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How the U.S. can protect human rights activists

Today’s Tom Lantos Commission briefing on the future of human rights comes at just the right time, as human rights activists all over the world are wondering what the new Trump Administration will mean for them.

For some, the shrinking of civil society space means an inability to carry on their work because of bans on foreign funding or restrictive NGO laws governing how NGOs can operate. For others it’s literally a matter of life and death.

{mosads}No one knows how many human rights defenders (HRDs) have been killed for their work. In recent years the Irish-based NGO Front Line Defenders has tried to document the numbers, recording totals of 142 in 2014, 156 in 2015, and 205 so far this year—but they say the real figures are certainly higher. 

President Obama has declared he’s worried about the targeting of activists. Speaking in Panama last year he said:

“When the United States sees space closing for civil society, we will work to open it. When efforts are made to wall you off from the world, we’ll try to connect you with each other. When you are silenced, we’ll try to speak out alongside you. And when you’re suppressed, we want to help strengthen you. As you work for change, the United States will stand up alongside you every step of the way.” 

But the U.S. government’s record on protecting HRDs is patchy. Although in 2013 it issued guidelines to its diplomats encouraging them to engage with HRDs as a way to protect activists, these still haven’t been properly promoted or widely translated.

These aren’t unpredictable attacks, and there’s often a discernible pattern to the killings preceded by threats. 

The murders of HRDs in Colombia are usually committed by a hired assassin or hired gun in or near the victim’s home, usually late at night or very early in the morning, say local activists.

In Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, HRDs report that murders of their colleagues are often prefaced with a series of threatening phone calls, with boys in black shirts hanging around near their homes for some time before the activist is eventually murdered in a machete attack.

In the Philippines, NGO Karapatan has documented 154 killings of HRDs since 2010 and, like in many other counties, those defending indigenous or environmental rights are particularly vulnerable. Businesses also have a responsibility to sanction companies associated with threatening HRDS.

Impunity for these crimes remains a key enabler of the killings. It’s rare for a country’s justice system to bring those responsible to account, a failure that encourages further attacks. Occasionally the murder of an HRD will make international news, as did the killing of prominent Honduran HRD Berta Cáceres in March this year, but too often the attacks go unnoticed, unrecorded.

As the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted “defenders also describe their sense that they are often on their own, with the media showing little interest in reporting acts of aggression against them and with little support from political figures…”

But HRDs remain under enormous threat. Last year the UN General Assembly passed a resolution recognizing the need for the protection of HRDs. While 117 countries—including the United States—voted for the resolution, 54 refused to support it, including key U.S. military allies Kenya, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

What should do the United States do to better protect HRDs? 

The State Department should properly promote its guidelines on engaging with HRDs, and publicly commit to consistently respond to the killing of every HRD with a public statement calling for a proper investigation and to hold those responsible to account, no matter who the perpetrators.

It should also consider introducing temporary visa options, as has Ireland, which offers short-term visas of up to three months to HRDs at risk, similar to the Dutch government where six Shelter Cities in the Netherlands offer protection to HRDs in danger.

Members of Congress should question embassies in Washington and follow up with other foreign government officials about the status of investigations into the killings—ending impunity for these attacks would be a real contribution to protecting the world’s civil society space.

Dooley is Director, Human Rights Defenders at Human Rights First. @dooley_dooley

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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