Human rights

Increased repression putting human rights defenders lives at risk

12 November Nov 2015 1304 12 November 2015

The recent shooting of Burundian human rights defender Pierre Claver Mbonimpa highlights what human rights foundation Front Line Defender’s are calling a “growing global backlash against human rights defenders (HRDs), which has now reached crisis point”. Vita International spoke to Emma Achilli, head of Front Line Defender's European Union Office, to learn more.

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The recent shooting of Burundian human rights defender Pierre Claver Mbonimpa highlights what human rights foundation Front Line Defender’s are calling a “growing global backlash against human rights defenders (HRDs), which has now reached crisis point”. Vita International spoke to Emma Achilli, head of Front Line Defender's European Union Office, to learn more.

What is Front Line Defenders? Why was it created?

We were created in 2001 by the previous head of Amnesty International Ireland, Mary Lawlor, who, after seeing that Amnesty had switched focus away from individual cases towards economic and social rights, decided that she wanted to create an organisation whose focus was human rights defenders at risk.

Do human rights defenders fit a typical profile?

There is a UN Declaration adopted by the General Assembly on human rights defenders that specifies that they can be individuals as well as organisations who work for the defence of human rights for the society in which they live. It can be anyone from lawyers who are fighting for the rights of their clients to a fair trial, to indigenous communities fighting for the right to a due process on the sale of their land.

Why are human rights defenders considered to be "at risk"?

Human rights defenders are at risk because they challenge governments and companies’ deep-rooted political or economic interests. If they're challenging the president on his presidential terms, or companies that have ties to the government and are illegally exploiting resources, they are harassed for their work. Nowadays, governments attack them on seemingly administrative, legal, or tax charges, so it doesn't look like a political case. Before they would send policemen to beat defenders up, but now they send groups of thugs. They are getting more indirect. In Burundi, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa was shot in his car by someone that wasn't specifically identifiable. However, this extreme form of harassment is usually preceded by systematic harassment that can be linked to the authorities: repeated visits by police to the organization offices, and statements by officials discrediting their work.

What makes you decide to take on a case?

We wait for them to come to us. Then we ask for five people who aren't linked with each other to validate the information the defenders are giving us, so we can guarantee that it is a genuine case. The challenges for us are in zones of conflict, because there are so many cases coming out of there, but security-wise it's become impossible to verify our information.

Are you having to turn legitimate cases down?

For the moment we answer all cases, but we have a maximum of 5000 euro for every time a person is harassed or they need help. If we can't help a human rights defender, we direct them to other organisations that can. However, there's such a crackdown on civil society everywhere.

The individual defender will be more and more the figure of the future, and organisations less and less.

States have become clever: they are all copying each other in trying to have laws that limit the scope of the work that NGOs can do, by putting almost impossible registration requirements, and requiring government officials to be on the board. This is happening on all continents. The Russians started, and it spread from there. It’s part of an anti-Western feeling: after the wave of democracy where elections were open, the states now want to hold onto their power and quieten down civil society to avoid being exposed internationally.

The number of requests we've had to help people has gone up exponentially.

How many cases are you dealing with today?

We issued 260 appeals on behalf of 440 individuals in 68 countries this year, and 411 security grants for a total of 1 million euros. More than a fourth of these grants are for temporary relocations.

Once you accept a case, what kind of support do you give concretely?

If they say they need a reinforced door because their offices are being broken into, we'll send the money to buy one. What the authorities want is the information: they usually try to steal the computers and the data.

More and more governments are buying surveillance equipment from European and Chinese companies, so they can tap into the communication networks of defenders.

Defenders are usually so focused on their work that they're not very strict about securing their channels of communication. We help them with security training. We teach them to use digital security, how to secure their mobile phones, and encryption.

What is the level of security sophistication in African countries? Is it similar to Russia’s?

Not always, but Ethiopia has the level of security of Russia. They have massively invested in surveillance. The case of the Zone 9 bloggers actually rests on the fact that they used our secure programs to communicate with each other, because in Ethiopia the anti-terrorism laws state that you cannot use encryption.

Do you work with security companies?

No, as it would be cost ineffective and slow. It's usually urgent: the HRD’s need the security that same day. We send the money, and they organise the security themselves. We've been pressing for years for states to set in place protection mechanisms for defenders. However, there are cases such as in Mexico, where they have given the contract to protect defenders to the same security companies that have been involved in repressing them.

What brought you to the decision to open an office here in Brussels?

One of the main requests we hear from defenders is with regards to publicity, as they say that it often helps their case. In some cases, like China for example, it is the inverse, where international tension makes your case worse. However, it's often useful to them if the EU picks up the phone, to contact a government and ask questions about why the state is not offering these defenders protection, or they make declarations, and send diplomats to the trials. Defenders are constantly faced by defamation campaigns, so recognition by the international community gives them some legitimacy. By having an office here, we can communicate directly with the EU on behalf of the defenders.

It's also useful having all the other NGOs here in Brussels, as we work together on the most important cases. We have a platform dedicated to human rights defenders called the Human Rights and Democracy Network, and it's made up of 48 NGOs. Our next meeting is on the 12th November, and we work on both individual cases and actioning changes on a policy level.

With the increase in cases, what is your long-term strategy?

We need all the governments who are in support of civil society to step up. They support individual cases, but they are not addressing the trend of increasing repression. They don't have a strategy yet, and that is beyond the scope of NGOs. What we can do is support people in challenging the crackdown, but we're small. We need governments to put this issue on the agenda, but they have interests that often prevent them from doing so: one example would be the energy deal with Azerbaijan, where the EU is not denouncing harassment of human rights defenders, because they have a vested interest in the country’s energy sector. There is also the fact that postcolonial states are often nervous about commenting on human rights, because they don't want to come across as paternalistic. There is a slow shift occurring, where they are realising that development without human rights doesn't work, and therefore human rights defenders need to be protected.

Where are the new hotspots that you're seeing coming up? What’s the future looking like for human rights defenders?

The places that we've seen worsening are Mexico, Colombia, and Central America. Some people say that it's the opening of the trade barriers and the war against drugs that has militarised society. Guns are coming in, and police tasks are being taken over by the military. All over the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region it has become very difficult, because there has been a militarisation of society: especially around the Mediterranean, it's impossible to escape sides in the political situations, and defenders are getting caught on one side or the other.

As needs increase, we need bigger networks, but this crackdown is affecting everyone. We don't have public offices anywhere, because it is such an easy target. The future will not belong to big organisations but informal networks, where we use new systems like anonymous credit cards to channel funds around. It's a permanent challenge for us. Anti-terrorism laws initiated by the EU are making it easier for countries to check on financial flows, which means that we have to constantly find new ways of doing things in a more underground way.

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