Amid soaring violence, efforts to reinvigorate UN agreement on rights activists

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Cristina Palabay knows what it means to be targeted - and left unprotected by her government.

The 37-year-old head of Karapatan, an alliance of human rights groups in the Philippines, has been at the center of a rising wave of violence against activists - facilitated, she said, by a culture of impunity.

The country is one of the most dangerous for activists, with dozens of land rights and human rights workers killed there in 2017, she said, adding that some of her colleagues had been threatened while others had been booked on false charges.

“Being a human rights defender in a country such as the Philippines, fraught with a hideous human rights record, means putting oneself in the line of fire,” Palabay told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The situation mirrors a global rise in the repression of rights workers two decades after the international community recognized the issue - in 1998 the UN General Assembly adopted what is known as the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

This week Michel Forst, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, said more than 3,500 rights activists had been murdered since 1998 - most of them women.

Ahead of Sunday’s 20th anniversary of the agreement to protect human rights defenders, Forst joined other UN experts urging governments to pass laws to keep rights workers safe, and to repeal legislation that obstructs their work.

UN's Special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, French Michel Forst (AFP)
UN's Special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, French Michel Forst (AFP)

In a statement, they said the “international consensus on the need for human rights defenders to be protected has been falling apart over time”.

Experts said land activists were among the most vulnerable - 207 land and environment advocates were killed last year, the highest on record, said advocacy group EarthRights International in a report this week.

Palabay said intimidation in the Philippines took different forms.

“Offices of human rights defenders are raided, lobbed with explosives or burned to sow terror among them and the communities they serve,” Palabay said.

Many advocates are subject to stalking, harassment and vilification campaigns, she said, while some are illegally arrested, tortured - or simply “disappeared”.

The situation under President Rodrigo Duterte has worsened, Palabay said, to the point where one rights worker is killed on average each week. In an agrarian country like the Philippines, she said, most victims tend to be involved in land rights.

Vulnerable to harm

When the declaration was adopted two decades ago, governments pledged for the first time urged to support and protect rights workers. Yet today, Palabay and others warn that the promise of the declaration is slipping.

There were more than 300 deaths last year - twice as many as two years earlier, according to Front Line Defenders, an advocacy group based in Ireland. Adam Shapiro, its head of campaigns, said the declaration was effectively “toothless”.

Despite that, he and others said, there has been some positive action over two decades as a result of its existence.

Shapiro highlighted specific efforts in Latin America, where governments in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Honduras set up protection for lawyers, human rights workers and others.

These include undertaking risk assessments and providing armed guards and other measures for homes, offices and vehicles, for instance, he said.

However, said Shapiro, in each instance the “track record is not very good”. Along with the Philippines, the four Latin American nations saw more rights workers killed than any others.

Several of the initiatives look good on paper, he said, but are poorly coordinated and lack funding - including in Mexico, for instance, due to greatly increased demand for protection.

An effort is underway to learn from these experiences and set the legal groundwork for similar - but more effective - mechanisms worldwide.

In 2016, activists and lawyers finalized a model law that could be used in any country to help draft national legislation to protect rights workers.

The model is a way to bolster the impact of the UN declaration, said Tess McEvoy, legal counsel with the International Service for Human Rights, a non-profit that supports human rights defenders, and which spearheaded the effort and is helping to roll it out.

“Not many states have incorporated the declaration comprehensively into national law - and some are doing the opposite, by developing laws that restrict defenders,” she said.

“The model law is intended to guide other actors to ensure the full and effective implementation of the declaration.”

She said Mali, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast had passed laws based on the model draft, while the Philippines and Mongolia have laws pending that are based in part on it. Similar bills are in development in at least six other countries.

The Ivory Coast law, which states that rights workers cannot be detained or investigated for doing their job, has already been used to defend advocates, McEvoy said.

“We hope that other countries that are currently drafting similar protection laws will follow this example,” said Melanie Sonhaye Kombate of the West African Human Rights Defenders Network.

Philippines human rights (AFP)
Philippines human rights (AFP)

New approaches

The 20th anniversary of the declaration has prompted a number of initiatives aimed at making it more effective.

In October, Paris hosted the first Human Rights Defenders World Summit. It finalized a series of recommendations for governments, businesses and others that will be presented to the UN General Assembly at a special forum on December 18.

The summit provided a clear sense of how strong activists have become in the past two decades, said Guadalupe Marengo, who heads Amnesty International’s team on human rights defenders.

“But also that there appears to be a backlash, and human rights defenders are on the front line - particularly around the rise in killings of land rights defenders in Brazil, Honduras and the Philippines,” Marengo said.

“Protecting the Earth has become one of the world’s most dangerous professions,” said Katie Redford of EarthRights International, which this month launched a program to protect environmental and land rights workers.

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