New mechanism to respond to violence against human rights defenders in the Americas: Hopes and challenges ahead
FRIDAY FILE: The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has established an Office of the Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders to address the increasing violence against those who defend human rights in the region. Women's rights and human rights organizations welcome the news as a progressive step towards protecting women human rights defenders.
By Analía Penchaszadeh
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) announced in April 2011 that it would establish an Office of the Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders. The new Rapporteur seeks to address the numerous complaints received by the IACHR regarding the difficult situations that human rights defenders (HRDs) face in Latin American countries. The intention of designating the Rapporteur is to give greater visibility to the role that human rights defenders play in building democratic societies.
There are seven other Rapporteurs at the IACHR, which address the rights of persons deprived of liberty, migrant workers and their families, children, indigenous peoples, women; afro-descendants and racial discrimination; and freedom of expression. They conduct promotion activities, develop thematic research and provide support to individual petitions and cases where human rights violations occur in relation to the specific rights that they are assigned. The designation of a Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders will raise the status of the IACHR’s work to address violations of human rights defenders, highlighting the importance of the issue and increasing the effectiveness of the IACHR’s protective measures.
In the communication from its 141st Regular Session in which it announced the new Rapporteur, the IACHR describes a series of hearings held regarding the situation of human rights defenders in Latin America. A range of violations are documented, from threats and harassment to murders, extrajudicial executions, and forced disappearances. The IACHR highlights its concern about the number of murders and physical attacks against human rights defenders in Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. It also specifically mentions aggression towards environmental defenders involved in opposition to megaprojects and mining activities.
Women’s rights and human rights organizations have raised concerns about the growing violence directed at women human rights defenders (WHRDs) – women defenders and those working on women’s rights or gender issues. They are calling on the IACHR and the new Rapporteur to pay particular attention to this situation. While the new Office of the Rapporteur has not yet stated how it will take up the concerns of WHRDs, the IACHR has historically recognized the vulnerability of WHRDs and it is therefore expected that the Rapporteur will be responsive to the needs of WHRDs.
Increase in violence against WHRDs in the Latin American region
The creation of the new Rapporteur is timely as reports of violence against human rights defenders in general, and WHRDs in particular, are becoming more alarming in the Latin American region. A new Meso-American initiative linking WHRDs from Mexico and Central America[i] recently completed a diagnostic study (to be published in Spanish and English this month) that investigates the various dimensions of violence against WHRDs and their organizations. The study describes the types of violence experienced, the groups of WHRDs that are the most vulnerable, the main actors involved in committing violations and some of the strategies that WHRDs use to protect themselves. In addition to being an unprecedented effort at documenting and analyzing violence against WHRDs in the region, the diagnosis process is unique in that it is led by WHRDs themselves through a series of consultations in each country involved.
Since January 2011, AWID has responded to 12 action alerts regarding violence against WHRDs in Mexico, Honduras and Colombia. In Colombia violations include the kidnapping of environmental activist Sandra Viviana Cuellar Gallego (who remains missing since 17 February) and the murder of LGBT defender John Ramirez Salazar. WHRDs in Mexico fighting against femicide and impunity in several states, including Chiapas, Guerrero, and Chihuahua, have been physically assaulted, harassed, and murdered.
Particularly troubling are the attacks on multiple members of one family, such as the case of Josefina Reyes, a WHRD who denounced military abuse in Ciudad Juarez. Reyes was murdered in January 2010; eight months later her brother Ruben was also killed. In February of 2011 two other siblings, Malena Reyes and Elias Reyes, along with Luisa Ornelas Soto, were kidnapped and found murdered two weeks later. In the period during which the family members were missing, the home of Josefina Reyes’ mother was set on fire. All crimes remain with impunity and remaining family members fear for their lives. Other recently assassinated WHRDs fighting femicide and impunity include Susana Chávez and Marisela Escobedo, both were well-known women’s rights leaders from Chihuahua.
