skip to Main Content

Activists need new tools to protect themselves

A record number of activists are being killed in Latin America – and old methods of security aren’t working. How do we protect activists facing threats from shadowy actors and complicit governments?

To begin answering this question, the Fund for Global Human Rights and Just Associates (JASS) brought together activists from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Colombia as well as international organizations in January of this year. The groups homed in on the changing needs of human rights defenders in light of the increasing trend of non-state actors attacking activists.

This new context for activists requires new tools. The groups concluded that human rights defenders need more sophisticated methods to detect and prevent attacks, and support for collective, community-led protection approaches. In a blog for OpenGlobalRights, Honduran activist Padre Melo, who attended the convening, offers insights on how activists are targeted and ways to protect against these tactics.

Below are the full interviews (in Spanish, with an English transcription) with activists who attended the convening in Mexico City:

Interview with Miriam Miranda

Miriam Miranda, general coordinator of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduraas (Ofraneh).

Q: Why are people who stand up for human rights at risk from companies, organized crime and extremist political groups, and what can be done to protect them?

Well, those of us who defend human rights are at risk for various reasons. In my case, I feel that countries are more and more weakened institutionally. In some places we face failed states, governments that do not guarantee security to its citizens. And also, citizens of these governments and states answer to the interests of powerful interest groups and transnational capital. I think a very important topic to take into account is that governments or states have no autonomy with respect to companies, institutions and international financing, transnational capital.

And I think it is important to stress this because there is an absolute dependence on foreign investment, there are no long-term plans wherefore the states can guarantee the welfare of society, and therefore they administrate, they carry out external plans and programs, with external agendas. I think this is one of the great reasons why today human rights defenders are more at risk than ever, because there is no interest on the part of the state to guarantee the wellness of society as a whole, and especially for human rights defenders, as is their obligation. That it is not only the responsibility of the government, but also the duty of the State. The State owes itself precisely to the citizens that make up the State.

What can be done to protect, to guarantee the physical, psychological, moral integrity and all that a person’s integrity entails? There are no established recipes. We are learning to protect ourselves as we go. But I do think that there are extremely important elements that we must continue to strengthen, we must ask for, and try to demand social responsibility from businesses and from states, to guarantee protection of defenders. We must also look into protocols that must be respected and followed internationally.

There is something nowadays that we must talk about, which is cost/benefit, and what it means. In other words, how much does a government or state lose by allowing exploitation of common natural goods? This is especially important to calculate now that we are more at risk than ever, because of climate change, and a lack of awareness of risks on the part of local governments. It seems to me that we must work on raising awareness of the cost/benefit among members of the state and society as a whole, and of the persecution against human rights defenders. We must insist that defending common natural goods is not only a defense of the human rights defender, but also a defense of humanity, a defense of the human rights of society as a whole.

I think that it is also important to insist on raising awareness of this problem, and demand answers and solutions to this problem from the part of the state. Not only for human rights defenders: the situation that leads to the violation of human rights, to the violation of human rights defenders, must gradually be changed. I do not think that it is the person herself, but the situation that generates the reiterated and systematic violation of human rights against human rights defenders. I think there are many things that can be done, and these are the ones I can think of at the moment.

Q: Why is it important to understand how power structures and gender and race discrimination shape this threat?

I think it is important to understand how important power structures, racism, and discrimination are in this context. We live in highly sexist societies, with so much discrimination and racism, in a patriarchal and capital system that privileges the material over the human. I think that is something we must understand.

And so power has many diverse forms of pressuring other powers, because there is not one only power. I feel that our states have all of the conditions necessary to perpetuate impunity. There is no guarantee on the part of the state that, firstly, these attacks will not be repeated, and secondly, there will be a minimum of security for the entire population, especially those who defend human rights, as a human right, and this means that those in positions of power feel at ease. They can do what they want with impunity, because they feel that they have the right to violate others’ human rights.

The situation has become so terrible that state powers and non-state powers and companies all feel that there is a guarantee that they will not be punished if they violate human rights. It’s a rather complicated issue. It seems to us that as long as we cannot establish strong states, strong nations, societies that can fight violence and crime and where violence is not normalized, where crime is not normalized, where human rights violations are not normalized, where being a witness to murder and death is not normal, to that extent we will be able to build more livable societies, more livable countries, more livable environments and spaces.

