Leaders at the Summit of the Americas: Protect Your Human Rights Defenders

Defenders say the most important action the state can take is investigate and prosecute the attacks against them. Yet most murders of defenders, and nearly all death threats, remain in impunity.
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Alexander Quintero campaigned for justice for the victims of Colombia's 2001 Naya River massacre, committed by paramilitary forces. "He brought us all together, indigenous, Afro-Colombian and mestizo communities," said a colleague. "It could have been any of us," a sobbing defender said, as she told me about Alexander's May 2010 assassination.

Nahúm Palacios Arteaga was the anchor for a TV station in Tocoa, Honduras. He was reporting on land conflicts in Bajo Aguán, where campesino leaders were being threatened, evicted and murdered. Hit men killed Palacios and his friend, a doctor, in March 2010.

Dora Alicia Recinos Sorto was eight months pregnant when she was shot dead in December 2009, in El Salvador's Cabañas region. She belonged to an environmental group opposing a mining project, as did Ramiro Rivera, who was killed six days earlier.

Miguel Ángel González Ramiro was a member of the banana workers union SITRABI in Guatemala. He was killed while holding his son in February 2012. González is the seventh current or former SITRABI member killed since January 2011.

María Elizabeth Macías Castro's killers placed her body in front of a poster with a threatening note, and put a pair of headphones on her decapitated head. Her September 2011 killing appears to be related to her social media writing about drug cartel violence in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

Killing human rights activists -- or "defenders," as we call them -- harms not only the people, their friends and family. It aims to destroy an organizing process and derail a struggle to defend the rights of many.

Latin America was the most dangerous region in the world to be a trade unionist in 2009 and 2010, according to the International Confederation of Trade Unionists. More than 80 percent of murders of trade unionists worldwide during those two years took place in the Americas.

Defenders working on land and environmental issues related to extractive industries such as gold mining were more at risk in the Americas than in any other region, according to the United Nations. Many were indigenous people or women.

Some of the countries that will be represented at the Summit of the Americas this weekend in Cartagena, Colombia, are more dangerous for defenders than others. Every eight days a human rights defender was killed in Colombia in 2011. Nineteen journalists have been killed in Honduras since the June 2009 coup, and 45 people associated with peasant organizations in Bajo Aguán have been murdered in the last two years. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has also singled out Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Venezuela as especially dangerous for defenders.

Who is behind the violence? Sometimes it is government agents, including police or military; in other cases, it is paramilitary groups, private security or organized crime. LGBT activists are killed as part of "social cleansing" campaigns, often by police. Sometimes the violence appears to be related to companies facing organizing drives or involved in controversial large-scale development projects.

This past December, I joined an international verification mission on defenders in Colombia, which heard direct testimony that people received death threats for protesting mining operations they feared would damage their communities.

Human rights defenders and journalists in Latin America face harassment by governments of all political stripes: from being jailed on baseless charges (Colombia, Cuba) and subjected to illegal surveillance (Colombia) to newspaper editors who are sued by government officials (Ecuador).

What should Latin American governments do to protect human rights defenders? Where there are widespread risks, governments should establish protection programs. Colombia has such a program, although it needs improvement. Mexico has agreed to establish a mechanism, but needs to effectively do so. Honduras and Guatemala urgently need to open protection programs.

Defenders say the most important action the state can take is investigate and prosecute the attacks against them. Yet most murders of defenders, and nearly all death threats, remain in impunity. At the very least, defenders ask that their governments to refrain from jailing and harassing them. For governments to just say the right words by publicly affirming the legitimacy of human rights work.

Latin American governments should take advantage of human rights support and monitoring provided by the United Nations and the OAS. It is disturbing that governments such as Ecuador, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela have recently tried to limit the role of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression.

The U.S. government should speak out more for defenders in the Americas. It has an absolute obligation to take action, including enforcing human rights conditions, when police and military forces receiving U.S. aid endanger defenders.

President Obama should refuse to greenlight the implementation of the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement because the Labor Action Plan both governments signed is not yet fulfilled. Twenty-nine trade unionists were killed in Colombia in 2011, and the Colombian government is not yet doing enough to enforce labor rights and protect trade unionists from violence, including effectively prosecuting the threats and attacks against them.

The Canadian government must address the reality that many of the struggles around mining operations that give rise to threats and attacks against defenders involve Canadian-based companies.

There is always rhetoric about democratic values at these summits. Yet real democratic values include the space for people to defend their rights on a daily basis.

Presidents at the Summit: Protect your human rights defenders.

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