Back to top
5 January 2017

Annual Report 2016: HRDs Continue to Advocate Peacefully for Human Rights in More Countries Than Ever Before

Autocrats had a good year in 2016.

Brutal repression received a lot of encouragement.

Killers and torturers enjoyed impunity.

The commitment to human rights of supposedly democratic political leaders remained weak, an optional extra, a nice thing to do if it did not interfere with other interests.

Putin and Xi Jinping led an idealogical assault on the very idea of human rights.

And yet. In country after country around the globe, human rights defenders continued to work peacefully for the rights of the most vulnerable in the face of smears, threats, arbitrary detention, torture and killings.

There is a lot of human rights pessimism around. It is not only Trump who would concede to Putin. The BBC had an article last week proclaiming the end of human rights.

But the pessimists are living in the Western bubble. In much of the world those who work for the rights of women, for land rights, for the environment, for indigenous peoples’ rights, for the rights of the LGBTI community are growing in number and in voice. And they are celebrating achievements, even if they often come at too high a price. See for example the good news in our report about the conviction of the perpetrators of sexual slavery as a war crime in Guatemala.

But the advances often come at a very high price. We honour the 281 human rights defenders killed in 2016 that we name in this report, we mourn their loss and celebrate their lives and achievements. Each and every peaceful human rights defender killed is an outrage. The failure of governments to protect those who were threatened and the failure to bring to justice those responsible is a scandal. In addition, the scale of the killings in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and the Philippines is a bloody indictment of the governments concerned that demands an urgent and systematic response.

The 281 human rights defenders were murdered in 25 countries. The total is up from 156 the previous year, although part of the increase may be because we are becoming better at collecting the information thanks to the HRD Memorial project. 49% were working to defend land rights, indigenous peoples rights or environmental rights. 217 of those killed, more than three quarters, were killed in the Americas. 143 of these killings happened in Colombia and Brazil (85 and 58 respectively).

A review of the cases shows that killings rarely occur in isolation, these are calculated acts that usually occur after a series of often increasing threats. Yet in most cases where a threat was reported to the police or other authorities no action was taken.

This is not an uncontrollable phenomenon. In the Philippines there was a significant decline in killings in 2008/9 after significant international pressure. The trend is currently going in the opposite direction with the encouragement of President Duterte.

In Colombia the peace process has been accompanied by an increase in killings. The international community needs to do more to support the Colombian Government to put an end to this and to offer effective protection to those under threat.

Our annual report is once again a story of killings and repression. But it is also a story of the many ordinary women and men who in spite of the risks continue to advocate peacefully for human rights in more countries than ever before.

Berta Caceres worked for environmental and indigenous peoples rights in Honduras. She said:

“I cannot freely walk on my territory or swim in the sacred river

and I am separated from my children because of the threats.

I cannot live in peace, I am always thinking about being killed or kidnapped.

But I refuse to go into exile.

I am a human rights fighter and I will not give up this fight.”

Berta was murdered on the 3rd of March 2016.

As this report documents there are many human rights defenders around the world living with fear and loss. But they refuse to give up. They are persevering. They are our best hope of a better future. And we need to do more to support and protect them.