Message for International Human Rights Defenders Day, December 9

December 9, 2021

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States Must Ensure That Human Rights Defenders Have Safe, Open, Free, and Favorable Environments to Work In: IACHR and OHCHR

Bogotá / Guatemala City / Mexico City / Panama City / Tegucigalpa / Santiago / Washington, D.C. – Ahead of International Human Rights Defenders Day, December 9, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression, and the Latin American branches of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) call on States in the region to ensure that human rights defenders have safe, open, free, and favorable environments to work in.

The IACHR and the OHCHR are concerned about recent measures that have reduced or even shut down platforms for civil society participation in political, economic, and social life. The adoption of regulations that are incompatible with international human rights standards to restrict the rights to freedom of expression, participation, peaceful assembly, and association has been intensified.

In some countries, including Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, are pursuing legislative initiatives or it has recently been proposed or adopted to restrict the free operations of human rights organizations, by not providing clear criteria to allow these organizations to work, by refusing to grant these organizations the required legal status or revoking that status, and by increasing the restrictions these organizations face to register, become formal institutions with an appropriate legal status, and generally operate. Some of these new regulations are being justified with reference to the need to preserve national security or fight organized crime and/or terrorist organizations, or their funding structures. In this context, new regulations include discretionary powers for surveillance and oversight of the activities of human rights defenders.

The IACHR and the OHCHR remind States that the free and full enjoyment of the right to freedom of association involves a State duty to create adequate legal and factual conditions to enable defenders to do their work freely. Regulations and legal requirements should not prevent, delay, or otherwise restrict the creation and operations of organizations for the defense of human rights.  

Further, the IACHR and the OHCHR note that, beyond repeated attacks on human rights defenders, various institutional practices and discourses persist that delegitimize and endanger human rights defenders. In many cases, these institutional stances serve as the basis for unjustified civil or criminal complaints aimed at obstructing efforts for the defense of human rights. There are reports of the use of ambiguous crime categories, failures to ensure due process, arbitrary arrests, and the long-term use of pretrial detention against human rights defenders.

The IACHR and the OHCHR also note a tendency to restrict peaceful protests by adopting tough legislation (including laws to criminalize the right to social protest), ambiguously using public order crime categories, and pursuing civil actions with the aim of precluding the critical work done by human rights defenders or their presence on civic platforms. Several countries in the Americas have witnessed instances of intimidation by law enforcement agencies, as well as a disproportionate use of force to repress peaceful demonstrations and efforts to criminalize individuals who take part in peaceful protests or who stand up for the rights of demonstrators, including human rights observers and healthcare workers.

As previously noted, by the IACHR and the OHCHR, the use of very intrusive surveillance technology—including malware and facial recognition technology—against human rights defenders not only violates these defenders' rights to privacy and freedom of expression, but could also potentially affect the integrity of other individuals who are close to them and generally encourages self-censorship. These virtual practices have been seen all around the Americas, including countries like Brazil and Mexico. This kind of illegal activity also affects independent media, which provides an essential component for the defense of human rights by recording and publicizing events and diverse opinions in contexts with a serious deterioration of democratic institutions and increased repression. The Mexican government announced that it will initiate an investigation into the use of these technologies.

The IACHR and the OHCHR call on States to protect free and plural civic platforms that are essential for the effective enforcement of democratic principles. The IACHR and the OHCHR therefore call on States to remove all legal and practical hurdles that prevent the recognition and free exercise of the right to defend human rights. Both institutions demand an end to the promotion and adoption of legislation, public policies, and discourses that stigmatize human rights defenders. The IACHR and the OHCHR also call for recognition of the fundamental role that defenders play for democracy and the rule of law, from the highest levels of government and in compliance with States' international commitments and obligations. The IACHR and the OHCHR call for the adoption of comprehensive public policies that ensure a favorable environment for the defense of human rights.

The IACHR and the OHCHR acknowledge the very important work done by human rights defenders in the Americas, frequently putting their lives at risk to defend democracy and the human rights of all individuals.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 328/21

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