The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the essential role of human rights defenders in protecting the rights of their communities. Yet, as the virus spread, we saw a rise in attacks against defenders. Restrictive measures meant to combat the virus often ended up undermining fundamental freedoms. Some States used the pandemic to further silence critical voices and reduce civic space.
Defenders were subjected to smear and defamation campaigns, physical attacks, and judicial harassment. Journalists, bloggers, and activists who denounced their government's response to Covid-19 were targeted in Venezuela, Cambodia, China, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and many more countries. There is a strong concern that once this pandemic is over, the increased restrictions and threats to defenders will remain.
In the past years, defenders have been at increased risk of criminalisation and detention worldwide. The unfair incarceration of defenders is a violation of their rights and of our rights to protect ourselves and our communities against abuses. Most governments have refused to release defenders from prison, despite the pandemic and the increased risk of contamination in overcrowded jails. Some defenders were even denied access to healthcare as a form of punishment.
human rights defenders were released following action by the OMCT and partner organisations
urgent interventions were organised in favour of 723 defenders and 59 NGOs in 71 countries
defenders and 7 NGOs benefitted from financial support in 25 countries
human rights defenders were arbitrarily detained in 52 countries
human rights defenders were killed worldwide in 2020
attacks against defenders out of 100 were related to their work on land, indigenous peoples and environmental rights
Internal enemies - human rights under attack in Venezuela
In 2020, the OMCT published a report entitled Internal enemies - human rights under attack. It was the first study to document attacks against defenders in Venezuela and to provide an analysis of the risks for human rights defenders and organisations in the country.
The report was complemented by political advocacy with country delegations, UN mechanisms and a launch for the media.
In April 2020, 10 experts from the UN sent a communication to the Venezuelan government denouncing the criminalisation and attacks of defenders. They issued a joint statement that includes the main conclusions and concerns from our report.
Launch of our #FacesOfHope campaign, calling for the release of all defenders detained worldwide
In May 2020, the OMCT launched its social media campaign #FacesOfHope to call for the release of all human rights defenders imprisoned around the world. This campaign denounces the situation of 10 human rights defenders from the Philippines, Egypt, Guatemala, India, Cameroon, Peru, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Mexico.
Twelve members of the European Parliament from six countries joined our call for the release of human rights defenders imprisoned worldwide, including those featured in the #FacesofHope campaign.
Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Our transversal approach mobilises all the tools at our disposal to reinforce the protection of human rights defenders. It has led to the release of Safoora Zargar in India and Walter Aduviri Calisaya in Peru.
The OMCT multiplied the approaches to ensure Safoora Zargar’s release: publication of urgent interventions and mobilisation of relevant international actors, including the UN special procedures, the European External Action bodies and the EU Delegation in India.
In May 2020, the Chair of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI) wrote to the Indian authorities to express serious concerns about the recent arrests of activists in India, including Safoora Zargar. In June, 13 UN experts similarly called on Indian authorities to release human rights defenders arrested for protesting against changes to Indian citizenship laws.
Only a few weeks later, on June 23, 2020, the Delhi High Court granted bail to Safoora Zargar, who was effectively released from Delhi’s Tihar Jail the next day.
According to local partners, her release came as a result of international pressure. In November 2020, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) declared Safoora’s detention arbitrary. Yet as the harassment of activists continues, and considering that Safoora may be sent back to jail at any time, the OMCT intends to keep up the pressure on the Indian government.
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