act that may have been politically motivated.

Concerning threats and other acts of harassment, the IACHR and the OHCHR have documented that Nicaraguan defenders and civil society organizations continue to be subjected to intimidation, threats and stigmatization on social media, amid the ongoing social and political crisis that followed mass protests in April 2018. They also continue to be subjected to acts of harassment including forced entry into their homes and the presence around their homes and offices of suspicious stalkers dressed in plain clothes. On February 7, 2019, the offices of the Nicaraguan Network for Democracy and Development, a coalition of 22 organizations working all over the country, were subjected to a raid just six days after representatives of Nicaraguan civil society (including some who belonged to the Network), shared their concern about restrictions of civic space with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.

In February 2019, the IACHR expressed its concern about constant harassment against human rights defenders in Venezuela, including threats and accusations issued against the Venezuelan Social Conflict Observatory (OVCS, by its Spanish acronym), against PROVEA, against Foro Penal and against defenders who belong to those organizations. In Colombia, the IACHR was informed of an increase in the number of threats compared to the previous year. According to civil society organizations, recorded complaints doubled compared to the same period of 2018.

On January 18, in Brazil, the Commission spoke about acts of violence committed against rural workers at the Bauru Agricultural Treasury, in the Colniza municipality of the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. Further, on March 8, 2019, the IACHR granted precautionary measures in favor of Julio Lancellotti—a defender of the human rights of homeless persons who leads the organization Pastoral do Povo da Rua in São Paulo—who had been subjected to several threats and acts of violence by the security forces among others. In January 2019, federal legislator Jean Wyllys said he was giving up his position and leaving the country, due to the level of death threats issued against him and his family.

The OHCHR and the IACHR have repeatedly expressed their concern about the criminalization faced by human rights defenders in Guatemala, particularly peasants and indigenous persons who defend their communities’ right to land and territory. On April 26, 2019, the High Risk Court cleared Maya Q’eqchi defender Abelino Chub Caal of all the charges against him. He had been in pre-trial detention for more than two years and had been charged with crimes linked to claims on ancestral lands and to protests against agro-industrial activities. Earlier, the IACHR and the OHCHR had expressed their concern about this defender’s criminalization. The IACHR and the OHCHR also obtained information about a complaint filed by the Supreme Court of Justice against Claudia Samayoa—president of Guatemala’s Unit to Protect Human Rights Defenders, Guatemala (UDEFEGUA)—and José Manuel Martínez—a member of the group Colectivo JusticiaYa—for events linked to their involvement in a legal complaint they both filed in January 2019 against 11 judges of Guatemala’s Supreme Court of Justice.

In Venezuela, the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN, by its Spanish acronym) arrested journalist and human rights defender Luis Carlos Díaz in March 2019, amid allegations that he had caused the blackout that affected the country. That same day, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called for his release. Luis Carlos Díaz was released 24 hours later, although his release was conditional. He and fellow journalist and human rights defender Naky Soto are still facing criminal charges based on those allegations. On April 5, 2019, the IACHR expressed its concern about judicial harassment against human rights defenders. The Commission has observed a renewed escalation of harassment patterns following stigmatizing comments made by authorities of the State. Based on the reports the Commission has had access to, at least five people who had previously been portrayed in a negative light in TV programs have been arrested without a warrant.

The IACHR and the OHCHR stress that States have an obligation to investigate such events on their own initiative and to punish their perpetrators and masterminds. Both organizations call on States to exhaust all relevant lines of investigation, including any possible links between murders, disappearances and other attacks and efforts to defend human rights. Such investigations must be carried out with due diligence, in a thorough, serious and impartial way. The OHCHR and the IACHR further stress that, in the cases of women human rights defenders and of other particularly vulnerable groups, States must duly consider the inherent risk involved in their work, which compounds the discrimination they face based on their gender or on the fact that they belong to groups that have historically been discriminated against. In that context, States must take action to protect them and adopt a gender-based, inter-cultural approach in their investigations. States must take any reasonable measures to prevent acts of violence against people who belong to those groups and to remedy the context of discrimination that encourages the repetition of such events.

The IACHR and the OHCHR highlight the essential role played by human rights defenders to strengthen and consolidate democracies, and they stress States’ obligation to comprehensively protect the right to defend rights. Similarly, States must increase their efforts to promote respect, prevent attacks, investigate cases and protect human rights defenders, so they may do their work freely. It is urgent for States in the Americas to take positive measures to promote a human rights culture and an atmosphere that is free from violence and threats, by acknowledging the value and the importance of the work done by human rights defenders and conducting serious and effective investigations into any human rights violations against those defenders.

Building an atmosphere where the right to defend human rights can be exercised requires clear State determination. The IACHR and the OHCHR acknowledge major progress in the region, including the recent adoption of a Protocol to Ensure the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Peru. They also note that Peruvian authorities have rejected attempts to misrepresent the nature of mechanisms to protect defenders and comments that stigmatize the work done by human rights defenders.

In Mexico, the federal government has made a public commitment to strengthening the Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists and is assessing the current situation, with OHCHR assistance. In El Salvador, the Justice Ministry is keeping up its panel discussions on issues concerning policing and prisons. Those discussions—involving human rights defenders and other actors—have proved important for debate on these issues. In Colombia, the National Public Prosecutor’s Office has reported some progress in identifying crime perpetrators. The Colombian government also announced recently that it was appointing specialist judges to try murders of social leaders.

Guyana became the first country in the region to ratify the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, also known as the Escazú Agreement [1]. The Escazú Agreement is the first legally binding international treaty that includes provisions on human rights defenders, particularly those who defend the environment. The IACHR and the OHCHR trust that this crucial step will soon be followed by the remaining countries in the region, to grant renewed recognition and protection to the work of human rights defenders.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is the main UN body in the field of human rights. The General Assembly entrusted the High Commissioner and her Office with the mission of promoting and protecting all the human rights of all people. The OHCHR provides assistance, in terms of technical competence and capacity-building, to support the on-site implementation of international human rights standards. The OHCHR helps governments—who have the primary responsibility to protect human rights—to comply with their obligations and supports individuals so they may stand up for their own rights. It also objectively flags human rights violations.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

 

[1] The Agreement was opened for signature on September 27, 2018 and has been signed by 16 countries in the region. Guyana ratified it on April 18.

 

No. 132/19