In early March 2020, just before the novel coronavirus exploded across global headlines, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Michael Forst presented a report before the Human Rights Council on a deadly pandemic in Colombia: human rights defenders, especially those defending their territory and the environment, were dying at alarmingly high levels due to unchecked rates of violence, threats and rampant impunity.
Months later, with lockdowns underway and death tolls rising, a report by Global Witness scored Colombia as a global ground-zero for environmental defenders. The same document also found that of deadliest countries for defending environmental rights across the world, five were in Latin America. According to the report, “over two thirds of the murders of HRDs took place in Latin America” with killings in Honduras increasing from four in 2018 to 14 in 2019, making it the country with the highest percentage increase. The Amazon meanwhile saw 33 deaths, 90% of those in Brazil.
Sadly, the data shows that when it remains unchecked, violence against defenders is viral. Furthermore, if we fail to find an appropriate treatment, we will only continue to lose the best line of defense against the destruction of our forests, jungles, rivers; and the preservation of equality and democracy.
On human rights defenders’ day, here's three main takeaways from 2020 that can guide our important work advocating for those who defend our rights and environment in the new year:
First, any of us can be a human rights defender from the moment we protest peacefully on the streets, litigate cases in a courtroom, or denounce crimes online. Recognizing the value of HRDs supports our own ability to dissent and dream. Violence and threats should not be naturalized as the necessary toll for defending rights.
According to a global survey of 196 human rights defenders conducted by the Center for Justice and International Law finalized in early 2020, 85% of participants had, or knew first hand of someone who had received some form of threat because of their work.
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