Press Release

IACHR and UN Human Rights Presences Once Again Call for the Creation of a Safe, Favorable Environment for Human Rights Defenders in the Americas

November 27, 2019

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Washington, D.C. - Bogotá / Guatemala City / Mexico City / Panama City / Port-au-Prince / Santiago de Chile / Tegucigalpa / Washington, DC—As part 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 the presences of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed their concern over the ongoing—and, in some cases, increasing—patterns of violence and criminalization targeting people who defend human rights in the Americas between May and September 2019.

The IACHR and the OHCHR presences drew attention to the high numbers of murders of human rights defenders and social leaders in the region, along with the attacks, threats, harassment, acts of intimidation, stigmatization and smear campaigns, and criminalization processes that have a negative impact on defenders’ work.

It is particularly concerning that some of the attacks recorded during this period targeted defenders who are beneficiaries of precautionary measures granted by the IACHR and protection measures adopted by national mechanisms. The high levels of violence involved in the attacks on this group are striking. In many cases, the murders in question were carried out in the presence of the victims’ children, relatives, and loved ones.

The IACHR and the OHCHR expressed concern that Colombia remains the country with the highest number of murders of human rights defenders and social leaders in the region.

From January to the time of publication, the Colombia office has documented the murder of 63 defenders. These 63 cases have taken place in a total of 19 of the country’s departments. The Colombia office is still in the process of verifying a further 43 murders in which the victim is presumed to be a human rights defender. Between May 1 and September 30, the dates which this press release focuses on, the OHCHR confirmed the murder of 33 human rights defenders (seven women, one of whom identified as LGBTI, and 26 men). Several of the victims were allegedly people who defended land and territory by reporting the presence of armed groups and/or opposing illegal economic activity.

These cases include the murder of Mauricio Fernando Lezama Rengifo, who was killed on May 9 in Arauca department while making a short film about the life of the leader Mayo Villareal. On July 20, Humberto Díaz¬—a peasant leader who was president of the Communal Action Board in the village of Guadalupe, which spearheaded social and community development in the town of Gigante, Hula—was allegedly ambushed in his house along with his family by an unidentified armed subject who shot at him several times, eventually killing him. Likewise, the OHCHR’s presence in Colombia received information on the murder of five people who held some kind of leadership role among the Nasa people, three of whom belonged to the Indigenous Guard. Both organizations also noted with concern the reported murders of several people who had decided to run for office in the October 2019 departmental and local elections. According to the Electoral Observation Mission (EOM), seven candidates have been murdered in the period leading up to the elections (July 27 to date). One of these candidates was a human rights defender.

In Honduras, another source of concern are the murders and other acts of violence targeting defenders during protests and marches organized by the healthcare and education sectors that took place in different parts of the country in the last few months. According to the information gathered, state security forces have allegedly used excessive force to deter protests. Four people died from gunshot wounds, including one minor.

Likewise, both the IACHR and the OHCHR condemned the murders of at least ten human rights defenders who were going about their work outside the context of the protests, such as the environmentalist Roberto Antonio Argueta Tejada, who was killed on August 28, 2019. Along with 32 other people, he had allegedly already fallen victim to other acts of criminalization for defending the San Pedro and Guapinol rivers. The two organizations also condemned the murder of Bessy Ferrera, a trans woman who defended the rights of LGBTI people and people living with HIV. On July 8, she was attacked and killed by unknown assailants from a vehicle. Another trans woman was reportedly also injured in this attack. Both organizations noted that there is an ongoing investigation into these events and that two people have been arrested. On September 26 and 29, respectively, the Tolupán indigenous defenders Milgen Adán Soto Ávila, who was part of the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (MADJ), and Adolfo Redondo, who was the coordinator of the local support committee for the El Portillo Indigenous Tribe Council, were both found dead in Yoro department. The IACHR and the OHCHR expressed their regret over the murders of human rights defenders in Tolupán and urged that measures be taken to fight impunity.

