Defenders under attack: Rights advocates face threat

Human rights advocates the world over are increasingly threatened, attacked and silenced. The message is clear. No one is immune and many advocates across the region will be unable to operate freely and without fear of retaliation

In February, hundreds of Filipino participants in the peace process, environmental activists and human rights defenders were labelled “terrorists” by their own government. The security of the individuals on this list is at stake, and some have fled the Philippines.  The UN independent expert on the rights of indigenous peoples –Victoria Tauli-Corpuz – was on this list. This followed the vilification only months before of another UN independent expert – Agnès Callamard – who deals with extra-judicial executions. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared that he wanted to slap her, and later announced that he would like to throw other UN human rights officials to the crocodiles. The national Commission on Human Rights in the Philippines was threatened with a zero budget and its former chair, Senator Leila de Lima, is in detention for her advocacy.

Even if extreme, such sweeping threats against hundreds of civil society representatives, defenders of human rights, and UN experts labelled “terrorists” in the Philippines are symptomatic of worrying regional trends.

If governments in the region can target high profile human rights defenders and those associated with the UN with impunity, what is the message to others at community level who are not afforded the same visibility?  This is likely to increase fear in those seeking the protection of the UN and other human rights actors.

Human rights advocates the world over are increasingly threatened, attacked and silenced. The message is clear. No one is immune and many advocates across the region will be unable to operate freely and without fear of retaliation.

In the run up to the 2018 national elections in Cambodia, the government has cracked down on the opposition, independent media and civil society. In February it publicly targeted human rights defenders, including election watchdogs, groups that had monitored the 2017 commune elections, and land activists accused of supporting a purported foreign-backed “revolution” to topple the government. In Myanmar, there were reports of violent reprisals by Tatmadaw, the armed forces, against civilians who met with Yanghee Lee, UN independent expert on Myanmar, following her visit to Rakhine State.  These include killings, beatings and rape. Lee received credible information that Tatmadaw attacked a village in Rakhine a couple of days after her visit as a measure against the community for those that spoke to her during a visit to the village in 2017. The Tatmadaw gathered the villagers together and subjected them to severe mistreatment, beatings and assaults.

Bogus accusations of abetting terrorism are a common justification that we hear from governments to defend the targeting of the UN’s important civil society partners.

I recently met with a group of human rights defenders from across South-East and South Asia about their experiences, which in some cases have been made worse by speaking out or if they share information with the UN. The stories about these reprisals were common – they have been charged with defamation, blasphemy and disinformation. They are increasingly threatened and targeted for their work – indeed some have been labelled “terrorists”.

Some governments feel threatened by any dissent.

Opposition to economic development and investment projects seems to incite particular ire. Agribusiness, extractive industries and large-scale energy initiatives, including those that involve indigenous peoples’ land, often bear the brunt of the backlash.

Women’s rights activists and advocates of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons seem to be particularly targeted. Many are ostracised by their communities, labelled outcasts, or branded immoral. Sexual violence is part of this backlash, including rape threats.  Those working for religious freedom have been called “anti-Islam”, they and their families threatened or harassed.

Civil society in the region faces visa restrictions, confiscation of passports, travel bans and arbitrary police investigations and detention.  Activists’ movements are thwarted and their interactions with those abroad restricted. They are facing administrative and legal repercussions for their advocacy – selectively applied laws, or measures undermining their legal legitimacy or ability to receive funding to survive.

In some of the most extreme cases, arbitrary detention, denial of medical treatment, extra-judicial killings and disappearance are the result. Despite what they are facing, the strength and resilience of many of the defenders that we deal with is heartening, and we owe it to them to support their efforts.  There are many countries where civil society remains vibrant, and we are working closely with them.

Governments that are worried about dissent should see the expression of new ideas as an opportunity for dialogue. At the same time, violations by non-state actors must be taken as seriously as those by government actors.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is important for the collective human rights community, and the UN membership at large, to recall the circumstances that led to the development of this Declaration and its unanimous adoption.

We are taking these allegations seriously, and addressing particular incidents of reprisals with governments. Civil society has to be heard – for the sake of us all.

Gilmour is the UN Assistant Secy-Gen for Human Rights, New York