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6 May 2020

Organizations Urge Governments to Protect Activists and Communities Threatened by Armed Groups During COVID-19 Pandemic

Washington, D.C.--In response to the increased vulnerability of human rights defenders brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, a broad assortment of civil society organizations today urged the governments of Honduras and Colombia to adopt all measures necessary to guarantee the human rights of defenders, social leaders, and ethnic communities in those countries. Defenders and social leaders are under increased attacks from armed groups illegally mobilized to harass and attack them as the defenders respect necessary social isolation orders. Some 116 groups signed the letter directed at the Honduran government; 101 signed the letter to the government of Colombia. 

View/Download the Letter

“The COVID-19 pandemic is intensifying the human rights crises in Honduras and Colombia,”  said EarthRights Executive Director Ka Hsaw Wa. “These governments are wisely protecting the public with shelter in place requirements. But these same measures have introduced new risks to human rights defenders who are now particularly vulnerable to violence from armed groups trying to silence them. We urge the governments of Honduras and Colombia to uphold the human rights of these defenders during this public health crisis.” 

Colombia and Honduras are both widely regarded as two of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights, environmental, and land rights defenders. While the Inter-American Commission granted precautionary measures to farmers in the Bajo Aguan in 2014, the Honduran government has failed to adequately comply. More than 140 Campesino leaders in Honduras have been assassinated since 2010. Since shelter in place rules were implemented, at least 20 defenders in Colombia have been murdered, with others in that country and Honduras threatened, harassed, or injured by illegal armed groups, especially paramilitary forces associated with extractive companies. Some 84 defenders and social leaders have been killed in Colombia since January 1 of this year. 

While threats against defenders and social leaders have been reported to the authorities in both countries, protection measures have not ensured their safety. In Colombia, the government has failed to provide armored cars for defenders, which are required by protection measures, making it more difficult for them to mobilize in case of attack. Afro-decedent leaders in Colombia also report that the process of implementing protection measures has stalled, exposing communities to severe violence. On March 28, Colombia’s National Attorney General urged the country’s National Protection Unit to adopt measures to guarantee the lives of social leaders as the pandemic escalated. According to the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights, states must continue to uphold international standards of human rights during the pandemic, considering the ways in which COVID-19 is intensifying threats towards “vulnerable” groups such as women, indigenous people, LGBTI people, people of African descent, human rights defenders, and social leaders. 

In Honduras, the Council of Ministers approved an Executive Decree on April 11, which established “measures to ensure food sovereignty and security.” The next day, President Juan Orlando Hernández presented a plan to guarantee food security for the country. But the plan prioritizes agribusiness operations, leaving little support for small, independent producers or land rights defenders, nor does it take into account the increased security risks imposed by the pandemic. 

Guapinol land and water defenders 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 detention has “no sound legal justification” and constitutes “judicial harassment of the defenders in the absence of clear incriminating evidence against them.” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet stated on March 25, 2020: “now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views.”

Despite the unprecedented challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, states have a legal requirement to protect the rights and safety of defenders, social leaders, and ethnic and Campesino communities. The Inter-American Commission has reminded States that emergency measures must “adhere to unconditional observance of inter-American and international standards on human rights, which are universal, interdependent, indivisible and cross-cutting.” Specifically, States cannot suspend ‘non-revocable’ rights and must “adopt an intersectional human rights approach in all of their government strategies, policies and measures to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences.” The Inter-American Commission also emphasizes that states must consider the differential ways that the pandemic will impact “particularly vulnerable groups,” among them “human rights defenders [and] social leaders.”

In light of the threats posed to defenders under COVID-19, the groups are calling on the governments of Honduras 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. 

For more information, read the letters to the National Protection System of Honduras and the National Protection Unit of Colombia.