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1 February 2020

304 killed in 2019 defending land, indigenous rights


The most dangerous and deadly sector of human rights defence involves land, environmental and indigenous rights, according to a report by Front Line Defenders.

The Irish-based human rights organisation, which supports those who struggle to protect their communities, said that 304 people across 31 countries were targeted and killed last year.

Almost half of those murdered worked defending environmental and indigenous rights.

Front Line Defenders said this was due to "the profit driven exploitation of natural resources, combined with corruption, weak governments and poverty".

Speaking to RTÉ News, Executive Director of Front Line Defenders described the scale of the killings as "horrific". 

Andrew Anderson that almost one person a day is being killed around the world because they are working "peacefully to defend land rights, environmental rights" and to "hold the powerful to account". 

"The true scale of the problem is probably much higher" he said. 

One of those killed, according to the organisation, was Leah Tumbalang, who was shot dead in the Philippines in August after campaigning against mining activities beginning in the province of Bukidnon.

Ms Tumbalang's death was the 14th murder of an indigenous peoples' rights defender the area in the first eight months of 2019.

The report also highlights eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where communities living around agricultural concessions for palm oil plantations have faced judicial harassment and police intimidation for denouncing land-grabbing.

Last year saw mounting pressure on activists defending LGBTI rights, as well as women's rights and migrants' rights.

Female activists faced online smear campaigns, trolling and defamation to intimidate, shame or harass in order to push women activists out of online spaces.

The statistics show that 13% of human rights defenders killed in 2019 were women.

Front Line Defender Deputy Head of Protection Meerim Ilyas said that the threats and attacks on women often involve sexual threats and violence.

"Women are punished for their public work by having their private lives attacked and their role as mothers, wives and partners questioned," she said.

The report also notes some positive developments, including the male guardianship system being revoked in Saudi Arabia, women from the Sulaliyat tribe in Morocco being able to inherit and own land, and Sudan removing a law where women could be arrested if found dancing, wearing trousers or mixing with men who were not their relatives. 

With massive protests in Iran, Hong Kong and Chile, Front Line Defenders said that 2019 was characterised by waves of public uprisings of "remarkable magnitude", which demanded change of how people are governed.

However, it said there were restrictions on freedom of expression and authorities often invoked "security" as a justification to ban all peaceful demonstrations

Physical assaults, defamation campaigns and digital attacks were major issues.

Internet shutdowns, restricting access or blocking communication tools, such as social media, were common.

Messaging app WhatsApp, which is popular for organising and communications, became a "serious threat" when it was used against human rights defenders in a number of cases.

In one case, Front Line Defenders said Tibetan activists were sent messages pretending to be from NGOs and journalists, but which contained links to allow for the installation of spyware on their phones.

As the role of human rights defenders ranged from organising and mobilising to monitoring and documenting human rights violations, the human rights organisation said it provided more than 620 protection grants to activists at risk in 2019.

Activists can apply for funding of up to €7,500 for protection needs.

The grant data for 2019 shows that one in ten women were receiving funding after being physically attacked.