Human rights defenders are key actors in the rule of law, the struggle against impunity and the establishment of democracy in any society. They sometimes have to work clandestinely, often at the risk of their own lives and “off the radar” of mainstream media. 2009 has been another very challenging year for human rights defenders. Unfortunately, the number of cases of harassment, threats, forced disappearances and assassinations remained very high over these twelve months.
Human rights defenders are key actors in the rule of law, the struggle against impunity and the establishment of democracy in any society. They sometimes have to work clandestinely, often at the risk of their own lives and “off the radar” of mainstream media. 2009 has been another very challenging year for human rights defenders. Unfortunately, the number of cases of harassment, threats,forced disappearances and assassinations remained very high over these twelve months. In Colombia, defenders have deliberately been accused of collaborating with guerrillas, leading to systematic stigmatization, noted by UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Margaret Sekaggya as one of the essential causes for defenders’ insecurity in the country. In Burundi, Ernest Manirumva, a prominent defender from the anti-corruption organization OLUCOME, was stabbed to death at his home in April and his colleagues who led the campaign “Justice for Ernest Manirumva” consequently received serious death threats.
In the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo, impunity prevailed for the murders of the journalists Serge Maheshe, Didace Namujimbo, Bruno Cirambiza and the human right defender Pascal Kabungulu. The aftermath of the military coup against Manuel Zelaya in Honduras was marked by heavy repression against demonstrators and media, whilst defenders in Sri Lanka faced tremendous difficulties due to emergency and anti-terrorism laws preventing citizens to enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms. These are just a few examples of the abuses suffered by defenders in some of the countries where Protection International runs its global protection programme, dedicated to advising defenders on improving their security and to the fulfilment of national and international obligations regarding their protection.
Whilst the above-mentioned methods of harassment are quite evident, some governments have also developed less visible techniques to muzzle defenders. In Uganda for instance, MP David Bahati introduced the draft anti-homosexuality bill, which seeks to heavily criminalize homosexuals and to prohibit what has been named the “promotion of homosexuality through advocacy work”. In addition to a serious violation of the fundamental right to sexual orientation, this represents a clear threat to the internationally recognized right for human rights defenders and their organizations (in particular LGBTI defenders) to defend all human rights. This tendency to criminalize and restrain defenders’ activities through repressive measures taken by the executive, legislative or judicial powers is increasing in several countries, for example in Latin America.
To address this worrying trend and develop preparation and prevention strategies, Protection International’s partner – UDEFEGUA (Unit for Protection for Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala) and Aj Noj – Protection Desk Guatemala (a project jointly run between UDEFEGUA and Protection International) organized an international forum on the criminalization of HRDs in November 2009. Throughout 2009, Protection International continued its activities in the areas of capacity building on protection and security, research, advocacy and video-advocacy, publication of manuals and dissemination of tools and information through its website www.protectionline.org. Activities in the field have also increased with the opening of two new Protection Desks in Colombia (in partnership with PAS – Pensamiento y Acción Social) and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (where Protection International has been registered as INGO).
Protection Desks, an outcome of over 25 years combined theoretical and field experience in the protection of HRDs, are a PI concept and have been integrated in its global strategy for the protection and security of HRDs. PDs represent an innovative approach to field protection of human rights defenders. Working in close conjunction with local human rights organisations and defenders, Protection Desks are set up to enhance the capacity of HRDs and their organisations to manage their security by improving security measures and protection mechanisms. In those countries or regions where HRD networks or units already exist, Protection Desks are set up to complement their activities through capacity building and training activities tailored to the networks’ specific needs. Between September 2008 and December 2009, Protection International’s five Protection Desks (Nepal, Guatemala, Uganda, Colombia and DR Congo) delivered security and protection trainings to 1,478 defenders. They also provided continuous advice to more than 600 defenders and their organisations from more than twenty countries from all over the globe.
Through its advocacy programme, Protection International emphasized the fact that the primary responsibility to protect HRDs lies with States and key stakeholders, either in their own territories or through their foreign policies and diplomatic missions. Throughout the year 2009, Protection International’s work in this area aimed at reinforcing preventive action. Besides, PI collaborated with the European Union Missions in developing and setting up their local implementation strategies of the EU Guidelines on human rights defenders. In order to increase pressure from parliamentary bodies, PI further developed its network with national parliaments in Spain, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Germany, to set up a forum of Members of Parliament willing to contribute to the protection of human rights defenders.
PI puts emphasis on field research and knowledge transfer through publications and visual media and in 2009 published, amongst others, the documentary “Loktantra” depicting the role of human rights defenders in the democratic transition in Nepal, a new protection manual for LGBTI Defenders and a comparative study on national HRD protection mechanisms. We would like to thank the institutions; donors and individuals who made this work possible and helped us contribute to improving the security of HRDs from so many different contexts throughout the world.
We are especially grateful to the human rights defenders whose incredibly important and courageous work continues to inspire us and teaches us new things every day. This report is dedicated to them.
The team of Protection International