The IACHR and the OHCHR remain concerned over the killing of human rights defenders in Mexico. As of September 2019, 15 murders of human rights defenders have been recorded in the country this year. These include biologist José Luis Álvarez Flores, a defender of the right to a healthy environment, who had previously received threats after he spoke out against the use of natural resources in Chiapas and Tabasco.

Both the IACHR and the OHCHR expressed particular concern regarding violence against people defending the right to land in Brazil. The victims included Aluciano Ferreira dos Santos, a farmer and member of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), who was killed on June 5, 2019, in Brejo da Madre de Deus, Pernambuco, by four gunshots while on his way to be interviewed at a local radio station. On June 11, 2019, Carlos Cabral Pereira was killed in his home by armed men traveling on a motorcycle. Cabral Pereira was the president of the Union of Rural Workers of Rio Maria and a member of the board of directors of the Unified Workers’ Central of Brazil. MST activist Luis Ferreira da Costa was also murdered during a protest on July 18, 2019, when a man intentionally ran into demonstrators in Valinhos, São Paulo, with his truck. July 22, 2019, brought the murder of the indigenous leader Emyra Wajãpi. The IACHR and the OHCHR took note of the ongoing investigations into this case.

In response to the harassment, intimidation, and threats against human rights defenders in the region, both organizations expressed their concern over the number of cases that have been recorded in recent months. In Brazil, federal deputy and LGBTI activist David Miranda said that he had informed the federal police in writing of new death threats against him in June. These threats came on top of those received by his husband, Glenn Greenwald, while going about his work as a journalist. On August 10, human rights defender Antônio Luiz Marchioni received death threats from religious extremists after taking part in a discussion on sexual and reproductive rights and drug policy.
In Colombia, on May 14, several members of environmental organizations in Cajamarca received threats from the illegal armed group known as the Black Eagles. According to the information that was gathered on these threats, they may have been related to resistance to mining projects in the region. In the same month, pamphlets allegedly made by the same group were circulated on social media sites, targeting seven women social leaders. On June 25, social leaders and journalists allegedly received fresh threats, this time through menacing pamphlets that were apparently made by the group known as Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia. According to local media, the pamphlets targeted the indigenous leaders Zenu, Israel Aguilar, and Andrés Betin and the journalist Rafael Morelo.

In Cuba, human rights defenders have continued to fall victim to police harassment and intimidation. These acts consist of short, arbitrary arrests before, during, or after these defenders exercise their right to free association or freedom of expression. In May, the university professor and LGBTI+ activist Oscar Casanella was allegedly arrested and for having taken part in a demonstration to defend the rights of LGBTI people in Havana. According to publicly available information, at the time of his arrest, Casanella was beaten on the chest and abdomen by four police officers and then taken to hospital. On May 16, LGBTI rights defender Leodan Suarez was arrested before taking part in a meeting with the Human Rights Ambassador from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands to discuss the current situation of the LGBTI population in Cuba. According to publicly available information, while under arrest she was humiliated in relation to being trans and was also denied food and medication.

In Haiti, the defender Gérald Guillaume, coordinator of the NGO IDETTE (Initiative Départementale Contre la Traite et le Trafic des Enfants), reportedly received anonymous death threats by telephone on July 23 and 24. Since the start of September 2018, he has been the target of threats related to his work with IDETTE, due to his having made public cases of sexual violence against children that took place in Grand’Anse department. In August, two members of Haiti’s national human rights institution (Office de la Protection du Citoyen d’Haïti, OPC) were reportedly intimidated after reporting seriously irregularities during a trial.

A state of emergency was declared in Guatemala on September 4, suspending the exercise of various rights, including the rights to peaceful assembly and demonstration, in 22 municipalities in the country. The situation lasted 60 days. Two human rights organizations, the Q’eqchi’ Ombudsman’s Office and the Guillermo Torriello Foundation in El Estor, Izabal, had to suspend their activities during the state of emergency for fear of suffering reprisals over their activities defending human rights. On September 27, during the state of emergency, a community radio station that broadcasts information on human rights in the region, Q’eqchi’ Xyaab’ Tzuultaq’a, was raided and shut down by state authorities. The state of emergency was announced just weeks after the July 19 granting of a provisional injunction by the Constitutional Court of Guatemala, which temporarily suspended the license of the Guatemalan Nickel Company (GCN), which is also based in the municipality of El Estor, Izabal. The complaint, which was put forward by more than 60 El Estor residents, most of whom are members of the Traditional Fishermans’ Union, alleges that the license was granted without consulting the indigenous Q’eqchi’ people, who are affected by the mining activity, which allegedly has a negative impact on the environment.

