Global Analysis 2019
Global Analysis 2019 details the physical assaults, defamation campaigns, digital security threats, judicial harassment, and gendered attacks faced by HRDs and women human rights defenders (WHRDs) around the world. As recent events from Hong Kong to Baghdad have demonstrated, HRDs are at the forefront of social change and face significant threats and risks for doing so – whether demanding civil and political freedoms or protecting the environment and combating climate change.
2019 was characterised by waves of public uprisings of remarkable magnitude in each of the world regions, demanding changes to how people were governed. The role human rights defenders (HRDs) played in these protests ranged from organising and mobilising to monitoring and documenting human rights violations, and to assisting those who were injured or arrested. The causes of street protests and social unrest differed, but tended to revolve around outright rejection of deep economic inequality, rampant corruption, and calls for greater civil and political rights. Yet, security forces often responded with lethal force, as ruling elites in both democratic and more authoritarian systems came under pressure.
Looking back at the year, Andrew Anderson, FLD Executive Director, noted:
In 2019, we saw human rights defenders quite literally on the front lines defending and advancing rights in Hong Kong, Chile, Iraq, Algeria, Zimbabwe, Spain and many other cities and towns around the world. And despite repression, they continue to advance visions of their societies and the world that put to shame not only their own governments and leaders, but also the international community.
In 2019, 304 HRDs in 31 countries were targeted and killed for their work according to data collected by Front Line Defenders.
More than ever before, women human rights defenders are leading struggles for rights – and paying a heavy price. Despite unprecedented changes in Saudi Arabia for women, WHRDs such as Lujain Al-Hathloul and Samar Badawi, who led the struggle for the right to drive, to end the male guardianship system and for equal access, remain imprisoned. In neighbouring Iran, Nasrin Soutoudeh was sentenced in March to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes, the longest sentence received by a HRD in 2019. And while reporting on incidents of sexual violence and harassment remains low for a number of reasons, Front Line Defenders protection grants programme has supported an unprecedented number of WHRDs who have suffered such violations.
Speaking today at the launch of Global Analysis 2019 in Dublin, FLD Deputy Head of Protection, Meerim Ilyas, said:
Threats and attacks on women human right defenders take on dimensions specific to their gender and 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. This report highlights the complex nature of threats and intimidation against WHRDs.
The Global Analysis 2019 report documents how HRDs working to support and protect migrants have been targeted as governments around the world continue to fail to address refugee and migration flows. Migrant rights defenders in the United States were brought to court for providing humanitarian aid to migrants crossing the deadly Sonoran desert in the southwestern United States, while in Europe HRDs saving lives in the Mediterranean have also been criminalised and faced threats from right-wing nationalist groups at home. Irish citizen, Seán Binder, a rescue diver and trained maritime search and rescuer, volunteered as a coordinator of civilian rescue operations in Greece; he was detained and charged with money laundering, espionage and assisting illegal smuggling networks.
In addition to the physical attacks, restrictive legislation, intimidation and threats HRDs face, authorities have deployed various measures to attack HRDs and hinder their work online and in digital spaces. Internet shutdown, restricting access or blocking certain communication tools such as social media and instant messaging during protests, social upheavals or crises were commonplace in 2019. This impacted the work and security of HRDs in numerous ways; most obviously, with a communications blackout it was far more difficult for HRDs to report on human rights violations, communicate securely, organise and mobilise themselves.
The social media platform WhatsApp, popular for organising and communications, became a serious threat when it was weaponised against HRDs in a number of cases. Tibetan HRDs were sent WhatsApp messages purporting to be from NGOs and journalists which contained links designed to allow for the installation of spyware on their phones if clicked. In another case, Pegasus software created by the Israeli NSO Group was implicated in an attack on Moroccan HRDs.
Despite the difficult context in which HRDs worked in 2019, they remain at the forefront of generating positive social change:
- Mexican feminist groups and WHRDs celebrated the legalisation of abortion in the state of Oaxaca, as it became the first state in the country to decriminalise abortion since legalisation in Mexico City 12 years ago;
- In Jordan, the Parliament withdrew the Cybercrime Bill in February, after huge pressure from human rights activists and civil society organisations. The bill restricted freedom of speech and the right to privacy;
- Russian LGBTI+ rights defenders were successful in gaining visibility and public support, including within traditional human rights organisations; their events attracted many supporters and received substantial media coverage, despite the fact that the ban on “propaganda of homosexuality” constitutes a threat that could be enforced at any moment.
Front Line Defenders continues to work with HRDs to promote their security with a range of protection programming. In addition to risk management and digital protection trainings, advocacy at the national, international, and EU level, emergency relocation, Front Line Defenders provided over 620 protection grants to HRDs at risk in 2019. Front Line Defenders also works with HRDs to devise visibility campaigns to counteract the defamation and smear campaigns that put them at risk.