Killings of human rights activists nearly doubled in a year - new report and campaign

Lenca indigenous women protest against the murder of Honduran enviromnentalist Berta Caceres in Tegucigalpa on April 5, 2016. She was shot dead on 2 March that year after campaigning against the construction of a hydroelectric dam © ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images

Journalists, lawyers, teachers, women’s rights activists and others who defend human rights across the world are facing unprecedented levels of intimidation and violence from governments, armed groups and businesses, Amnesty International has warned in a report published today (16 May).

The 44-page report, Human rights defenders under threat – a shrinking space for civil society, details how standing up for human rights has become an increasingly deadly pursuit: In 2016, 281 people were killed for doing so, up from 156 in 2015, according to evidence from the NGO Front Line Defenders. 

The report also notes that in 2016:

  • At least 22 countries saw people killed for peacefully standing up for human rights
  • In 94 countries they were threatened or attacked
  • In 68 countries, they were arrested or detained solely because of their peaceful work
  • In 63 countries, they faced smear campaigns

Amnesty International’s Secretary General Salil Shetty said:

“From President Putin to President Xi and President el-Sisi, leaders across every continent are increasingly dismantling the foundations needed for a free, just and equal society. By removing their right to protest, placing them under surveillance, and targeting them and their communities with harassment, threats and physical attacks, governments are choking off the oxygen supply to those standing up for our rights.

“When they are not threatening or harassing them, governments of all persuasions are attempting to cultivate open hostility towards human rights defenders by peddling demonising rhetoric that portrays these activists as terrorists or foreign agents. This could not be further from the truth.”

Growing arsenal of tools used to crack down on activists

The combination of mass surveillance, new technology, the misuse of laws and crackdowns on peaceful protests has created unprecedented levels of danger for human rights activists, Amnesty’s report warns.

Among the emerging trends is the rampant use of new technologies and targeted surveillance, including online, to threaten and silence activists.

Exiled Bahraini human rights activists have been tracked by their government using spyware, and governments across the world are ordering companies to disclose encryption keys and decrypt personal online communications with little thought to the consequences. In the UK, police have put journalists under surveillance in order to identify their sources.

In places like Mexico and Russia, troll networks are increasingly generating trending misinformation campaigns to discredit and stigmatise human rights defenders like journalists.

These new trends add to the already dangerous arsenal of tools of suppression, including killings and enforced disappearances, crackdowns on the right to peaceful protest and misuse of criminal, civil and administrative laws to persecute human rights defenders.

New Amnesty campaign to end these attacks

The report has been published to coincide with the launch of a new global Amnesty campaign, ‘Brave’, which demands an end to attacks on human rights defenders around the world and calls on individuals and world leaders to stand with all those who fight against injustice and hate.

Amnesty wants governments around the world to recognise the key role and contribution of those who defend human rights and to establish effective measures to protect them – a commitment they made when endorsing the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1998.

Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, said:

“The UK Foreign Office has given much needed support to human rights activists abroad, including those working to protect women’s and LGBTI rights, in countries like Burma, China, Colombia, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  

“To be a global champion for human rights activists, the next UK government must ensure its approach is consistent in all countries, and also promotes human rights at home.”

Amnesty’s campaign will highlight the cases of individuals facing imminent danger because of their human rights work. Two of those are Sakris Kupila in Finland and Azza Soliman in Egypt.

Sakris is a 20-year-old medical student and youth and transgender rights activist who has faced harassment, intimidation, threats of violence and open hostility, forcing him to take a year away from his education.

He is currently being denied legal gender recognition because he refuses to accept a diagnosis of mental disorder and enforced sterilisation, as required by Finnish law to proceed with transition. Despite these challenges, Sakris is determined to continue his work, so that all transgender people may enjoy their rights.

Azza Soliman founded the Centre for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance in Cairo, which provides legal aid, support and literacy lessons for women, especially those who have experienced domestic abuse and rape. She has been targeted with smear campaigns, government surveillance and faces constant harassment by security forces and pro-government media for her work helping women victims of torture and arbitrary detention.

Recently Azza was arrested, interrogated and charged with tax evasion, operating a civil society organisation without proper registration, and with slandering Egypt’s image by claiming that women in the country face rape. She has been banned from travelling and her assets and those of her organisation have been frozen. She could be sentenced to many years in prison.

Salil Shetty said:

“From Frederick Douglass through to Emily Pankhurst, Rosa Parks, B.R. Ambedkar and Nelson Mandela, history is replete with stories of ordinary people who refused to accept the status quo and stood for what is right.

“That spirit of bravery is still alive today. Whether it is the likes of Malala Yousafzai or Chelsea Manning, there are people here and now taking enormous risks for us.

“Without their courage, our world is less fair, less just and less equal. That is why today we are calling on everyone – not just world leaders – to stand with human rights defenders and protect the brave.”

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