In connection with the demonstrations that have been organized as part of the healthcare and education strike in Honduras, both the IACHR and the OHCHR were informed that demonstrators and members of the Platform to Defend Public Health and Education were systematically intimidated and harassed at work due to their role in organizing these demonstrations and taking part in them. These cases include the dismissal of Marco Garay Caballero, president of the College of Dental Surgeons of Honduras (CCDH), in August, on the grounds that his involvement in the Platform to Defend Public Health and Education represented a conflict of interests. Likewise, on June 14, the IACHR decided to grant precautionary measures in favor of the members of the Organization of Young Defenders and Promoters of Human Rights (JOPRODEH). The request for precautionary measures alleged that these young leaders are at risk after reportedly suffering acts of violence, intimidation, and harassment against them in connection with their work as human rights defenders. With regard to environmental defenders, attacks, threats, and acts of aggression such as crop burning continue to target the members of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), especially its leader Rosalina Domínguez and the Río Blanco Community.

Both the IACHR and the OHCHR expressed their deep concern at the constant acts of harassment and intimidation targeting defenders of migrants and refugees in Mexico. According to publicly available information, on June 20 and 23, officers from the federal, municipal, and military police forces and the National Guard allegedly organized inspections of migrants outside the Migrant Shelter in Saltillo, Coahuila, even though this is prohibited by Mexico’s Migration Law. Likewise, in response to complaints over the supposed arbitrariness of this operation, members of security forces allegedly proceeded to film and take photos of Migrant Shelter staff with their personal devices.

In Nicaragua, the IACHR and the OHCHR have documented cases of harassment and surveillance of human rights defenders, members of civil society organizations, and groups of lawyers whose work focuses on defending victims of human rights violations and people who are deprived of their freedom. These acts were allegedly perpetrated directly by state agents or are tolerated by them, and the context in which these groups are going about their work is adverse. Two organizations are in a particularly vulnerable situation: the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) and the Permanent Commission on Human Rights (CPDH), which the IA Court has granted provisional measures in favor of. On June 1, the IACHR decided to expand the precautionary measure that the CPDH had already been granted to include 24 members of the organization. Likewise, on September 14, the IACHR granted precautionary measures in favor of Freddy Alberto Navas López, a leader of the campesino movement who was deprived of his freedom for over six months, supposedly due to his involvement in the movement and his role in leading actions expressing dissent with the current government. After being released on June 11, he allegedly became a target of monitoring and harassment once again.

In Peru, the IACHR learned that three armed people fired five shots at the home of Germán López, president of the Ashaninka Nueva Austría Community in Huánuco on July 29. This act of intimidation was allegedly part of retaliations by groups attempting to appropriate indigenous territories.

In Venezuela, the IACHR and the OHCHR received information about alleged acts of intimidation and threats by armed civilian groups and state security forces. In August, the defender Manuel Mir, who is a community leader of Parroquia 23 de Enero in Caracas, was allegedly threatened by members of an armed civilian group operating in the area. On July 15, the journalist and human rights defender Violeta Santiago was allegedly subjected to threats and intimidation by an agent of the Bolivarian National Guard when she went to a service station to verify whether fuel was available in the city of Mérida. The director of the Coalition for Human Rights and Democracy, the attorney Alonso Medina Roza, was harassed at the Palace of Justice on July 1 by officials of the Department of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM), who attempted to seize his cell phones to check their contents. On September 6, officials from the Scientific and Criminal Investigation Corps (CICPC) allegedly raided the residence of the attorney Tamara Suju, a human rights defender who is outside the country. That same week also brought a raid on the residence of Professor Carmen Alguindigue, a defender of university students at the centers for human rights at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) and the Metropolitan University (UNIMET).

