I will never forget the chill that ran down my spine the first time I saw Francisco, a Colombian labour activist and dear friend, casually reach into the closet for his bullet proof vest so that he could accompany me on a short walk in the Bogotá neighbourhood where he worked.
In Colombia, and many parts of the world, women and men who defend human rights face incredible risks to their physical safety. According to Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, attacks against human rights defenders (HRDs) are on the rise everywhere.“This is not random violence… but concerted attacks against those who try to embody the ideal of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Attacks come in many forms, but all are designed to impede the work of HRDs while intimidating communities and organizers into silence. HRDs suffer physical assaults, written or verbal death threats, arbitrary detention,judicial intimidation, smear campaigns, stigmatisation and criminalisation. Targeted assassinations are on the rise: a June 2018 report by Front Line Defenders documented a 100% increase in killings of HRDs over the past four years. The risk is especially high in four countries where Inter Pares collaborates with local counterparts: Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, and the Philippines. The majority of people were targeted for protecting land, environmental or Indigenous peoples’ rights, often in remote rural areas.
Inter Pares remains vigilant to threats against our local counterparts overseas and has joined with allies in calling for Canada’s embassies abroad to effectively implement the Voices at Risk guidelines adopted by the Canadian Government in 2016. These provide directives to better protect and support local HRDs, including those who are challenging the impact of the overseas operations of Canadian corporations.
We also support Project Accompaniment Quebec-Guatemala (PAQG) and the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network (BTS) which provide accompaniment to local activists and communities under threat. As international accompaniers, they document intimidations, threats or acts of violence, and quickly disseminate that information through national and international networks. The intention is to help deter violent action and create a space in which human rights defenders can continue to speak out.
Human rights activists, like my Colombian friend Francisco, know that bullet proof vests are not the solution. Together with these courageous defenders, we work for the day when the promotion and protection of human rights is supported and understood as a basic civil right and a public good.