Human Rights Council
22 February–19 March 2021
Agenda item 3
Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil,
political, economic, social and cultural rights,
including the right to development
In the present report, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, analyses the situation of the killing of human rights defenders. In her report, the Special Rapporteur raises the alarm about the prevalence of killings in many parts of the world, and considers the issue of death threats that often precede the killing of human rights defenders. The report includes examples of threats to and killings of human rights defenders. She makes recommendations to relevant stakeholders to halt this trend, and calls for compliance with existing legal norms and standards. She suggests ways to protect and support defenders to prevent future killings.
After having received death threats by phone for more than a year, environmental rights defender Fikile Ntshangase was shot dead in her home in Mtubatuba, South Africa, on the evening of 22 October 2020. Three gunmen fired six shots and she died at the scene. She was 65 years old and had been involved in a dispute over the extension of an opencast mining operation. She was a prominent member of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organization. Her lawyer told the Special Rapporteur that Mama Fikile had received threats by phone in the middle of the night in June 2019, and she had reported them to the local police. A few months before she was killed, she received more.
Such murders of defenders are often preceded by the sorts of threats directed at Ms. Ntshangase. Sometimes the threats are direct, sometimes indirect. Some are targeted at specific individuals, while others are more general or collective. These threats are often intended to intimidate, silence and stop human rights defenders from carrying out their work. There is no more direct attack on civil society space than the killing of human rights defenders.
Official statistics on the number of human rights defenders killed each year are limited nationally; they are only being reported globally and regionally. Information on how these deaths are connected with death threats, and the other physical threats that often precede them, is even more limited. Despite this, available statistics paint a grim picture. In the period from 1 January 2019 to 30 June 2020 alone, the Special Rapporteur sent communications to 10 Member States on the killing of 100 human rights defenders, including 17 women human rights defenders.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has observed that from 2015 to 2019, human rights defenders have been killed in at least 64 countries: Afghanistan, Algeria, Argentina, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belize, Bolivia (Plurinational State of), Brazil, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Fiji, Gambia, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Iraq, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Liberia, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mexico, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Somalia, South Africa, State of Palestine, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, Thailand, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, United Republic of Tanzania, United States of America, Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) and Yemen. This represents nearly one third of Member States (see map).
According to information gathered by OHCHR and supplemented by credible sources, at least 281 human rights defenders were killed in 2019. Since 2015, a total of 1,323 have been killed. Latin America is consistently the most affected region, and environmental human rights defenders are the most targeted (see sect. IV below). Those collecting data agree that underreporting is a common problem and that killings are fuelled by widespread impunity.
The previous mandate holder addressed the issue of impunity for attacks on human rights defenders in a report to the General Assembly in 2019. Those responsible for the killings often escape any accountability, which in turn makes such killings more likely to continue.
The present report has been prepared because the killing of human rights defenders is a priority for the Special Rapporteur. She regards the killing of defenders as a red line that no State or non-State actor should ever cross. Such killings can and should be prevented. Human rights defenders have asked the Special Rapporteur to contribute useful data and ideas on how best to prevent more killings from occurring.
The Special Rapporteur has decided to focus part of the present report on death threats, including the extent to which they can be seen as predictors of attacks, and what interventions might be beneficial in reducing the likelihood of an attack after a death threat has been received. In “The highest aspiration: a call to action for human rights”, the Secretary-General noted how threats to human rights defenders were part of a wider attack on civil society. He noted that repressive laws were spreading, with increased restrictions on the freedoms to express, participate, assemble and associate. Journalists and human rights defenders, especially women, were increasingly being threatened.
The Special Rapporteur notes that many Governments are failing in their obligations to protect human rights defenders from attacks and killings by State and non-State actors. Some States, in particular those with high numbers of such killings, have established dedicated protection mechanisms to prevent and respond to risks and attacks against human rights defenders. While these mechanisms have been successful in part, human rights defenders often complain that the mechanisms are underresourced, or that States lack the necessary political will to properly protect defenders.
Businesses also have responsibilities to protect human rights defenders, and many defenders are killed after protesting negative human rights impacts of business ventures. In too many cases, businesses are also shirking their responsibilities to prevent attacks on defenders or are even perpetrators of such attacks.
The Special Rapporteur notes that attacks, including killings of human rights defenders, often come in a context of structural violence and inequality, including in societies in conflict, and as the product of patriarchal, heteronormative systems. Threats and killings often happen when a context of negativity has been created around defenders generally, or around particular defenders. This can make them vulnerable to attacks. Changing how political leaders and the public perceive and speak about the value of the work of defenders, and emphasizing their positive contributions to society, could reduce the risk of defenders being attacked.
The more that is understood about this environment of negativity and the threats that precede the murders of human rights defenders, the more it should enable interventions to disrupt the escalation and prevent killings.
Human rights defenders face a range of assaults from State and non-State actors, including stigmatization, criminalization, physical attacks, arrest and torture. Human rights defenders report that smears and other abuse can escalate into physical assaults and killings. Other initiatives, including the Secretary-General’s 2020 call to action for human rights, and the Esperanza Protocol, established by the Center for Justice and International Law, advocate that States design policy measures for the protection of human rights defenders that incorporate the investigation of threats.
Not all death threats to human rights defenders are followed by a murder, and not all such murders are preceded by death threats. However, many killings are preceded by a threat.
The dimensions of threats are difficult to grasp. The Special Rapporteur recognizes that those who compile data on the threats and killings of human rights defenders stress that the figures are incomplete, that the definition of a death threat is not universally understood and that many threats go unreported.
Human rights defenders working on some issues appear to be particularly vulnerable to attack. They include environmental human rights defenders, those protesting land grabs or those defending the rights of people, including indigenous peoples, by objecting to Governments that are imposing business projects on communities without free, prior and informed consent. One in two victims of killings recorded in 2019 by OHCHR had been working with communities around issues of land, environment, impacts of business activities, poverty and rights of indigenous peoples, Afrodescendants and other minorities.
As noted by the previous mandate holder, States must take special measures to protect human rights defenders, in particular their rights to life and to humane treatment, when there are specific threats or pre-existing patterns of violence. Failure to adopt such measures to fulfil the heightened obligations must be considered by international bodies when determining the legal consequences of non-compliance (see sect. III below).
Some violations are closely related to killings but are not included in the present report. Many human rights defenders are subjected to enforced disappearances. Other human rights defenders with serious medical problems die in prison, despite calls for their release on health grounds. Human rights defender Azimjan Askarov was unjustly sentenced to prison in 2010 in Kyrgyzstan, and he was still in prison 10 years later. Despite appeals from the mandate holder, the United Nations, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to the authorities for his release, and warnings of his underlying health conditions, he died in July 2020.