Alert Libya: new report documents hundreds of civilians killed
Annual Report 2021
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Human rights defenders

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human rights defenders released following our action together with partner organisations

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urgent interventions published in favour of 770 defenders and 70 NGOs in 67 countries

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defenders and 7 NGOs benefitted from financial support in 24 countries

In 2021, human rights defenders have continued to pay a very high price for their legitimate and crucial work, with the number of slain defenders increasing every year.

In many ways, the global health crisis has paralysed the human rights movement and deprived it of many of its traditional monitoring and fact-checking tools. It has also led to an almost universal breakdown of protection systems, both at the domestic and international levels. Not only has this situation led to a rise in grave human rights violations, but it has also sharply increased attacks on defenders.

This trend challenges the very legitimacy of human rights defenders and their work. The Covid-19 pandemic has further weakened local human rights organisations, and for some, threatened their sustainability. Yet, far from supporting civil society as actors who help those most in need, some States have leveraged this opportunity to further suffocate critical voices and challenge the right to defend rights. Defenders have faced increased violence, attacks and intimidation in full impunity, while civic space has continued to erode and dismantle across the globe, including through restrictive regulations specifically aimed at silencing all critical voices.

Toxic narratives against defenders have continued to spread in large parts of the world, stigmatising them as foreign agents, anti-development forces, or even terrorists. We have also seen an increased tendency to criminalise and detain activists, at little political cost. Now more than ever, defenders and their organisations need support systems to counter these threats and to continue their essential work.

In 2021, the OMCT was also a co-chair of the EU human rights defenders mechanism, ProtectDefenders.eu, which delivered life-saving support and multi-faceted assistance to nearly 8,700 of the most at-risk human rights defenders and grassroots human rights organisations around the world. This was 23% more than in 2020, amid the pervasive impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and the most critical environment for human rights defence work reported in years. ProtectDefenders.eu had to respond, among other severe crises, to the crackdown against civil society in Belarus, the consequences of the coup in Myanmar, and the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban.

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country reports published on the situation of defenders in Brazil, Guatemala, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Nicaragua, Peru, Thailand and Turkey

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human rights defenders arbitrarily detained in 48 countries

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human rights defenders killed worldwide

Supporting Afghan human rights defenders at risk

Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan last August, human rights defenders have been subjected to an exponential increase in deliberate attacks and threats by the Taliban and other armed groups. In response, we have multiplied efforts to try and rescue defenders from Afghanistan from the very early hours of the takeover, successfully supporting the evacuation of 16 Afghan defenders and their families.

In addition to this, we provided direct support to six Afghan defenders who fled and remained stranded in neighbouring countries or Europe, as well as to nine activists still in Afghanistan.

We carried out advocacy work, notably at the UN and EU levels, to ensure that the voices of local human rights defenders continue to be heard, keeping the focus on their plight and on the human rights abuses committed by the Taliban.

We are now discussing the feasibility and modalities of longer-term institutional support with local partners. This continued support is essential for the Afghan defender community, which has unique expertise on the situation. This includes support for groups in exile and also in-country assistance, to keep monitoring the dire human rights situation in Afghanistan.

Europe: New report highlights increased criminalisation against migrants’ rights defenders

In 2021, the OMCT published a report entitled Europe: Open Season on Solidarity, which documents increasing attacks and restrictions on the work of human rights organisations and activists defending migrants’ rights in Europe. Policies to deter migration and seal off borders continue to prevail over the imperative to respect human rights and save lives at both European Union and member State level. This, coupled with an overall shrinking space for civil society across Europe, has increased pressure on individuals and organisations that continue to raise their voices to defend migrants’ rights and provide assistance to people in distress at Europe’s land and sea borders.

Spain: Helena Maleno, criminalised for helping migrants

Helena Maleno works as a researcher specialising in migration phenomena, with a particular focus on women and children and expertise in human trafficking. She and other colleagues created the organisation Caminando Fronteras to help migrants demand their rights.

Since 2007, Helena Maleno and her team have been alerting the Spanish, Moroccan, and Algerian maritime rescue services to about every distress call from endangered boats attempting the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean.

On February 6, 2014, a group of around 300 people attempted to swim across the breakwater from Morocco to Ceuta, an autonomous Spanish city located within Morocco. Although Spanish authorities have denied involvement and the case is still in court, the testimonies gathered by Caminando Fronteras assure that once the migrants jumped into the water, the Spanish Civil Guard fired directly at them. The tragic event led to at least 14 dead, many wounded, and immediate pushbacks to Morocco.

Caminando Fronteras published an extensive report on this unnecessary use of force. Since then, harassment on social media has increased exponentially, with Helena Maleno receiving messages with pictures of guns, bullets, and even bodies of raped women. In 2014, she escaped an assassination attempt.

When Morocco initiated proceedings against her for “human trafficking” in 2017, Helena Maleno discovered that her own country had instigated the process. Spanish police had been investigating her since 2012 for “trafficking” and sent reports to Morocco, urging authorities to pursue the maximum penalty: life imprisonment. At the same time, police reports acknowledged that the activist was not benefitting financially from her activities. The objective was clear: to make an example out of Helena Maleno to deter those who defend the rights of migrants at Europe’s borders.

The complete lack of evidence of any crime led the Spanish prosecution to close proceedings against Helena Maleno in 2016. The Moroccan justice system did the same three years later. Despite this, Helena Maleno was forced to leave Morocco, where she had lived with her son and daughter for over 15 years.

"I am proud to fight against a system of death"

Helena Maleno speaks about her efforts to help migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

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Helping Vannesa Rosales defend women’s rights

In 2021, we denounced the harassment against human rights defender Vannesa Rosales, providing support as she faced legal charges for fighting against the criminalisation of abortion in Venezuela.

Vannesa Rosales was arrested on October 12, 2020, without a warrant, after she helped a 13-year-old girl who became pregnant after being raped repeatedly and whose life was at serious risk.

She was detained incommunicado until she was released under precautionary measures and placed under house arrest. The judicial process was marred by irregularities and violations of due process guarantees.

On July 21, 2021, the court ultimately dismissed the case against Vannesa Rosales. Yet both her detention and criminalisation have had grave impacts on her psychological and physical health as well as on her work as a women human rights defender.

We provided medical and psychosocial support to Vannesa Rosales as well as material assistance to help her move to a safer place, so she can continue her critical work in the defence of the sexual and reproductive rights of women in Venezuela.

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