IACHR Press Office
Washington, D.C. – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is concerned about violence, intimidation, and criminalization targeting human rights defenders in the Americas during the first four months of 2022. The Commission asks States to foster an atmosphere where it is safe to advocate for human rights.
The IACHR warns that the Americas remain one of the world's most dangerous regions to exercise the defense of human rights. During the first four months of 2022, there have been many murders of human rights defenders in several countries in the region, along with threats, attacks, acts of harassment, and instances of criminalization for their legitimate work in defense of human rights.
At least five defenders were reportedly murdered in Brazil over this period. On February 17, the bodies of Ilma Rodrigues dos Santos, of the League of Poor Peasants (LCP, by its Portuguese acronym), and her husband Edson Lima Rodrigues were found in the municipality of Porto Velho, in the state of Rondônia. On February 10, 9-year-old Jonatas de Oliveira dos Santos was murdered in the municipality of Barreiros, in the state of Pernambuco, allegedly in retaliation against his father, community leader Geovane da Silva Santos, who was injured in the attack. On January 16, LGBTI activist Gabriel de Souza Araujo, a member of the Landless Workers Movement (MST, by its Portuguese acronym), was murdered in the municipality of Nova Venécia, in the state of Espírito Santo. The IACHR had previously condemned the murders of environmental defender José Gomes, his wife Marcia, and their underage daughter Joene in the São Félix do Xingu area in the state of Pará, as well as that of land rights defender José Francisco Lopes Rodrigues in the Cedro community in Arari, in the state of Maranhão.
In Colombia, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) received 71 complaints alleging murders of human rights defenders over this period, 11 of which have already been validated by the OHCHR. The Colombian Ombudsperson's Office said that 52 defenders had been murdered by the end of March 2022. In March, indigenous rights defender Sercelino Lana was murdered in Medio Atrato, Chocó; social leader Richard Betancourt was murdered in Argelia, Santa Clara; and indigenous rights defender Miller Correa was murdered in Toribio, Cauca. In February, indigenous leader Dilson Arbey Borja Roldán was murdered in Turbo, Antioquia; land defenders Teófilo Acuña Ribón and Jorge Tafur were murdered in San Martín, César; indigenous leader Luis Chamapuro Quiro was murdered in Medio San Juan, Chocó; and indigenous leader Julio César Bravo was murdered in Córdoba, Nariño. In January, indigenous rights defenders José Albeiro Camayo Guetio, Guillermo Chicana, and Breiner David Cucuñame López were all murdered in Buenos Aires, Cauca. The Colombian State said that the country's National Protection Unit is currently providing protection to 3,749 social leaders and that criminal gangs are the greatest threat for these individuals. The Colombian State further said that the public prosecutor's office plans to investigate any links between these murders and the victims' work in defense of human rights.
In Honduras, six murders of defenders were documented over the period January–March 2022. The Commission condemned the murder of Garifuna leader Alonso Salgado on May 1, before the home of fellow leader Zury Quintanilla, who was also injured in this attack in the Tela municipality in Atlántida, as well as the murder of environmental defender Justo Benítez Sánchez on April 30 in the municipality of San Francisco de Ojuera, in the department of Santa Bárbara. The OHCHR recorded four additional murders. In March, land rights defender Francisco Ruiz died in an attack in the La Brea hamlet in the municipality of Trujillo, in the department of Colón. In January, Tolupan indigenous activist and land rights defender Melvin Geovanny Mejía was found dead in the municipality of Morazán, in the Yoro department. The Commission also condemned the murders of indigenous leader and community journalist Pablo Isabel Hernández Rivera and Thalía Rodríguez, a trans woman who was a human rights defender.
In Mexico, the Commission was informed of the murders of human rights defender Luis Ortiz Donato, the leader of the Marquelia Citizen Council and a defender of Afro-Mexican persons, on April 28 in the state of Guerrero; indigenous peoples' rights defender Néstor Iván Merino Flores, a leader of the Assembly of Indigenous Peoples of Oaxaca, on March 20 in the state of Oaxaca; and environmental defender José Trinidad Baldenegro, on March 7 in the municipality of Guadalupe y Calvo, in the state of Chihuahua. The Mexican State informed the Commission that the authorities of competent jurisdiction would need to establish whether these murders were linked to the victims' defense of human rights.
In Peru, the Commission was informed of the murders of at least two rights defenders. The IACHR was told of the murder of Nomatsigenga leader Ulises Rumiche on April 19, on the road between San Martín de Pangoa and Sonomoro, and of environmental defender Juan Julio Fernández Hanco on March 21 in the Inambari area, in the province of Tambopata.
The IACHR notes with concern defender homicides perpetrated in other countries, including El Salvador and Guatemala. On February 6, Álvaro Marcos Román, a member of the Peasant Development Committee (CODECA, by its Spanish acronym), was murdered in the municipality of Santa María Xalapán, Jalapa, Guatemala. Women's rights defender Elizabeth De León, who actively supported women who were facing gender-based violence, was murdered in El Salvador on March 22.
The Commission is particularly concerned about the fact that most of these murders involve rights defenders who worked in defense of land, territory, or the environment or who were members of indigenous communities.
The IACHR urges States to conduct comprehensive, serious, and impartial investigations that start off with the hypothesis that the violence may have been linked to victims' efforts in defense of human rights. Similarly, the State must seek to adopt differentiated gender and ethnic–racial approaches when investigating, trying, and punishing these crimes and when providing reparations for the families of all victims, as well as providing guarantees of non-recurrence.
Over this period, the Commission has also been informed of the persistence of stigmatizing discourse against human rights defenders. In El Salvador, for instance, high officials continue to accuse organizations active in the defense of human rights of "working in association with gang members." In Venezuela, high officials of the State have used stigmatizing discourse and smear campaigns against the human rights organization PROVEA.
The Commission was informed about the alleged criminalization of Kenia Inés Hernández Montalván, who is allegedly being prosecuted in at least five criminal cases in Mexico, according to information provided by the State. Hernández Montalván is an indigenous rights defender, the coordinator of the group Colectivo Libertario Zapata Vive, and a member of the National Movement for the Release of Political Prisoners.
Criminalizing defenders encourages collective stigma and sends off an intimidating message. Launching unwarranted criminal investigations and other judicial complaints against defenders will scare them and may also lead them to end their efforts in defense of human rights. Among women who engage in these efforts in particular, criminalization discourages their activities, as well as increasing and worsening pre-existing social inequalities.
The Commission notes the release of eight water rights defenders from the Guapinol community in Honduras who had been in pretrial detention since 2019, following a decision made by the country's Supreme Court of Justice. Indigenous Maya Q'eqchi' leader and land rights defender Bernardo Caal Xol was also released after spending four years in prison, following a conviction for crimes linked to the defense of Maya Q'eqchi communities and to having denounced the launch of two hydroelectric plants in the department of Alta Verapaz, in northern Guatemala.
Human rights defenders play a crucial role to strengthen and consolidate democracies. The work of environmental defenders is also essential to ensure a balance between environmental protection and the sustainable development of countries in the Americas.
The IACHR stresses that States have the obligation to comprehensively defend the right to defend rights. Building an atmosphere where the right to defend human rights can be exercised requires clear State determination. It is therefore essential and urgent for States to take positive measures to promote a rights-based culture and an atmosphere that is free from violence and threats, to acknowledge the value and the importance of the work done by human rights defenders, and to seriously and effectively investigate any human rights violations against those defenders.
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.