Washington D.C., October 22.- In an event held on Tuesday, October 20th, Ms. Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, called on governments worldwide to fulfill their obligation to protect human rights defenders from harm. During the event, activists Erlendy Cuero Bravo from Colombia and Alma Sinumlag from the Philippines shared their experiences as victims of threats and attacks due to their work defending their communities’ rights.
The event, titled “Final Warnings: Death threats against human rights defenders,” was held with the support of the Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights (Race and Equality). Iain Levine, human rights advisor at Facebook, also served as a panelist. Otto Saki, a program officer on Civic Engagement and Governance at the Ford Foundation, served as moderator and began the event with a moment of silence in memory of assassinated human rights defenders and the victims of COVID-19.
Ms. Lawlor stated that during her term as Special Rapporteur, she will prioritize the reality of killings of human rights defenders. Given that these killings are often preceded by a series of threats both on- and off-line, these threats are also a priority for her office.
“We know that on every continent, women and men are killed for being human rights defenders, and we know that these killings are not random violence-they are premeditated and targeted … We also know that many of these killings are preceded by death threats,” she stated.
The day before the event, October 19, Ms. Lawlor presented her first report as Special Rapporteur to the UN General Assembly. She is currently at work on her second report, focused on the killings of rights defenders.
Erlendy Cuero Bravo
Erlendy Cuero Bravo, Afro-Colombian leader and vice president of the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) was invited by the Special Rapporteur to describe her experiences over more than 20 years of activism with Afro-Colombian conflict victims. During this time, she has suffered threats and attacks targeting her, her family, and fellow AFRODES members.
“Let me emphasize that the situation that I am facing is also the situation of hundreds of other Afro-Colombian and indigenous community leaders in my country,” said Ms. Cuero Bravo, who reminded the audience that Colombia’s armed conflict remains active in much of the country despite the signing of the 2016 Peace Accords, with Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities being the hardest-hit. “At least 2 million of Colombia’s displaced population are Afro-Colombian,” she emphasized.
In describing the threats that she has received, Ms. Cuero Bravo explained that “the majority of threats come through pamphlets that are sent through WhatsApp, email, and Facebook, but these pamphlets also arrive physically at my home and the organization’s offices. Most of these pamphlets are created by paramilitary groups, but there have also been threats from guerrilla groups and drug trafficking organizations.”
Ms. Cuero Bravo explained that these threats usually demand that she cease her activism and leave the area, promising to kill her and her family if she does not. The threats from paramilitary groups claim that she collaborates with guerrilla groups and accuse her of undermining the current government’s agenda. She stated that her situation is aggravated by the indifference of the current government, and that although she currently enjoys official protection including bodyguards and an armored vehicle, these measures were only granted by order of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
Directing her comments to Ms. Lawlor, Ms. Cuero requested that “in completion of your mandate, you call upon the Colombian government to adopt measures such as reforming its risk evaluation protocols to ensure that defenders at risk of attacks are approved for protective measures and implementing collective protection measures for communities and organizations that remain at risk.”
Alma Sinumlag, a defender of the human rights of indigenous peoples in the Cordillera region of the Philippines, explained that she receives threats mostly via social media, especially Facebook, where users post her full name and photographs where she and other activists are labeled as criminals or terrorists. She reported that activists have been able to link most of these accounts to the government, police, and armed forces.
Ms. Lawlor described dialogue with internet and technology firms as a key element of her work, and invited Iain Levine, human rights adviser at Facebook, to describe Facebook’s response to such abuses. Mr. Levine explained that protecting human rights defenders is both a priority and a challenge for social networks.
“We want Facebook to be a useful platform for human rights defenders where they can promote human rights, organize, build community, and be activists,” he said. He went on to say that reporting threats via Facebook’s established channels is a crucial step to generating a response but recognized that threats are much more difficult to pursue when sent via private channels such as WhatsApp.
A call to governments
Mr. Mark Reichwein from the Mission of the Netherlands to the UN, spoke during the Q&A session to reaffirm his country’s commitment to protecting rights defenders from harm.
Ms. Lawlor advised rights defenders to draw up security plans for themselves and their loved ones, including identifying means of leaving their local area in extreme cases. She also advised defenders and diplomats to open and maintain communication between the defenders’ communities and embassies.
Ms. Lawlor closed by reminding all present that it is national governments who must implement laws and policies to protect human rights defenders, stating, “to begin with, they must publicly recognize the value of human rights defense work … in keeping with their obligation under the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and with the guarantees of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”