When Closing Civil Society Space Means Killing Human Rights Defenders

Worrying about the reduction of civil society space is all the rage in Washington. Policy pundits present papers at public panel discussions outlining increasingly repressive laws aimed at NGOs. Legislation from Ethiopia to Cambodia to Egypt to Israel to Kenya and elsewhere threatens civil society organizations and human rights defenders, and Washington experts rightly warn that making it difficult for NGOs to register, or restricting the funds they can receive from abroad, leads to suffocation of dissenting voices healthy, stable societies need. President Obama is worried about it too. In Panama earlier this year he said:

When the United States sees space closing for civil society, we will work to open it. When efforts are made to wall you off from the world, we'll try to connect you with each other. When you are silenced, we'll try to speak out alongside you. And when you're suppressed, we want to help strengthen you. As you work for change, the United States will stand up alongside you every step of the way.

What sometimes gets overlooked in the discussion around "shrinking civil society space" are direct, violent attacks on human rights defenders. This year's Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders (HRDs) detailed killings of HRDs in Africa, the Americas, Asia-Pacific, Europe and the Middle East.

And the Situation of human rights defenders, Note by the UN Secretary-General in July this year included how "defenders also describe their sense that they are often on their own, with the media showing little interest in reporting acts of aggression against them and with little support from political figures..." Murderous attacks on HRDs are too often left out of the closing civil society discussion, sanitizing the conversation and reducing it to one about legislation and policy. Earlier this month, HRD NGO Front Line Defenders gathered over 160 at risk HRDs together in Dublin. Many at the Dublin Platform spoke of physical threats, including death threats, against them. Front Line Defender's Executive Director Mary Lawlor said:

The closing down of civil society space and the backlash against HRDs has almost become an academic discussion which masks the day to day reality for HRDs... Last year, 21 countries killed Human Rights Defenders outright. This year, from January till the end of September, we have already recorded that 115 Human Rights Defenders have been killed across 23 countries.

These include Juan Francisco Martinez in Honduras, Chai Bunthongiek in Thailand, Sabeen Mahmud in Pakistan, Francela Mendez in El Salvador. Three HRDs in the Philippines -- Emerito Samarca, Dionel Campos, and Bello Sinzo -- were murdered on the same September day. No one really knows how many HRDs are killed every year, and these figures are only a fraction of the likely number. Too many go unrecorded, unreported by the media and unpunished by governments. HRDs at the Dublin Platform identified impunity for attacks as a major enabler of these killings, and shared ideas on protecting themselves -- from setting up early warning systems to undertaking security training and risk analyses, and attempts to set up national and regional protections measures. None of these should be necessary, of course. If governments protected their HRDs instead of killing them, or allowing them to be killed, HRDs would have to become their own security guards. But HRDs remain under enormous threat. This week the UN General Assembly passed a resolution recognizing the need for the protection of HRDs. While 117 countries - including the United States -- voted for the resolution, 54 refused to support it, including key U.S. military allies Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Washington's close friend Saudi Arabia actually voted against it. As did Kenya, apparently ignoring President's Obama's defense of civil society when in Nairobi this year.

The U.S. government needs to push its allies to end impunity for those who attack or murder human rights defenders, and ensure that its own discussions about closing civil society space are always open to include the killings of HRDs.