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More than 300 human rights activists were killed in 2019, report reveals

The Guardian logo The Guardian 1/14/2020 Nina Lakhani
a group of people standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera: Photograph: Raúl Arboleda/AFP via Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Raúl Arboleda/AFP via Getty Images

More than 300 human rights defenders working to protect the environment, free speech, LGBTQ rights and indigenous lands in 31 countries were killed in 2019, a new report reveals.

Two thirds of the total killings took place in Latin America where impunity from prosecution is the norm.

Colombia, where targeted violence against community leaders opposing environmentally destructive mega-projects has spiraled since the 2016 peace accords, was the bloodiest nation with 103 murders in 2019. The Philippines was the second deadliest country with 43 killings, followed by Honduras, Brazil and Mexico.

2019 was characterized by waves of social uprisings demanding political and economic changes across the globe from Iraq and Lebanon in the Middle East to Hong Kong and India in Asia and Chile in the Americas.

The report by Front Line Defenders (FLD) details the physical assaults, defamation campaigns, digital security threats, judicial harassment, and gender-based attacks faced by human rights defenders across the world, who were on the frontline of protests against deep seated inequalities, corruption, and authoritarianism.

In the cases for which the data is available, the report found:

  • 85% of those killed last year had previously been threatened either individually or as part of the community or group in which they worked

  • 13% of those reported killed were women

  • 40% of those killed worked on land, indigenous’ peoples and environmental issues

In nearly all countries that experienced mass protests last year, human rights defenders – who mobilized marches, documented police and military abuses, and helped citizens who were injured or arrested – were specifically targeted.

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Video provided by Reuters

For instance, in Chile, in the biggest anti-government protests since the end of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, at least 23 people were killed and 2,300 injured, with scores blinded by non-lethal projectiles.

In Iraq, where anti-corruption protests during October and November left more than 300 people dead, Saba Al Mahdawi was abducted and held for nearly two weeks by unidentified militants. She was most likely targeted as a result of her work providing food, water and medical aid to injured protesters.

Honduras, a key geopolitical US ally, has been one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a woman, lawyer, journalist and land or environmental defender since the 2009 military backed coup unleashed a wave of unchecked violence. Last year, targeted killings in the Central American nation increased fourfold compared to 2018, as tens of thousands of people fled a toxic mix of violence, poverty and corruption, and journeyed overland through Mexico to the US southern border in search of security.

Yet despite difficult and frightening circumstances, human rights activists have continued to spearhead positive social changes.

For instance, Mexican reproductive rights defenders celebrated the legalisation of abortion in the state of Oaxaca – following in the footsteps of Mexico City 12 years earlier. While in Jordan, lawmakers withdrew the Cybercrime bill, which proposed restrictions to the freedom of speech and the right to privacy, after a high-profile campaign by civil society groups.

Andrew Anderson, executive director of FLD, said: “In 2019, we saw human rights defenders on the front lines defending and advancing rights in Hong Kong, Chile, Iraq, Algeria, Zimbabwe, Spain and many other cities and towns around the world. And despite repression, they continue to advance visions of their societies and the world that put to shame not only their own governments and leaders, but also the international community.”

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