Protesters light candles during a peaceful demonstration in Bogotá, Colombia. Sebastian Delgado C/Shutterstock.com

Escalation of killings 

Being a human rights defender today often means risking your life. Social and environmental activists, journalists, lawyers and community leaders who are speaking up and defending human and environmental rights are being threatened, attacked and even killed around the world. In 2020, Front Line Defenders reported 331 killings of human rights defenders in 25 countries. Colombia was by far the deadliest country with 177 murdered defenders.

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Colombia

Social leaders have played a crucial role in the implementation of the peace agreement in Colombia. Jani Silva supports women's initiatives to protect the forest and restore the ecosystems in the area where she lives. She has been threatened several times and fears for her and her relatives' lives.

We support her in a campaign to protect social leaders and human rights defenders in Colombia.

Number of people living in countries with restrictions in 2020

 

Source: Civicus, Civic space on a downward spiral, 2020

Serious effects of Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has drastically aggravated the situation. Repressive governments have used the pandemic to strengthen their own power and increase control over the population. They used the pandemic as an excuse to introduce additional restrictions on civic freedoms and democratic activities. There is an imminent risk that these restrictions will become permanent in several countries. Employers took the pandemic as an opportunity to sack workers who were engaged in trade unions, and religious practise was restricted in many countries.

Number of people killed for defending their land and the environment in 2020

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Vulnerable groups

Particularly vulnerable groups are women, indigenous people, environmental activists, persons and groups defending labour rights or LGBTI rights (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexual rights). According to Front Line Defenders, 69 per cent of the human rights defenders killed in 2020 were defending land, indigenous people or environmental rights. Four environmental defenders were killed every week. Twenty human rights defenders who were working on anti-corruption were killed.

The most targeted sectors of human rights defence

 

Source: Front Line Defenders, Global Analysis 2020

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Liberia

Almost two-thirds of the violent conflicts in Liberia have their roots in land rights. Still, Liberia holds one of the world’s most progressive land laws that recognise customary land rights. Jennet Paye from Women Care Initiative works to secure women’s rights to the land that they cultivate.

ForumCiv’s support aims at ensuring women’s rights to land and the implementation of the Land Rights Act to the benefit of local communities in Liberia.
 

 

Measures to silence civil society

State authorities, armed groups, organized criminal groups and powerful elites are using different measures to silence those who are defending their rights. Criminalization is the most common measure. Thousands of defenders have been arbitrary detained, presented with unfounded charges and sometimes sentenced to long prison terms. Governments have adopted repressive legislations that deny civil society organizations foreign funding or have imposed strict requirements for registrations. Civil society organizations are increasingly subjected to harassment, defamation and smear campaigns with the aim to undermine and delegitimize their work. Censorship has become a major tactic used by governments to stifle dissent. 

Most common violations in 2020 (excluding killings)

 

Source: Front Line Defenders, Global Analysis 2020

 

Freedom of expression under attack  

Repressive regimes are trying to control the press, social media and online platforms through restrictive legislation and closure of independent media. According to Reporters without Borders, free and independent journalism is fully or partly blocked in 132 countries. At the end of 2020, a total of 387 journalists were detained in connection with their work around the world. 50 journalists were killed during the year and the number of press freedom violations and arrests linked to the Covid-19 pandemic was high. The number of women journalists in prison has risen by 35 per cent. The Nobel Peace prize 2021 to journalists Maria Ressa from the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov from Russia underlines the fact that press freedom is crucial for democracy, which in turn is fundamental for peace.

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Kenya

Through her grassroots activism in her community at the coast in Kenya, Naila Abdallah has empowered many young Muslim women whose rights have been violated. She has advocated for access to justice for women in court cases.

Naila Abdallah is one of the peace champions under Haki Africa’s Youth Justice and Peace Alliance Project supported by ForumCiv’s program in Kenya. She recently won the 2020 Upcoming Human Rights Defender of the Year.

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<< Sectors with most related attacks in 2020

The role of business

Violence towards human rights defenders can increasingly also be linked to business operations. According to Business & Human Rights Resource Center, 604 attacks on human rights defenders in relation to business took place in 2020, up from 572 attacks in 2019. One-fifth of the attacks recorded were against women defenders.

Mining, agribusiness, construction, logging, extraction of oil, gas and coal as well as renewable energy are the most dangerous sectors for people defending their rights in relation to business. Land conflicts is a key factor. Local and indigenous people are being threatened and attacked when they protest against industries that deprive them of their land and means to support themselves and force them to resettle. In many cases, expansion of mining and other extractive activities takes place without consultations with nearby communities. The companies often act in compliance with the state and are covered by impunity.

Killings of human rights defenders in 2020

 

Source: Front Line Defenders, Global Analysis 2020

Cambodia

Our partner organization in Cambodia, which works on land and housing rights, was threatened by the authorities for supporting community activists to reclaim their land after forced evictions under development projects. The leader of the organization was finally forced to leave the country since he repeatedly received death threats.  

In response, ForumCiv engaged the Swedish embassy and human rights organizations to ensure the leader’s security and helped him evacuate the country. 

Struggle despite threats

Despite threats, violence and different tactics from repressive governments to silence critical voices, people continue to mobilise and demand their rights. During the pandemic, people have used creative and alternative forms of protest, including online and distanced protests. In Belarus, people kept protesting for democratic freedoms following the elections in 2020, despite being met with brutal violence. In Colombia, thousands of people took to the streets in spring 2021 to protest against the government’s policies, such as a tax reform that would raise the price of basic food and hit the poorest people hard. As the pandemic further aggravated already difficult economic conditions in many countries, people raised their voices to demand food, basic services and better working conditions, for example in Venezuela and Zimbabwe.

All around the world, human rights and environmental defenders continue to struggle and defend their rights, even if it means risking their lives.

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Belarus

In Belarus, it is the women who have made the difference. After the last elections, hundreds of women took to the streets, dressed in white and with flowers in their hands. This showed that the statements from the regime that the protesters were violent and criminal were not true. 
 
ForumCiv supports civil society organisations in Belarus working on issues related to democracy and the environment.

 

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Recommendations to the Swedish government
  • Ensure that Swedish development cooperation addresses the root causes for the shrinking democratic space for civil society.
  • Ensure that Sweden’s foreign policy and development cooperation is actively promoting and strengthening democratic societies where civil society actors, including human rights defenders, can act and work freely. Strengthen support to civil society and democratic forces in countries with repressive regimes.
  • Strengthen the Drive for democracy and develop a concrete action plan in order to increase transparency and enable scrutiny to ensure that the Drive for democracy reaches its goals.
  • Ensure that Swedish development cooperation can support new strategies and innovative ways among the civil society so that they can continue to work in a hostile environment. Adapt aid modalities to current realities, for example, allow more flexibility, cover costs for security, support informal actors and networks etc.
  • Ensure that Swedish embassies have the knowledge and updated information about the situation for human rights defenders and risks in the countries. The embassies must have continuous contact and dialogue with civil society organisations in the country for information about the situation on the ground, vulnerable and marginalised groups, threats towards partner organisations etc.
  • Enable Swedish embassies to facilitate and create spaces for dialogue between companies, investors, representatives from authorities, affected communities and human rights and environmental defenders.
  • Work actively in the EU to ensure that the forthcoming legislation on business and human rights contains the necessary components in order to make it effective. Initiate an investigation on how this can become a Swedish law and how it can be integrated in the Swedish legal system. 
     

Women groups from Nijera Kori marching on Right to Information Day. Photo: Maria Persson, Swallows India Bangladesh.