IACHR Notes Persistently Alarming Violence Against Rights Defenders Over the Period May–August 2023

October 20, 2023

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Washington, D.C. – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is concerned about persistently alarming violence against human rights defenders over the period May–August 2023. The Commission urges States to take action to prevent this violence and to investigate it and punish its perpetrators and masterminds.

Over the period May–August 2023, the IACHR found that violence against rights defenders remained alarmingly high in the Americas. At least 36 defenders were murdered in the region in these four months.

The Commission notes with concern that most murders continue to target activists who focus on the defense of land, territories, and/or the environment. The IACHR stresses that human rights defenders play a crucial role to strengthen and consolidate democracies and that the work of environmental rights defenders is essential to ensure a balance between environmental protection and sustainable development.

In Brazil, at least three human rights defenders were killed over these four months, according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). On August 20, indigenous leader Venancio Xirixana died in hospital after an attack on April 29 at the Uxiú community, in the Alto Mucajaí region, on Yanomami indigenous land. On August 17, Quilombola leader Bernadete Pacífico was murdered in Salvador, in the state of Bahía. According to public reports, three individuals were arrested for their alleged involvement in this killing. On May 1, the body of Yanomami indigenous leader Angelita Prororita Yanomami—who had been missing for over a month—was found in Boa Vista, Roraima.

In Colombia, the OHCHR confirmed 23 murders of defenders, while a further 36 were pending confirmation. In July, the following indigenous, social, community, and LGBTI rights defenders were murdered in Colombia: Salomón Durán in Arauca, Arauca; Franklin Elías Pabón Camacho in Malambo, Atlántico; Yonnis García Nastacuas in Ricaurte, Nariño; and César Tapias in Ituango, Antioquia.

In June, 13 rights defenders, community leaders, and indigenous and Afro-descendant social and communal rights defenders were murdered in the country: Nelson Medina Muñoz in Gigante, Huila; Marcos Canticus Nastacuas in Barbacoas, Huila; Sebastián Lucumí in Suárez, Cauca; Alexander Chocué Peña in Caldono, Cauca; Alejandro Forero Valderrama in Tuluá, Valle; Emiro Nel Sánchez Medrano in San Pelayo, Córdoba; Marcelino Dagua Baicue in Jambaló, Cauca; Blanca Ligia Marín in Miraflores, Guaviare; Marcelino Martínez Cuadros in Tame, Arauca; Custodio Yucuna in Pedrera, Amazonas; Eglis Escorcia Carranza in Bosconia, Cesar; Luis Gabriel Martínez Pérez in Puerto Asís, Putumayo; and Jairo Enrique Tombe in El Tambo, Cauca.

In May, the following indigenous and social leaders were murdered in Colombia: Herinsol Libardo Mora Rodríguez in Tame, Arauca; Sergio Luis Castro in Tibú, North Santander; Yenifer Córdoba Henoa in Calamar, Guaviare; Jhon Fredy Rueda Rodríguez in Sincelejo, Sucre; Jhon William Vargas Peña in Jambaló, Cauca; and Diego Fernando Papamijo Chilito in Balboa, Cauca.

The Colombian State informed the IACHR about the issuance and implementation of the policy to dismantle organizations responsible for murders and threats against social leaders, human rights defenders, members of opposition political parties, and people that are part of the Peace Agreements and that is aimed at affecting criminal links from a human security perspective, seeking as the goal the protection and promotion of the human rights of vulnerable populations.

In Guatemala, human rights defenders Nicolasa López Méndez and Victoria Méndez Agustín, members of the Peasant Development Committee (CODECA in Spanish), were murdered in San Luís Jilotepeque, Jalapa, on May 8. In this regard, the Guatemalan State reported that it is taking the necessary actions to identify those responsible. The State of Guatemala pointed out that the case is in the Prosecutor's Office against the Crime of Femicide in the department of Jalapa and that there is a person linked to the process for the crime of murder and attempted murder.

In Honduras, the OHCHR noted that at least five defenders had been murdered over the period May–August 2023. In May, defender Tolupán Amílcar Vieda was murdered in Yoro, in the department of Yoro, while indigenous rights defender Jacinto Meza was killed in Dulce Nombre de Culmí, Olancho. The OHCHR noted the murders of three other defenders, whose names were not disclosed for security reasons.

In Mexico, the OHCHR reports that at least three defenders were murdered over these four months for reasons allegedly linked to their work. The following individuals were murdered over the period May–July: LGBTI rights defender Ulises Nava Juárez in Aguascalientes, Aguascalientes; environmental defender Álvaro Arvizu in Tlalmanalco, in the state of Mexico; and Teresa Magueyal, a woman who had been searching for her missing son, in Celaya, Guanajuato.

Given the high number of murders, it is urgent for States to conduct comprehensive, serious, and impartial investigations that start off with the hypothesis that this violence may be linked to victims' efforts in defense of human rights. Similarly, States must adopt differentiated gender and ethnic–racial approaches when investigating, trying, and punishing these crimes and when providing reparations for victims' families, as well as providing guarantees of non-recurrence.

Over the period May–August of 2023, the IACHR also received reports about other acts of violence. On May 21, Yenesina Guadalupe Durazo, a member of the Madres Buscadoras de Sonora organization (bringing together mothers who were searching for their missing children), went missing in Mexico. According to public reports, she returned to her home following a search conducted by the Office of the Attorney General of the state of Sonora.

The IACHR was also informed about the case of territorial rights defender Alejandro Torres Chocolatl, who was allegedly arrested in Mexico on June 30 and released on July 24 once it emerged that there was no evidence that he had committed any crimes involving attacks on communications infrastructure and transportation safety or other efforts to prevent public works.

The Mexican State indicated to the Commission that through the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists it has provided care to defenders and their families, incorporating them into it and implementing protection measures, which would be in force.

The IACHR stresses that 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 lead them to end their efforts in defense of human rights.

Between May and August 2023, the Commission was further informed of several instances of stigmatizing comments aimed at discrediting efforts in defense of human rights in countries like Guatemala, Mexico, and Venezuela. The IACHR is particularly concerned about the fact that these comments are sometimes made by States' highest authorities, who publicly question or even deny the independence and honesty of the work done by organizations for the defense of human rights and sometimes even link these organizations to criminal activities.

The Commission stresses that demeaning the work of rights defenders through public comments made by State officials promotes stigmatization and may also create a hostile, intolerant environment for defenders in certain social contexts, which may in turn undermine defenders' exercise of their right to freedom of association.

Given persistent violence against defenders, States must enable adequate conditions to protect the free exercise of the activities of human rights defenders and eradicate violations of these individuals' rights by officers of the State and private citizens.

States must support the unequivocal public recognition of the important work done by defenders in democratic societies. In this context, States must protect defenders from danger and quickly and effectively investigate all acts of violence against them, to prevent their recurrence.

The IACHR is a principal and autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), whose mandate stems from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has the mandate to promote the observance and defense of human rights in the region and acts as an advisory body to the OAS on the matter. The IACHR is made up of seven independent members who are elected by the OAS General Assembly in their personal capacity, and do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 248/23

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