Human Rights Defenders : Between Recognition and Repression

Last Update 7 June 2004
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Today, if most governments accept and regularly invoke the language of human rights and participate actively in regional and international human rights mechanisms, their new found vocabulary is in no small part due to an extraordinary phenomenon - the emergence of thousands of nationally based human rights organisations throughout the end of 1980s and the 1990s.

The impact and importance of the work of these organisations was universally recognised and legitimised when, on the 9th of December 1998, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

However, one year on, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture, (OMCT), in its second annual report, published 8th December 1999, reveals an alarming record: today, for a great many states human rights defenders are now the principal target of repression.

The report demonstrates that far from disappearing repression is putting down roots. In nearly 60 countries, more than a third of the countries of the world, human rights defenders are harassed and targets of repression. In some ten states it is impossible to defend human rights in any independent sense. In another thirty states human rights work is systematically and constantly put down.

Between November 1998 and October 1999, more than 200 human rights defenders have been targeted for their work. Summary execution, torture, arbitrary detention and arrest remain the most used and bluntest tools to silence those who dare to try and hold states to their international commitments. And over the course of this year at least 16 human rights defenders were summarily executed, 96 were forcibly disappeared, kidnapped, or detained arbitrarily. Certain among them were subjected to torture.

In Latin America working for human rights is often synonymous with death. Over the last two years 80 attacks have been carried out against individuals and organisations with at least 20 human rights defenders killed during the events. In Colombia, in 1999 alone, 6 human rights defenders have paid with their lives.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, for its part, holds the depressing record for the greatest number of arrests or arbitrary detentions, with 15 cases recorded this year across the country. As time passes the tools of repression are becoming increasingly "sophisticated". GONGOs - governmentally controlled "non governmental organisations" are one particularly insidious example. Particularly prevalent in the civil societies of the newly independent states and South Asia, these organisations allow the authorities to discredit and undermine the work of genuine NGOs.

In an attempt to stop human rights work States even resort to taking action against the families of human rights defenders. The harassment has gone so far as to be developed into planned strategies: in Tunisia, human rights defenders and their families are under constant telephone surveillance, defamed in the press, threatened and physically attacked.

Turkey is illustrative of another phenomenon: the increasing use by States of legal weapons to muzzle human rights defenders. Fifteen human rights defenders in Turkey are currently facing legal charges. Amongst these, Akin Birdal, President of the IHD and Vice-president of the FIDH, was condemned to a two-year prison sentence by the State Security Court. Moreover, across the Middle East region new laws have been adopted and or legal measures aimed at further restricting the freedom of action of human rights defenders.

The report presents an analysis of national developments as well as individual cases - they show that action against human rights defenders is a global phenomenon aiming to cover up the worst attacks on fundamental freedoms: remove the witness and there is no crime.

Silencing the work of human rights organisations has become the priority for illegitimate and autocratic powers.

The report details the very real daily struggles of an extraordinary group of men and women, who in a world of apathy and cynicism, are harassed threatened, attacked and even murdered for their commitment to the fundamental freedoms which belong to us all. We must protect them.

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