Human rights defenders in increasing danger

A conference in Dublin this week heard about the dangers of human rights work, and how the lives of human rights defenders around the world are often at risk. By Deirdra O'Regan.

Over 100 human rights defenders from ninety countries gathered in Dublin this week for the 5th Frontline Platform for Human Rights Defenders. Participants from Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia Iran, Burma, Nicaragua and Haiti travelled to Ireland for the three day event.

Each of the delegates is at risk because of their work defending the human rights of others. The delegats campaign against people trafficking, the persecution of gay, lesbian and transgender people, and dangerous working conditions.

The Platform is organised by Frontline, the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, which is based in Dublin. The Platform is intended to give human rights defenders a chance learn strategies to strengthen their security, evaluate patterns of attack, discuss internet and communication security and share their experiences with each other. For many, it also offers a brief respite and an opportunity to let their guard down in a safe and secure environment.

At the opening of the platform, Mary Lawlor, Founder and Director of Frontline emphasised how, despite the commitments made by government over the years, the risks for human rights activists in many countries are increasing. She also praised their work: “Human rights defenders are people who make extraordinary sacrifices often putting their lives at risk. They are usually either on the move or on the run. They are the people who change society.”

Mary Lawlor also gave a chilling reminder of the very real dangers faced by human rights defenders: 

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Key note speaker UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pilay also praised the work of the defenders and Frontline and emphasised the need to improve the effectiveness of protection measures for human rights defenders at risk. 

“It is of vital importance to discuss at this forum and elsewhere-and as often and as visibly as possible - ways and means to minimise risks for human rights defenders, improve their safety and foster an environment conducive to human rights advocacy.”

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin commended the work of those attending the platform and pledged the governments support to human rights in the future. 

According to a Frontline report, launched by Margaret Sekkagya, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders yesterday, human rights defenders across the world face increased danger and restrictions in their work, with at least 24 murdered last year. 

The report also outlines how authorities in several countries increasingly use legislation to harass and persecute human rights defenders, resulting “in the use of trumped up charges ranging from terrorism, subversion, and hooliganism to fraud, defamation and tax evasion.” 

During 2009, Frontline issued 249 urgent appeals related to human rights defenders at risk in 56 countries and provided 154 security grants. In total, more than 500 human rights defenders benefited from Front Line’s protection support during 2009. 

Killings and attempted killings took place in many countries including Afghanistan, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, the Philippines, the Russian Federation and Sri Lanka.

The report says that “in many cases the authorities were directly implicated. In most cases they failed to carry out effective investigations and the murders remained unpunished.” 

While the majority of the human rights defenders present at the conference were from Africa, South and Central America and Russia, human rights defenders can be vulnerable in Western powers as well. 

Politico spoke to Paul Corbit Brown, a journalist and photographer from West Virginia. Paul was arrested while documenting police harassment of peaceful environment protesters. He is being singled out by the authorities and faces eighteen months imprisonment and a huge fine. His camera equipment, mobile phone, voice recorder, media cards and a personal notebook were taken from him and not returned.  When some of his equipment was returned four months later, it had all been destroyed. Paul was charged with ‘conspiracy’, a wide ranging and vague charge brought in during the Bush era. During his time campaigning against coal mining techniques, which he says are causing widespread damage to the environment and the health of the people living in his area, Brown has been verbally harassed, shot at and has had newspaper editors attempt to curb his right to free speech. 

Corbit Brown told Politico “...definitely the trend of breaching first amendment rights began in the bush administration, that administration was very blatant about stopping the press. Previous to that it was just newspaper editors didn’t want to run anti-coal stories because the coal industry bought a lot of advertising in the newspapers, so it was bad for business. Then it became a very political thing”.

An edited version of Frontline chairman Dennis O'Brien's opening address and the speech given by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pilay:
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