From citizens in Europe providing aid to migrants, NGOs in South America supporting the land rights of indigenous people, and campaigners in the Middle East risking their lives and livelihoods to defend the rights of women, human rights defenders (HRDs) come from all walks of life.
It has long been recognised that, in turn, these defenders need protection and support. In 1998, the UN adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders which recognised in international law the importance and legitimacy of human rights activity, and the need to protect it along with those who carry it out. But, despite this, incidences of violence and harassment of HRDs are on the rise.
Human rights organisations have reported that these attacks are increasingly linked to environmental and land rights. Global Witness’ annual report on attacks against land and environmental defenders reveals that 164 of these campaigners were killed in 2018 – on average more than three a week. It notes that mining was the biggest industry driver, with a number of brutal attacks also linked to hydropower, agribusiness and logging projects. The report points in particular to the shooting of Julián Carrillo in October 2018 – the sixth member of his family to die in two years after opposing mining on their community’s land in Mexico – and the death of the well-known Iranian conservationist Kavous Seyed-Emami, who died in prison in suspicious circumstances having been jailed over accusations of spying.
As well as the most extreme cases of violence, human rights groups highlight widespread intimidation, harassment, criminalisation and surveillance of HRDs. A 2017 Amnesty International report submitted to the UN points to the use of smear campaigns to delegitimise human rights defenders and undermine their work. In particular the report notes the stigmatisation of individuals and communities in Guatemala, Honduras, Peru and Paraguay who are fighting to protect their access to water and land, stating that ‘their work is delegitimised through public statements and false rumours’ and that they ‘face unfair and unfounded criminal proceedings’.
In response to this issue, Amnesty International set up its Human Rights Defenders team, which works globally to highlight violence against HRDs and campaign for their rights. Geographical caught up with the head of the team, Guadeloupe Marengo, following a screening of Aruanas, a new drama focusing on environmental defenders in the Amazon.
How did you come to lead the Human Rights Defenders team at Amnesty?
I’m Mexican and I’ve been in Britain now for about 24 years. I previously worked with women ex-prisoners here in this country, and then I moved to Amnesty to work mainly on Latin America. For many years I worked researching race-relations and running campaigns on human rights violations. Then, in 2016, I became head of the global Human Rights Defenders programme.
Why did Amnesty deem it necessary to set up the HRD team?
Human rights defenders work at the forefront, so they are the ones that get attacked. Here we are, 20 years on from the UN Declaration, and statistics on how many human rights defenders have been killed, from many human rights organisations, are at least one every other day. So there’s still a lot to do.
Where are the biggest risk areas?
The HRDs who are the most marginalised are those working on sexual and reproductive rights, those working on the climate crisis and those working on Indigenous people’s rights, land rights, and migration in Europe. These are the topics of the moment and because there is an intersectional type of discrimination, depending on where you are, they are even more at risk. In particular, the world is getting far more aware of climate issues, so those in power are actually attacking human rights defenders more. I think we’re at a tipping point, the world is suddenly realising that actually, we need to do something about this. I’m hoping that series such as Aruanas are going to help win more hearts and minds. The fact is Amnesty can’t make a series like that because it’s too expensive. So it’s good that those with the money are trying to contribute positively to humanity.
Who are the perpetrators of this kind of violence?
A combination of businesses with a vested interests and also governments, which should be the ones sending a very clear signal that intimidation of human rights defenders isn’t going to be tolerated. It’s is the mix of those in power – state and non-state actors.
How does Amnesty work to protect HRDs?
What we do is show the world what’s going on. We then approach government and businesses, either lobbying through letters, or through conversations with them, or at the UN. Through our international offices we interview rights workers, we interview victims, we go to the places, we double check the information and then we publish reports.
Are there any HRD cases that stand out to you in particular?
The issue in the UK of the Stansted 15 stands out to me – how the UK accused 15 people who stopped a plane that was going to deport LGBT+ people. One, for example, was going to be deported to Nigeria – she was a lesbian, her ex-partner was waiting and was going to kill her. The UK accused the 15 of terrorism-related offences for stopping the plane. I couldn’t believe the UK was doing that. Some of the 15 were given community service. Two were given suspended sentences and they are appealing that because even though they didn’t go to prison, the charges stand.
What are your goals for the time you are head of the HRD team?
One thing I would like to do is work more in coalition with other charities, to open up to others and ensure that we’re all working together towards campaigning instead of in silos. We have more in common than we don’t. If we all work together on these issues, I think we will have more impact.
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