Amnesty International: ‘We’re living in a world of fear and division’

Murder, assault and surveillance: 2016 was not a good year for human rights defenders, according to Amnesty International. 281 activists were killed, many more silenced. We need better protection, says Guadalupe Marengo.

Türkei Demo gegen Protest-Verbot Taksim Square in Istanbul (Imago/Haytham Pictures)A silent protester on Taksim square in Istanbul. Amnesty International say we need to protect human rights defenders

Interview with Guadalupe Marengo, Amnesty International

DW: Why has 2016 been such a bad year for human rights?

Guadalupe Marengo: We are now living in a world where it’s us versus them, a world of fear and division, a world of demonization. And I think human rights have been caught in that sort of world in the last year. That is why we have launched this campaign – to aim for everybody to recognize and protect human rights defenders.

The human rights community, and the international community in particular, committed to recognizing and protecting human rights defenders twenty years ago. All the countries that are part of the United Nations voted unanimously – we now have a declaration that clearly says, let’s recognize these people, but also let’s implement measures to protect them.

Here we are almost 20 years later and hundreds of human rights defenders continue to be killed; at least 3500 have been killed since 1998, when the international community committed to recognizing and protecting them. If we do the math that’s one death every other day. And last year, in particular, the rise was among those defending land rights, and the environment.

Which countries are the worst offenders – where are human rights activists the most at risk?

If you look at the brief that we’ve published – Human Rights Defenders under threat – it’s world-wide. Just a few days ago in Mexico, Miriam Rodriguez, a woman who campaigned tirelessly to get justice after her daughter was abducted and killed, was shot dead.

So the attacks continue, and they can be prevented. Often what happens is that people ask for protection for years, and Amnesty and other organizations ask for protection for them too. But that protection isn’t given. It isn’t taken seriously and we end up with many deaths.

Your report is called Human Rights Defenders – a shrinking space for civil society. How has that space been diminished in the past? Are you referring to police crackdowns of peaceful demonstrations, such as the Standing Rock water protection movement in the US?

That is one example, but online surveillance is also shrinking this space. It’s very difficult to say anything without being attacked.

But yes, there is what we call excessive use of force by police when people go out and protest. We have various examples – the example you mentioned in Dakota, but also in other parts of the world – in Egypt, Turkey and Venezuela. When people go out on the streets, police use force, instead of allowing assembly and association, which is a right we all have under international law.

Amnesty International Guadalupe Marengo (Amnesty International/Mark Allan)Amnesty’s Marengo says we need to do more to protect human rights activists

You’ve highlighted the risk that comes with mass surveillance and new technology. Has it simply become easier to track and harass activists?

I think you put it perfectly: it has become easier. Because there’s always been surveillance, even before social media and the internet. The thing is that, now, it’s very difficult to protect yourself.

Smear campaigns spread quickly. Human rights defenders are accused of being anti-development, of being criminals, of defending terrorists, or of not having morals, because they are defending sexual productive rights or LGBTI rights. That is a total affront to human rights and those who defend them.

Does the rise of online trolls play a role in this?

In countries like Venezuela, if you’re attacked via social media, you’ll find it very scary to leave your home. Nobody’s really protecting you. What are our leaders doing? They’re not sending a clear message that this isn’t going to be tolerated.

And that’s what we’re hoping happens with this campaign: that we change the narrative and show the world that human rights defenders are ordinary people taking injustice personally and wanting a fairer world. And to make our leaders commit to saying: we’re not tolerating attacks on these brave people. We should applaud them and we should all become human rights defenders. We will then live in a much better world.

Guadalupe Marengo is the head of Amnesty International’s Global Human Rights Defenders Team.

http://www.dw.com/en/amnesty-international-were-living-in-a-world-of-fear-and-division/a-38861587

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