Press Release

IACHR Presents Report on the Criminalization of the Work of Human Rights Defenders

July 28, 2016

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Washington, D.C. – Following the launch of its report, Criminalization of the Work of Human Rights Defenders, in Washington, D.C. on April 9, 2016, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) presented the report in three other countries of the region: Tegucigalpa, Honduras on June 2-3, 2016; Bogotá, Colombia on June 22-23, 2016; and Asunción, Paraguay on July 18-19, 2016. The objective of these visits was twofold – to increase awareness of the report among a broader audience and to promote the implementation of its recommendations. The Commission expresses its appreciation to the governments of Honduras, Colombia, and Paraguay for their efforts in facilitating the respective visits to disseminate the report.

In recent years, through its continuous monitoring work, the IACHR has noted a growing sophistication in the actions taken in several countries in the region by State and non-State actors to prevent, obstruct, and discourage the defense and promotion of human rights. One of these actions is the improper use or misapplication of the law, particularly criminal law, to the detriment of human rights defenders in order to obstruct their legitimate activities. Given that criminal law is the most restrictive and severe means available to the State for establishing liability for unlawful conduct, this report focuses on the various forms of manipulation of the punitive power of States, often preceded by stigmatizing statements and speeches against human rights defenders. It also identifies States’ obligations to prevent the use of criminal proceedings from becoming tools to hinder the defense of human rights, under international and inter-American Human Rights standards.

The criminalization of human rights defenders can take place through the filing of groundless allegations or complaints, which are frequently based on criminal offenses that do not conform to the principle of legality or do not meet inter-American standards vis-à-vis the behavior they intend to punish. Criminalization can also be displayed in the subjection of defenders to extended criminal proceedings and in the use of preventive measures with no procedural ends. This manipulation of criminal law to the detriment of defenders has become an obstacle that merits priority attention from the States, as it intimidates and paralyzes the work of human rights defenders, since their time, resources (financial and otherwise), and energy have to be devoted to their own defense and thus diverted from other activities.

The Commission has noted that the misuse of criminal law usually occurs in contexts where there are tensions or conflicts of interest with State and non-State actors. A clear example of this situation is the criminalization of activities in the defense of the rights of communities occupying territories of interest for the development of mega-projects and the exploitation of natural resources. In a similar sense, criminalization particularly affects certain at-risk groups of defenders, such as those who defend the right to the environment or land by campesino (farmer), indigenous, and Afro-descendent leaders; the defense of labor rights by union leaders; the defense of sexual and reproductive rights; and the defense of the rights of LGBT persons (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans). 

The Commission has monitored the phenomenon of criminalization and has consistently reminded States of their duty to investigate those who violate the law within their territory. This means that whenever a complaint is filed or when a prosecutable offense is committed, the State has an obligation to conduct full, impartial, prompt, thorough, independent, and timely investigations on the facts. However, as the Commission has previously noted, States also have an obligation to adopt all necessary measures to prevent investigations from culminating in unjust or unfounded trials of persons who legitimately call for the respect and protection of human rights. The IACHR reiterates in this report its call to States to ensure that neither their authorities nor third parties manipulate the punitive power of the State and its justice system in order to harass those dedicated to legitimate activities, such as the defense of human rights. 

In this report, the Commission documents a number of effects that have been observed in human rights defenders who have been criminalized, such as physical effects and impacts on personal integrity; negative impacts on family life; and social effects, such as mistrust and social ostracism. In addition, the Commission observes how the criminalization of defenders may generate negative impacts not only individually and in their families, but also collectively, affecting entire communities or the members of a particular organization, as it may contribute to the weakening and dissolution of civil society organizations. Moreover, the subjection to criminal proceedings or the mere threat of being subjected to criminal prosecution has a chilling and intimidating effect among defenders, who, for fear of reprisals, may stop working altogether in the defense of human rights.

The report ends with a list of recommendations, ranging from general recommendations to ones specifically tailored to prevent and protect human rights defenders and justice operators from criminalization or the effects thereof. Overall, the recommendations are oriented towards the need for States to: take preventative measures against criminalization, including public recognition of the important role of defenders in guaranteeing democracy and the rule of law in society; create spaces  at all government levels for open dialogue with civil society organizations to receive their feedback on existing and proposed policies  and legislative gaps; ensure that criminal offenses are formulated in a manner consistent with the principle of legality and other international law standards and that criminal proceedings are resolved within a reasonable time frame; strengthen justice mechanisms and guarantees for the independence and impartiality of justice operators, as in turn they ensure access to justice and judicial protection; and ensure that justice operators act in accordance with international human rights standards in the domestic justice system.

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 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.

No. 105/16