Hope for Defenders: addressing the investigation of threats at the international level to promote local change

According to a Frontline Defenders Report, in 2017, 312 Human Rights Defenders were killed across the globe. Of these deaths, 67% occurred in the Americas. These 212 murders make Latin America the most dangerous region in the world to be a human rights defender. Unfortunately, these deaths are frequently not investigated, and the perpetrators go unpunished.

To fight this impunity, several countries in the Americas have approved or are discussing local protocols to promote the investigation of crimes committed against human rights defenders as well as other persons working for the public interest, including journalists, trade unionists and judicial officials, among others.

However, from Mexico to Brazil, human rights defenders continue to face attacks for advocating on behalf of those who are most vulnerable. High rates of impunity; the cooptation of state institutions by organized crime; the systematic exclusion of large sectors of the population; the abuse of the rights of indigenous peoples and of persons deprived of their liberty; restrictions on press freedom and limitations on the guarantees of social rights are just some of the ongoing realities that persist in the region and enable aggressions against defenders. Commonly, the starting point of an investigation is not the moment a threat is made against a defender, but the discovery of their body.

As a result, CEJIL -in a joint initiative with other organizations-, is developing a protocol that reflects international human rights standards for investigating threats against human rights defenders. The “Esperanza” Protocol, meaning “hope” in English, aims to place the obligation to investigate threats within broader public policy efforts to enable the defense of human rights, including protection measures and the investigation of other crimes against defenders.

In a region where threats against defenders are the norm, they function to intimidate and silence. However, the impacts of threats are almost never investigated exhaustively. Nor do they take into account the gender, ethnicity or identity of a defender. Through the Protocol, we aim to encourage states to adopt concrete guidelines to investigate threats and strengthen the capacity of individuals and collectives living in situations of vulnerability, including women, indigenous leaders and social activists, rural land defenders, and others, to freely defend our most basic rights.

As a final reflection, it’s worth noting that the “Esperanza” Protocol is named after the town where Honduran environmental activist Berta Caceres was murdered. An indigenous Lenca leader, feminist, and fierce land rights defender, Berta Cáceres gained international recognition for mobilizing her community against the construction of massive development projects on indigenous lands authorized by the Honduran government. In March 2016, after 33 threats against her life, Berta was murdered in her home in La Esperanza, Honduras.

Unfortunately, Berta’s story does not stand alone. Two years after the international outcry surrounding her assassination, human rights defenders continue to be threatened, criminalized and killed for their dedicated promotion of human rights. Just this March, council woman Marielle Franco was murdered in Rio de Janeiro for being a fearless advocate for the rights of Afro-Brazilians, LGBT people, women and low-income communities. Regional impunity fuels the cycles of local violence. For CEJIL, the Esperanza Protocol will be a way to continue protecting and giving voice to human rights defenders across the region. We cannot afford to lose another Berta Caceres or Marielle Franco.