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Killings of human rights defenders 'go unnoticed'

Julia van Leuven
March 3, 2021

Hundreds of human rights defenders are killed every year, many of them with impunity, according to a new UN report. Those involved in issues of environment and rights of indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable.

Mexiko Polizeiabsperrung
Image: Jair Cabrera Torres/dpa/picture alliance

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor on Thursday presents her report on the situation of human rights defenders.

"Hundreds of Human Rights Defenders are being killed every year, and there is little sign that this is going to stop. We also know that many of these murders are signaled in advance with threats," the Special Rapporteur told DW. Those threats can be direct or indirect, targeted at individuals or more general, according to the report. They "are often intended to intimidate, silence and stop human rights defenders from carrying out their work. There is no more direct attack on civil society space than the killing of human rights defenders," the report reads.

Mary Lawlor UN-Sonderberichterstatterin für Menschenrechte
Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights DefendersImage: Kamil Krawczak

According to the Special Rapporteur, the problem is "widespread." Since 2015, a total of 1,323 human rights defenders have been killed and at least 281 were killed in 2019 alone, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) found. The killings were committed in 64 countries worldwide, a third of UN member states.

Latin America is consistently the most affected region. In 2019, half of the killings of human rights defenders targeted those who had been involved in issues of land and environment as well as rights of indigenous peoples and other minorities. "This is partly because those working on those issues are in isolated, remote locations, far from the protective gaze of international media or embassies in major cities," Mary Lawlor explained to DW. "These defenders are often regarded as especially soft targets, whose deaths will go largely unnoticed by the outside world."

Guatemala Mord an NGO Mitarbeiter Benoit Maria
French human rights defender Benoit Maria, director of an agriculture and animal health NGO, was killed in Guatemala in 2020. He is one of the hundreds of human rights defenders killed for their work every year.Image: Getty Images/AFP/N. Diario

On improving the situation of human rights defenders (HRD), the Special Rapporteur criticized the lack of political will to prevent the murders: "The crisis in HRD murders predates the pandemic, and is fueled in a major way by impunity. If states found the political will to properly investigate the killings, prosecute the crimes and hold the perpetrators to account, it would deter future murders," she told DW, adding that "we see very few of those responsible ever being held to account."

Killings of human rights defenders worldwide 2015-2019
Killings of human rights defenders worldwide 2015-2019

In her report, the Special Rapporteur concludes that states should respond "more effectively to threats against human rights defenders," with interventions including "taking action to stop vilification and threats aimed at defenders, which make them more vulnerable to attacks."