The IACHR and the OHCHR have repeatedly expressed their concern over the acts of criminalization faced by human rights defenders in the Americas, through which they are subjected to unfounded criminal proceedings that seek to hinder their work and discredit the causes they defend.

According to the information received by the two organizations, defenders of migrants have been investigated inappropriately for alleged crimes that include human trafficking. During its working visit to the southern border of the United States (August 19–23), the IACHR received information on the situations being faced by defenders of migrants’ rights, such as: (i) restrictions on meeting with the people they are assisting, especially if they are being detained; (ii) threats and harassment, including sometimes through formal accusations that allege they have broken the law; and (iii) refusals to let them make telephone calls and restrictions on their mobility.

The special procedures of both the UN (June 5, 2019) and the IACHR (July 23, 2019) expressed concern over the criminalization of Scott Warren, a university professor who is a member of the civil society organization No More Deaths, who faced three felony charges for offering migrants in Ajo, Arizona, water, food, clean clothes, and a bed to sleep in.

In Mexico, defender Estela Ángeles Mondragón has become the target of a smear campaign and criminalization despite her decades-long history of defending the rights of indigenous peoples, which included establishing major legal precedents for the restitution of land to indigenous communities that had been dispossessed of this.

In Brazil, human rights defenders and land defense groups were subjected to legal and police harassment through forced evictions from their camps. On August 7, residents of the Marisa Letícia Commune, which is organized by MST in São Gonçalo do Amarante, Rio Grande do Norte, were forcibly evicted by the Military Police without warning. The Marisa Letícia Commune was created on June 21 by 140 families and, according to publicly available information, the eviction process involved violence and the use of tractors to destroy the belongings of those who were living there.

In Guatemala, following the departure of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) from the country on September 3, there are concerns over the risk of reprisals against human rights defenders, including former CICIG officials, as a consequence of their work to combat impunity and corruption. This is compounded by patterns of attacks and reprisals, including the stigmatization, criminalization, and harassment of independent prosecutors, judges, and magistrates, especially those that handle cases related to the crimes of corruption and transitional justice.

In Nicaragua, the IACHR and the OHCHR have repeatedly spoken out against the inappropriate use of criminal law to hinder the work of human rights defenders. Both organizations have received information regarding the criminalization of Maria Oviedo, a human rights defender and member of the Permanent Commission on Human Rights in Nicaragua, who was found guilty on August 29 of obstructing the work of a police lieutenant who had attacked her physically and verbally at the Masaya delegation on July 26, 2019, while he was interrogating the person she was defending.

In Cuba, the IACHR has received information on acts of criminalization of human rights defenders by charging them with criminal offenses such as antisocial behavior, contempt, and terrorism. On August 7, 2019, the Guantánamo Provincial Court sentenced journalist Roberto Quiñones to a year in prison for the crime of resistance and disobedience, following a trial that began after he was arrested for five days in April. On this point, the Office of the IACHR’s Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression expressed its concern over the ongoing criminalization and harassment of journalists and human rights defenders in Cuba.

On the subject of slander and other forms of speech seeking to discredit individuals, the IACHR and the OHCHR received information on statements of this type having been made against environmental activists in relation to the fires that have seriously affected Brazil and Bolivia in recent months. In Brazil, the office of the president insinuated on August 21 that civil society organizations might be behind the recent fires in the Amazon, the most serious recorded in recent years. In Bolivia, the demonstrators and activists who attended the August 24 demonstration to defend the environment and the Amazon were singled out as troublemakers in a public statement from the office of the president.

