Washington, D.C.–In responseto the increased vulnerability of human rights defenders brought on by theCOVID-19 pandemic, a broad assortment of civil society organizations todayurged the governments of Honduras and Colombia to adoptall measures necessary to guarantee the human rights of defenders, socialleaders, and ethnic communities in those countries. Defenders and socialleaders are under increased attacks from armed groups illegally mobilized toharass and attack them as the defenders respect necessary social isolationorders. Some 116 groups signed the letter directed at the Honduran government;101 signed the letter to the government of Colombia.
“The COVID-19 pandemic isintensifying the human rights crises in Honduras and Colombia,” saidEarthRights Executive Director Ka Hsaw Wa. “These governments are wiselyprotecting the public with shelter in place requirements. But these samemeasures have introduced new risks to human rights defenders who are nowparticularly vulnerable to violence from armed groups trying to silence them.We urge the governments of Honduras and Colombia to uphold the human rights ofthese defenders during this public health crisis.”
Colombia and Honduras are bothwidely regarded as two of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights,environmental, and land rights defenders. While the Inter-American Commissiongranted precautionary measures to farmers in theBajo Aguan in 2014, the Honduran government has failed to adequately comply. Morethan 140 Campesino leaders in Honduras have been assassinated since2010. Since shelter in place rules were implemented, at least 20 defenders inColombia have been murdered, with others in that country and Hondurasthreatened, harassed, or injured by illegal armed groups, especiallyparamilitary forces associated with extractive companies. Some 84 defenders andsocial leaders have been killed in Colombia since January 1 of this year.
While threats againstdefenders and social leaders have been reported to the authorities in bothcountries, protection measures have not ensured their safety. In Colombia, thegovernment has failed to provide armored cars for defenders, which are requiredby protection measures, making it more difficult for them to mobilize in caseof attack. Afro-decedent leaders in Colombia also report that the process ofimplementing protection measures has stalled, exposing communities to severeviolence. On March 28, Colombia’s National Attorney General urged the country’sNational Protection Unit to adopt measures to guarantee the lives of socialleaders as the pandemic escalated. According to the Interamerican Commission onHuman Rights, states must continue to uphold international standards of humanrights during the pandemic, considering the ways in which COVID-19 isintensifying threats towards “vulnerable” groups such as women, indigenouspeople, LGBTI people, people of African descent, human rights defenders, andsocial leaders.
In Honduras, the Council ofMinisters approved an Executive Decree on April 11, which established “measuresto ensure food sovereignty and security.” The next day, President Juan OrlandoHernández presented a plan to guarantee food security for the country. But theplan prioritizes agribusiness operations, leaving little support for small,independent producers or land rights defenders, nor does it take into accountthe increased security risks imposed by the pandemic.
Guapinol land and waterdefenders in Honduras who were already under acute risk before the pandemic,report increased threats for contracting COVID-19 as they are detained in prison,awaiting trial for speaking out against mining operations in their communities.Members of the European Parliament recently said that this pre-trial detentionhas “no sound legal justification” and constitutes “judicial harassment of thedefenders in the absence of clear incriminating evidence against them.” U.N. HighCommissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet stated on March 25, 2020: “now,more than ever, governments should release every person detained withoutsufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detainedsimply for expressing critical or dissenting views.”
Despite the unprecedentedchallenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, states have a legal requirement toprotect the rights and safety of defenders, social leaders, and ethnic andCampesino communities. The Inter-American Commission has reminded States thatemergency measures must “adhere to unconditional observance of inter-Americanand international standards on human rights, which are universal,interdependent, indivisible and cross-cutting.” Specifically, States cannotsuspend ‘non-revocable’ rights and must “adopt an intersectional human rightsapproach in all of their government strategies, policies and measures to dealwith the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences.” The Inter-American Commissionalso emphasizes that states must consider the differential ways that thepandemic will impact “particularly vulnerable groups,” among them “human rightsdefenders [and] social leaders.”
In light of the threats posedto defenders under COVID-19, the groups are calling on the governments ofHonduras and Colombia to:
- Classify the work of domestic protection mechanisms as essential and ensure they continue to operate despite social isolation measures.
- Ensure that security mechanisms are complied with in accordance with recipients’ wishes. Provide all the material support necessary to ensure defenders’ safety.
- Reevaluate current security schemes to account for changes in the panorama of risks triggered by obligatory social isolation measures.
- Authorize protocols that allow defenders to continue their essential work in the context of the pandemic, in accordance with the guidance of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
- Provide beneficiaries, their bodyguards, and indigenous and cimarron guards (where applicable) with essential Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), including masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and thermometers.
- Monitor the provision of humanitarian assistance and ensure that protected individuals and communities are not denied food aid, PPE, and/or healthcare due to stigmatization and discrimination.