At least 331 human rights defenders promoting social, environmental, racial and gender justice in 25 countries were murdered in 2020, with scores more beaten, detained and criminalised because of their work, analysis has found.
Latin America, the most dangerous continent in the world in which to protect environmental, land and human rights, accounted for more than three-quarters of all the murders of human rights defenders in 2020. In Colombia, where activists are routinely targeted by armed groups despite a 2016 peace deal, 177 such deaths were recorded, more than half of the global total. The Philippines was the second deadliest country with 25 murders, followed by Honduras, Mexico, Afghanistan, Brazil and Guatemala.
While the majority (69%) of those killed were working on environmental, land or indigenous peoples’ rights, activists also found themselves being targeted simply for providing Covid-19 relief to their communities, according to a report published on Thursday by the advocacy group Front Line Defenders (FLD).
In a year when many countries implemented lockdown measures to help stem the spread of the pandemic, human rights defenders provided much-needed support by delivering PPE, medicines and food to sick and elderly people, filling in gaps left by their governments. Despite this assistance – or perhaps because of it – they faced a variety of reprisals, ranging from arrest and harassment to physical violence and murder, said FLD’s head of protection, Ed O’Donovan.
“The Covid-19 pandemic exposed many failures in many societies – notably systemic inequalities and failures of government to provide effective services to its citizens, which is sometimes by design,” O’Donovan said.
“Much of this can be traced back to corruption and undemocratic systems in which transparency and accountability are anathema to the interests of the ruling elites, both political and economic. Human rights defenders and civil society have been filling those gaps – despite still being targeted – offering services and an alternative vision for societies.”
O’Donovan said it was no surprise that in the Americas, activists working on impunity and justice issues suffered the second highest figure of violations against them, after those working on indigenous, land and environment rights.
Twenty human rights defenders working on anti-corruption were also killed in 2020 – the highest figure ever documented by FLD.