The number of murders, attacks, and acts of repression against human rights activists in Latin America has reached historic levels, according to a report called "El Riesgo de Defender", published today by Oxfam.
"The region has fallen into an unthinkable spiral of violence, and this must stop. Too many lives have been lost, and harassment against human rights defenders continues with impunity. It is time for governments to take action, with no more excuses or delays," said Asier Hernando, the Oxfam´s Regional Deputy Director in Latin America and the Caribbean.
With this new report, Oxfam joins other NGOs in bringing attention to this spike in murders and attacks against human rights defenders.
2015 was the deadliest year for human rights activists, with 122 murders reported in Latin America alone – that accounts for 65% of all such killings across the world. This is according to the new Oxfam report, which includes data from Global Witness and the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders, among others.
From January to May of this year there were 58 such murders. The two most recent victims were José Ángel Flores, the President of the Unified Movement of the Aguán (Muca en el Bajo Aguán), and Silmer Dionisio Jorge from the Unified Campesino. Flores and Jorge were murdered on October 18 in Honduras.
The report also stresses that women who are human rights defenders in particular are more exposed to violence, due to region´s prevailing sexist and patriarchal. El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras have all reported an increase in attacks against female human rights activists; the great majority of these cases remain unsolved and the perpetrators act with impunity. The number of cases reported that never make it to trial is shocking. In Mexico, 98.5% of these attacks are not brought to court, and out of 219 such cases in Colombia from 2009 to 2013, only six have led to convictions and sentencing.
"We are witnessing an unmitigated rise in attacks, including killings of leaders who fight in their own countries for basic human rights such as equality, access to water, or access to water or land. Even international recognition or support for human rights defenders has offered little protection, as seen in the cases of Berta Cáceres, murdered in Honduras, or Máxima Acuña, who continues to suffer ongoing attacks in Peru. If they can kill and threaten these recognized figures, the level of exposure and vulnerability for lesser known leaders is that much greater," Hernando added.
Oxfam believes that this situation is related to the expansion of extractive industries as a national revenue model for Latin American and Caribbean countries. The economic slowdown in the region has discouraged governments adopting more sustainable development strategies. To this extent, countries are opting to follow the wrong path, promoting extractive projects without real checks or controls. This trend has allowed powerful groups to take control of state institutions, thereby limiting governments' ability to fulfill their obligations to respect, protect, and promote human rights.
"Without a doubt, the dynamics of extractive industries fail to respect the right to free, prior and informed consent, as these businesses undertake large-scale projects without authorization from the communities, triggering widespread violence against citizens who oppose these projects in their territories. What is worse is that in the majority of these cases all of this occurs with the acquiescence of the governments, who grant licenses without regard for international protocols," said Hernando.
Oxfam calls upon the region´s countries to take urgent action to prevent these attacks and combat the impunity with which these crimes against human rights defenders in Latin America are committed. Results are needed in the short term to prevent greater loss of life. To produce these results, it is imperative that the region´s governments build structural solutions to resolve the economic crisis the Inter-American Human Rights Court faces, despite its role as the only body equipped to issue precautionary measures in these cases. Oxfam also calls upon the private sector, particularly extractive companies, to respect human rights and comply in all cases with free, prior, and informed consent and consultation processes with affected communities.