Press Release

IACHR Calls on States to Protect and Preserve the Work of Human Rights Defenders During the COVID-19 Pandemic

May 5, 2020

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Washington, D.C. - Through its Rapid and Integrated Response Coordination Unit on the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) calls on States to protect and preserve during this crisis the work done by human rights defenders in the Americas. When taking action against the COVID-19 pandemic, States must pay particular attention to the needs of human rights defenders and to the differentiated impact of any measures on efforts to defend and monitor human rights.

The IACHR is deeply concerned about reports that, in some countries in the Americas, human rights defenders have been murdered while complying with lockdown, quarantine or preventive mandatory isolation measures in their own homes. The Commission is alarmed to see that the context of emergency measures taken by countries around the region may be used to attack human rights defenders. According to publicly available reports, since the COVID-19 pandemic started spreading around the Americas, human rights defenders have been murdered in countries including Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, and Mexico. Reports from Colombian civil society organizations saying that at least 21 social leaders have been murdered in the country since preventive mandatory isolation started on March 25 are particularly worrying.

In this context, the IACHR reminds States that they have an obligation to protect the lives and personal integrity of human rights defenders when these are at risk, even if such risk stems from the actions of non-State actors. This obligation becomes particularly relevant during the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when defenders face increased risks given emergency measures that restrict, among others, their freedom of movement.

The Commission further warns of the direct impact of this scenario on defenders’ efforts to defend and monitor human rights, amid states of emergency and other tools to restrict rights implemented in order to fight the pandemic. The IACHR has received reports from civil society organizations who note that human rights defenders are being prevented from pursuing their efforts to defend and monitor human rights. According to these reports, no exceptions or exclusions from lockdown measures have been granted to human rights defenders, although they have been granted to other groups including journalists. The Commission calls on States to assess the trade-off between their need to restrict rights in order to protect public health and their duty to preserve efforts to defend and monitor human rights in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, noting the differentiated impact of such measures on human rights defenders.

In this context, the IACHR expressed in Resolution 1/2020 its particular concern about restrictions and limitations of rights that might have disproportionate impacts on certain groups. The Commission highlighted the need to take positive, additional protection measures for these groups, given the restrictions on the work of the media and the arbitrary arrests of journalists and human rights defenders that are taking place in the context of the pandemic. In this resolution, the IACHR noted that, when issuing emergency and containment measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, States in the Americas must consider and apply intersectional perspectives and pay particular attention to the needs of groups who have historically been discriminated against or faced heightened risks—including human rights defenders and social leaders—and to the differentiated impact of emergency measures on these groups.

The Commission stresses that human rights defenders are an essential pillar to strengthen democracies in the Americas, because their efforts are motivated by a wish to ensure full enforcement of fundamental rights around the region. Their activities to oversee, report, and complain, as well as their support for victims, and their efforts to represent and defend individuals whose rights may be under threat, are particularly helpful to ensure that the human rights and fundamental liberties of all people in the Americas are respected, protected, and promoted. These efforts are essential in the current COVID-19 pandemic.

In this context, the IACHR calls on States in the region to implement protocols that enable defenders to do their work while observing the relevant health-related measures. States must facilitate the work and movement of journalists and human rights defenders, who play a crucial role during this public-health emergency, so they may monitor State action and report on it. States must not persecute or arrest human rights defenders for their efforts to supervise State action during the pandemic or for their work to record potential violations of fundamental rights. This entails not subjecting defenders to prosecution for their opinions under civil or criminal law, not arresting them based on legal concepts that are too broad or ambiguous, and not exposing them to the risk of suffering physical or virtual attacks.

Finally, the IACHR expresses its concern about human rights defenders whose efforts have been criminalized and who are currently deprived of liberty, particularly those who are serving pretrial detention. The Commission recently expressed its profound concern about the alarming conditions—in terms of health standards, hygiene, and overcrowding—faced by prison inmates in the Americas, which imply increased risks for the spread of COVID-19.

In this context, considering measures taken to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and the work of human rights defenders, the IACHR stresses the recommendations it made in paragraphs 29 and 30 of Resolution 01/2020. Further, it recommends that States:

1. Acknowledge the important, necessary work done by human rights defenders to defend and monitor rights in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

2. Take any action necessary to protect human rights defenders when their lives and personal integrity are at risk, by adopting effective, comprehensive protection strategies and adjusting protection schemes where needed, considering the heightened risks defenders face in the context of the spreading COVID-19 pandemic and the emergency measures adopted by States.

3. Protect the lives and personal integrity of human rights defenders who are complying with lockdown, quarantine or preventive mandatory isolation measures in their own homes or communities (States must promptly and diligently investigate murders and other attacks committed against human rights defenders in this context).

4. Reassess cases involving human rights defenders who are in pretrial detention to identify those where alternatives to deprivation of liberty may be suitable, and prioritizing the options of granting alternative measures—including conditional or early release and house arrest—for incarcerated human rights defenders who face health risks in case of a potential infection with COVID-19.

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. 101/20