WASHINGTON: Latin America was the most dangerous region in the world for human rights defenders during 2020, and according to Defending Latin American Human Rights and Democracy Activists, a new report released today by Freedom House, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse. Under the guise of enforcing public health measures, governments have deployed authoritarian restrictions to inhibit movement, curtail freedoms of expression and assembly, and implement militarized security policies.
“This is a seminal study that lays the foundation for further areas of inquiry and analysis,” said Gerardo Berthin, vice president of international programs at Freedom House. “The report identifies the main needs of vulnerable activists and human rights defenders in Latin America and highlights major issues that merit regional and national attention.”
The report found that worsening human rights conditions have also spurred unprecedented levels of migration and displacement—including of human rights defenders—across the region. Growing migrant and refugee populations in Latin America have been especially vulnerable in the context of COVID-19, as border closures and lockdowns made living conditions even more precarious and curtailed mobility and access to information and services.
The democratic landscape in Latin America is discouraging. According to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2021 report, fewer than 40 percent of the countries in the region are classified as Free. Against this backdrop, the new study provides a baseline review of regional efforts to protect human rights defenders and prodemocracy civil society organizations in Latin America, including through shelter and relocation programs.
Human rights defenders are increasingly being forced into exile in neighboring countries, and many are unable to continue their work.
The pressure experienced by human rights defenders can push them beyond the limits of physical and psychosocial safety. This can result in some level of trauma, as well as severe psychological symptoms including anxiety, depression, feelings of isolation, and suicidal inclinations. The symptoms have also taken the form of physiological conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
Human rights defenders, especially women and Indigenous people, have sought to rethink “security,” moving away from a military and policing approach toward a more comprehensive and gender-balanced understanding. For example, women human rights defenders are incorporating the body, self-care, and self-awareness when defining security, and examining how these elements can affect other types of security, including the security of the family. For them, security is not just about reacting to a threat; it is also about maintaining economic security, food security, mental or psychological security, and physical health security. Indigenous human rights defenders are proposing to include their perspective in the design of protections for activists, dissidents, journalists, and others. This has begun to shift the focus of some protection mechanisms from the individual toward a more community-based model that accounts for the collective nature of human rights defense.
State-run protection mechanisms are often prescriptive, offering a predetermined menu of services that do not necessarily address the specific needs or risks faced by human rights defenders.
International protection organizations have implemented good practices pertaining to protection and security in general, aided by the expansion of internet access. This has enabled enhanced connection and communication with civil society organizations on the ground, including continuous and more systematic meetings and planning for effective protection.
The report contains two case studies of Venezuelan and Nicaraguan human rights defenders who have been forced into exile in Colombia and Costa Rica, respectively. The cases highlight key forms of individual, collective, and contextual support that would strengthen protection and allow human rights defenders to expand their work while in exile.
Few approaches to protect human rights defenders in Latin America have been evaluated systematically. The need for systematic evaluation is a key recommendation of the report, as such analysis could be used to develop future programs and strategic plans, and would help to identify the potential security risks that human rights defenders may face at home or in exile.
There are still gaps in knowledge about how to best support human rights defenders. However, human rights defenders themselves are driving efforts to share information about effective protection approaches. Thanks to their active involvement in protection strategies, temporary relocation providers, national protection organizations, and human rights defenders are more frequently raising the notion of holistic protection or integral security, which goes beyond physical or traditional security to include services such as medical, psychosocial, and psycho-emotional support.
The report reveals some emerging trends in protecting and providing support to human rights defenders in Latin America. For example:
- Human rights defenders in Latin America are not receiving the necessary protection from the government entities authorized to provide it, and in some instances, government officials have been involved in threats and attacks against human rights defenders.
- There is an elevated need to support and strengthen national protection measures, including by expanding in-country shelters where human rights defenders can seek safety when an immediate risk emerges.
- Regional shelters for human rights defenders in Latin America are operating at full capacity. Additional support is needed for displaced and exiled defenders.
- Most initiatives are being driven with support from external actors rather than national or local authorities.
- In many countries, demand for legal services by civil society organizations and human rights defenders exceeds supply.
- Human rights defenders are increasingly being viewed as agents of change and sources of insight on how human rights movements organize and strategize in restricted and undemocratic environments.