Why we need to defend the defenders – now, more than ever
By Guadalupe Marengo, Head of Global Human Rights Defenders Programme, Amnesty International
Recent attacks on human rights defenders across the world show the urgent need for Amnesty’s new campaign to defend the defenders.
On May 10, a courageous Mexican mother and human rights defender, Miriam Rodriguez, was shot 12 times and killed in her home in Tamaulipas, northern Mexico. Miriam had been campaigning tirelessly to bring to justice those responsible of abducting and killing her 14-year-old daughter Karen, and became a leading activist searching for others who have been disappeared in the country. Five days later, Javier Valdez Cárdenas, founder of Río Doce media and reporter for La Jornada and El Noroeste, was shot dead a few metres away from his office in the northern Mexican state of Sinaloa. Javier was well known for his work covering organized crime and drug trafficking.
Miriam and Javier's violent killings are part of a horrible trend: attacks on human rights defenders around the world face are increasing at an alarming rate.
Just a few days before reading the news of Miriam Rodriguez’s murder, we learned of a smear campaign by politicians and commentators in Italy against human rights defenders who have saved thousands of lives in the Mediterranean. The allegations suggested that the very presence of search and rescue boats near Libyan territorial waters is contributing to the death toll at sea by fuelling the smuggling trade.
Also recently we saw how Russian LGBTI activists who were trying to deliver a petition in support of gay men in Chechnya were briefly detained, and we learned about the solitary confinement of Ahmed Mansoor, who has been fighting against human rights abuses in his country, in the United Arab Emirates. Journalists and independent media in countries including Madagascar, Turkey and Tunisia faced new attacks just as we were commemorating World Press Freedom Day on May 3.
Let’s stand up against injustice
All this news confirmed to me that now, more than ever, we need more people bravely standing up against injustice and those who undermine human rights. This is the context in which Amnesty International this week launches our #WeDefend campaign, accompanied by a new report, Human rights defenders under threat - a shrinking space for civil society.
I have worked in this field for over 20 years and have met hundreds of people like Miriam, women and men who come from every walk of life: journalists, lawyers, health professionals, teachers, farmers, whistle-blowers, trade unionists, photographers, victims or relatives of victims of human rights violations and abuses who, individually or in association with others, act to defend human rights. Sadly, these brave individuals continue to face an assault by governments, armed groups, corporations and others in power eager to silence those who stand up against injustice.
Women human rights defenders and LGBTI defenders are facing particular forms of gender-based violence and discrimination in addition to the attacks other defenders face. For example, Senator Leila de Lima, who was leading an enquiry into President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent campaign against drugs in the Philippines, is now being held at the police headquarters in Manila on politically-motivated charges. In the run up to her detention, back in February of this year, a targeted campaign of attacks, including misogynistic insults, were launched by the President and his allies against her. They went as far as threatening to show an alleged sex video of her.
We have the power to challenge toxic narratives
We have all seen with concern how the politics of fear, division and demonization are on the rise worldwide. Across the world, toxic narratives of “us versus them” are being used to cast collective blame onto whole groups of people for social and political benefit. And in this context, human rights defenders are accused of being “foreign agents”, anti-nationalistic, criminals, terrorists and undesirables, or perceived as a threat to security, development or to traditional values.
When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted after the atrocities of World War II almost 70 years ago, the atmosphere was one of solidarity and support for the principles of freedom, justice and equality for all the members of the human family. Yet today, the spirit and words of that Declaration are being openly flouted.
My hope is that through this campaign we will contribute to reversing this trend of division and instead recommit to the principles that underpin the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Having met through my work so many inspiring women and men from all over the world, from so different profiles and backgrounds, no matter their ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation or any other characteristic, what I see is that the human family has the same dreams and aspirations – we want to live with dignity in a just and fair world.
We all have the power to challenge today’s poisonous rhetoric and fight against injustice. Join me in changing the toxic narratives against human rights and those who defend them. Let’s support those brave individuals who stand up for a fairer world and join them in this vital struggle. Because together, we can make a difference.
Guadalupe Marengo is the Head of the Global Human Rights Defenders Programme at Amnesty International. Follow her on Twitter @GuadaMarengo