The recent death of Ilse Velásquez during a demonstration in Tegucigalpa and the severe injury and arrest of several WHRDs in the coastal region of Tela and Triunfo de la Cruz highlight the increasing climate of repression in Honduras. Teresa Reyes, a leader of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH) in Triunfo de la Cruz, is among the WHRDs at risk in Honduras. OFRANEH defends the rights of the garífuna peoples, Afro-descendent communities in the coastal region who maintain their language and culture. Corporate interests, including the multinational tourist industry, currently threaten them. Reyes’ house was recently set on fire in the middle of the night while she, her partner Alfredo López, and their six children were sleeping. Reyes and López have received numerous threats over the past months because of their work defending the garífuna territory. These attacks have taken place despite the IACHR precautionary measures that were adopted to help protect Reyes and her family. Miriam Miranda, another OFRANEH leader, was severely injured during a peaceful demonstration in March 2011 and was detained for several hours without medical assistance.
These stories exemplify the findings of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders whose 2011 report focused on WHRDs because “women defenders are more at risk of suffering certain forms of violence and other violations, prejudice, exclusion and repudiation than their male counterparts.” (See AWID Friday File, 17 February 2011). The UN Rapporteur answers to the United Nations General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council. While the UN Rapporteur’s mandate is global, the establishment of the IACHR Rapporteur will encourage collaboration between the global and the regional bodies. This is relevant because the UN Rapporteur has highlighted growing concerns in Latin America, where reports of violence against WHRDs in the region are numerous and involve grave risks.
IACHR precautionary measures
The IACHR has a mechanism to protect and prevent irreparable harm to persons in urgent cases where violations have occurred or are imminent, including those involving WHRDs. These “precautionary measures” are ordered by the IACHR, or they can be ordered as “provisional measures” by the Inter-American Human Rights Court. Once precautionary measures are adopted, the State must contact the beneficiaries[ii] and agree upon the protective actions to be put in place. These measures protect individuals or groups and can range from bullet-proof vests to political measures, including public statements from authorities recognizing the work of defenders in the country. The IACHR acknowledges the concerns regarding the effectiveness of measures granted for human rights defenders and has issued a call to States “to adopt comprehensive policies to protect human rights defenders and to fully comply with the requests made in this regard by the bodies of the inter-American system.”
The case of Teresa Reyes cited above underscores these limitations as she and her family continue to receive threats and direct attacks despite having been granted precautionary measures. A press statement issued by the IACHR on 7 March 2011 condemns the continued threats and murders directed against human rights defenders and their families in Colombia and calls attention to the challenges in enforcing precautionary measures. The statement specifically names two WHRDs, María del Socorro Mosquera Londoño and Mery Naranjo Jiménez, who continue to be harassed despite being beneficiaries of IACHR precautionary measures since 2004 and of provisional measures issued by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights since 2006.
IACHR action to protect WHRDs
For the past ten years the IACHR Executive Secretariat has had a Human Rights Defenders Unit, which has followed the situation of defenders in the region and which coordinates the Secretariat activities on this issue. The Unit has been the focal point at the IACHR for issues relating to defenders, receiving complaints and other communications sent by human rights organizations, advising the Commission on actions on behalf of defenders and promoting awareness of violations of the rights of defenders. This Unit will now be incorporated into the Office of the Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders.
In 2006, the Unit published the Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in the Americas. The report outlines the main obstacles defenders face in carrying out their work and presents recommendations to improve the protection of the women and men who defend human rights in the region. It recognizes WHRDs as being especially at risk of suffering violations to their rights, stating that “women human rights defenders and organizations that defend women’s human rights continue to be subjected to systematic intimidation, persecution, kidnapping, torture and sexual abuse, among other crimes, in relation to their work, along with other forms of discrimination and physical, psychological and sexual violence for gender reasons.”
Women’s rights and human rights organizations have expressed their hope that the new Rapporteur will use the analysis regarding the risks that WHRDs face and build on the Unit’s work to strengthen efforts to prevent violence and protect women defenders and those working on women’s and gender issues.
[i] The Meso-American WHRD Initiative is convened by the Feminist Collective for Local Development (Colectiva Feminista), Association for Women’s Rights In Development (AWID), Just Associates (JASS), Oaxaca Consortium for Parliamentary Dialogue and Equity (Consorcio Oaxaca), Guatemala Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (UDEFEGUA), Central American Women’s Fund (FCAM)
[ii] Beneficiaries are human rights defenders or other people whose human rights have been violated and are considered in need of the measures