The IACHR and the OHCHR have also continued to receive information on attempts to discredit and restrict the work of human rights defenders in Venezuela. On May 4, during his television program, the president of the Constituent Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, spoke out once more against the work of individuals and organizations who defend human rights, arguing that they are conspiring against Venezuela and have “accepted money” from “imperialist sources.” He then warned that a law would be passed to impose severe punishments on these groups. Likewise, on July 3, he published a video accusing defense attorneys Joel García and Naremi Silva of having taken part in an alleged conspiracy to plan the escape of Congressman Juan Requesens.
Both organizations expressed their concern over the high levels of impunity surrounding the murders of human rights defenders in the region.

The IACHR and the OHCHR noted that states must ensure that human rights defenders perform their advocacy work in an appropriate environment that is free of obstacles. States should implement comprehensive protection policies for human rights defenders, with a special emphasis on preventing, protecting them from, and investigating into aggressions against them, taking into account the different approaches used by those who defend land, territory, the environment, indigenous peoples, people of African descent, campesinos, and LGBTI people.

The IACHR and the OHCHR noted once more that states must take urgent action to investigate into acts of violence against human rights defenders and punish those responsible for masterminding and implementing these. This should include pursuing lines of investigation that contemplate or do not rule out in advance the hypothesis that such violence may be committed as a result of the victims’ human rights advocacy work. These investigations must be exhaustive, serious, and impartial and be conducted with due diligence. The IACHR and the OHCHR call on states to step up their efforts to take on the structural impunity around crimes against human rights defenders.
Both organizations acknowledged progress such as the signing of the Pact to Guarantee the Rights of Female Human Rights Defenders and Leaders in Colombia on July 11. This pact contains six core points, including the recognition of work promoting and defending human rights, and the commitment on the part of national government bodies to work to guarantee and promote the human rights of female defenders and leaders, guaranteeing that their lives and advocacy work will be protected using a gender approach.

Both the IACHR and the OHCHR drew attention to how several human rights platforms have converged in Colombia to work as the National Roundtable on Guarantees for Nonrepetition and the Agrarian, Campesino, Ethnic, and Popular Summit, which is being promoted by the Ministry of the Interior with technical support from the OHCHR and the UNDP. The body is working to design and draft a Comprehensive Policy for the Defense of Human Rights.

In Mexico, the OHCHR and the IACHR acknowledged how open the country’s government was to the OHCHR’s Mexico office carrying out a diagnostic exercise on the functioning of the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, and that the government had accepted all 104 of the recommendations made as a result of this. Another noteworthy achievement is the liberation of six indigenous water defenders from Tlanixco. These victims of criminalization had unjustly spent between 12 and 15 years in prison. The conviction in the case of the murder of indigenous defender Isidro Baldenegro is also a step forward, as it is the first time a murderer of a human rights defender has been convicted in Chihuahua.

The IACHR and the OHCHR applauded the fact that on September 26, the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Uruguay, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines deposited their instruments of ratification of the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (the Escazú Agreement), the first binding international treaty to recognize the obligation to protect human rights defenders, specifically those who defend the environment. The countries that have ratified the agreement also include Guyana, which deposited its instrument on April 18, 2019. In the same vein, the two organizations wish to acknowledge the fact that 21 other states in the Americas decided to sign the agreement and trust that they will confirm their commitment to protecting the environment and human rights by going on to ratify it.

The IACHR and the OHCHR called once more on states and society as a whole to step up their efforts to create a safe, favorable environment for human rights defenders in the Americas. States should continue to move toward developing, implementing, and strengthening mechanisms and public policies to prevent and protect the work of human rights defenders and to adopt all legislative, administrative, and other measures needed to guarantee the right to defend human rights.

The IACHR and the OHCHR applauded the individuals who carry out this essential work in the Americas and urged states in the region to acknowledge the fundamental role that human rights defenders play in guaranteeing democracy and the rule of law.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is the leading UN entity on human rights. The UN General Assembly has entrusted both the High Commissioner and her office with a mandate to promote and protect all human rights for all people. The OHCHR provides assistance in the form of technical expertise and capacity-development in order to support the implementation of international human rights standards on the ground. It assists governments (which bear the primary responsibility for the protection of human rights) to fulfill their obligations and supports individuals to claim their rights. It also speaks out objectively on 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.

No. 288/19