Human rights defenders, whistle-blowers and witnesses face a huge variety of dangers while fighting to expose human rights abuses and related illegal resource use, land grabs and corruption. Recent reports show that defenders are facing ever higher risks, yet current protection mechanisms are failing to keep up. A reliance on national protection schemes which are often weak or non-existent is leaving defenders vulnerable. Where states are failing in their duty to protect defenders, there is a need for non-state actors to step in.
In 2016, Global Witness documented 200 defender deaths around the world; a record number. Front Line Defenders recorded 281 murders in the same year, almost half of which were of defenders fighting for land, indigenous or environmental rights. Given that many murders go unreported these figures likely underestimate the reality for defenders around the world.
In 2017, human rights defenders are being killed at a shocking rate. In Colombia, despite the provision of a national protection scheme tasked with safeguarding threatened persons, the reality facing human rights defenders, land rights activists and social leaders is alarming. In late November, Mario Castaño Bravo, land rights activist and leader of Madre Unión Community and La Large Tumaradó Community Council, was murdered in front of his family despite being under the protection of the UNP; just hours after his security escorts dropped him at his home. Hernán Bedoya, a land defender and leader of the community of Bijao Onofre, was murdered soon after – two days ago, on 8 December 2017. Hernán had been issued a bullet proof vest and cell phone by the UNP following persistent death threats, yet two gunmen got close enough to shoot him as they drove past on a motorbike. Both Hernán and Mario had re-secured their lands after long struggles for redress and each of them continued to help other displaced peasant farmers to seek land restitution. They peacefully challenged powerful oil palm, cattle ranching and banana plantation companies and denounced them for grabbing lands from displaced peasant farmers. As a consequence, they received multiple death threats and despite state protection, both are now dead.
Another Colombian defender, Willian Aljure, and members of his family have been seeking the return of their family farmland in the municipality of Mapiripán, after the arrival of palm oil company and RSPO member, Poligrow. Willian suffered years of surveillance and violent threats by paramilitary groups before finally being granted state protection by the Unidad Nacional de Protección (UNP). However, the commitment to confidentiality of the bodyguard that was assigned was doubtful, putting the defender at further risk. Suspicions of corruption, or the mismanagement of public funds at the UNP, arose when the assigned guard refused to accompany the defender on certain journeys because of a reported lack of resources, even though the victim had been assured of the allocation of funds for his protection. After prolonged complaints, repeated representations to the authorities and formal enquiries to the UNP by the UK embassy and the EU delegation in Colombia, the protection measures fortunately improved. However, underlying flaws and gaps in the national protection framework in Colombia remain a nationwide problem.
Human rights defenders across the world face a huge array of threats to their rights and physical security including: violent attacks, threats to families, enforced disappearances, illegal surveillance, travel bans, blackmail, sexual assault, judicial harassment and murder. Defenders often experience several of these threats before murder but without access to adequate protection they often fail to halt the escalation of danger.
Leaders and representatives of the Shipibo community of Santa Clara de Uchunya, Peru continue to face sinister death threats and harassment due to their protests against agribusiness operations managed by Peruvian oil palm company Ocho Sur SAC (formerly known as Plantaciones de Pucallpa) which have resulted in the land grab and clearance of over 6,000 hectares of community forests without their consent. These are not empty threats; in September 2017, six farmers in a nearby settlement were murdered as a result of an apparent conflict with land trafficking groups with strong connections to the agribusiness operations. Robert Guimaraes Vasquez, from the Federation of the Native Communities of Ucayali (FECONAU) which represents the community, described the threat of death as “strong and smouldering”. He has requested police protection, but even though these requests were submitted over three months ago the decisions remain pending. One community member did have their application for protection approved in August 2017, but it has yet to be implemented in practice.
The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is clear that it is the duty of states to protect human rights defenders, but national protection schemes are often simply non-existent or only exist on paper. Where protection schemes are available they frequently suffer from a lack of resources, are poorly designed or are incredibly slow to react, leaving defenders at risk in the meantime.
Many multi-stakeholder, voluntary certification schemes provide complaints procedures or ‘non-judicial redress mechanisms’ for those whose rights have been violated by members of the scheme. Unfortunately, submitting a complaint can cause an escalation of violence and intimidation toward the complainant, either directly from the company or from aggrieved locals who support the company’s work. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is leading the way among voluntary certification schemes in developing a protocol to provide anonymity and protection for whistle-blowers, complainants, human rights defenders and community spokespersons. Such policies are essential for the credibility of these mechanisms, as without these commitments defenders may be successfully deterred from speaking out. The RSPO protocol, which was due to be adopted in mid-2017, is reported to be in the final phases of enactment. Past failures to hold companies to account for noncompliance, such as the case of the community of Santa Clara de Uchunya where Plantaciones de Pucallpa simply withdrew its RSPO membership when it became clear the complaints panel would rule in favour of the community, mean that the RSPO must be extremely mindful that this new protocol is able to hold companies to account.
The shortcomings in national protection schemes and accountability mechanisms must be addressed. At the same time, methods for protection need to be urgently diversified to halt the escalation of murders of human rights defenders. Non-state actors – companies and multi-stakeholder initiatives – should start looking at what they can do to fill the gaping holes left behind by states who are unable or unwilling to protect their citizens who are brave enough to speak out.
Please note: Some individuals referred to in this article prefer to remain anonymous for security reasons