What is most serious, I feel, is that with these great crises our countries are facing, our societies are deteriorating in every way; our morals are deteriorating. It is a breeding ground where groups with economic power can act with the utmost impunity. Because at the end of the day, economic assets and everything the economy is based on, and those who manage the capital have the power to do what they desire and take the lives of those who are defending life. When we defend nature, we defend natural resources, defend the air, defend the forests, the water, we are defending life. This is contradictory, because why, if we are defending all of life, not just ours, are we hindering these powers? It is because they are accumulating wealth through indiscriminate exploitation, and at the cost of the common goods of Nature.

So if we are not going to analyze and debate the structural problems in our country, tomorrow we will only be responding to the murders of comrades and companions; responding to emergencies. We must consider that there is a structural problem, and we must analyze it to figure out how to change it, and work out long-term processes. This work is not just for today or tomorrow; we have a great responsibility with the future of humanity, with our children’s children, and with the children of our children’s children. This can guarantee the survival of humanity.

So this struggle is not a game. It’s not something to be taken lightly. It’s the fight to prevent humanity from disappearing. I believe, and I feel deep in my soul that we are in a sort of race at the moment, a suicide that we are being forced into by transnational capital and the owners of the great wealth of the world, who are not interested in humanity. And yet we have only one planet. I do not know any other planet than the Earth, any other planet that can give us what the Earth gives us, which is why we must be more responsible in this fight. And that is the essence of what it means to me to defend human rights: it is not a label, but a defense of life.

Q: What changes could be made by human rights activists and movements – and the protection groups and donors who support them – to make more effective their approaches to protecting against threats and violence from non-state actors?

I think that in all of the groups that are involved in the defense of human rights, be they activists, defenders, companions, donors (I do not like to use the word donors because we must bet on them being organizations that are accompanying processes), there are some aspects that I find to be fundamental. Today we cannot speak of an advocate or a human rights defender as an individual, or think that they are up there, defending something ethereal. We are on the ground, in territories organizing collective defenses of collective rights. And one of the fundamental changes is that we must promote processes to articulate and strengthen organizational processes, so that we have greater strength. And we must build that strength up from a local level.

Communities must become more empowered, and empowerment is key because there is no real worth in creating a great international scandal about a company if there is no real local resistance where the company will be located, and if there is no strength in the community that lives there. We have been able to verify this many times; communities have been one step ahead of some of the organizations accompanying human rights defenders, because communities know what they are going to do in that moment.  And so we must strengthen communities, precisely so that they feel much more empowered, and this will guarantee a stronger fight for a free, prior, and informed consultation process.

All of humanity has the right to be asked what they want. There is a grave situation. Every day communities’ rights are being violated, more and more. In my case, as a garífuna, I work with indigenous peoples, and I can tell you that not only indigenous peoples have a right to be asked. Everyone: women, men, peasants, all sectors, the LGBTI movement; we must all work hard on the consultation process, we must work hard on being consulted, so that we can say no or yes to a situation that may affect us. And this is at every level and not only in the field, it is when developing regulations, LGBTI laws, laws for women, laws for peasants, laws for workers, children… we must ask ourselves how we want to serve, what we want our future rights to be, and how we will ensure that these rights will contribute to our well-being.

The theme here is wellness, enjoying the life that we have been given. And we must see that it is not only for me, or for this or that person, it is for all of us. It seems to me that this is fundamental, and that is why we are committed to accompanying the processes for building collective responses to these struggles. Because we have to understand that the power of wealth is strong, and that investors have everything on their side, from the judicial authorities to the military, as well as states and central governments that do not even collect taxes from them. The road is cleared for them.

When you live in a country such as the one we live in, there is no guarantee that the state will support you, or that the government will answer for you. The problem is only yours. So then we must strengthen local communities in resistance, and articulate them. We must give each other a hand, but we must also weave this together, fight together, fight so that there are no groups in resistance that are targeted by repressive forces. That is something that we have seen. And if we don’t multiply the struggle, multiply the resistance, then that community over there, that group of the most vulnerable people, will be targeted and receive the blow. This is something that we have been able to observe and verify, which is why it is important to organize, mobilize, educate.

We must educate ourselves, and above all we must recover and strengthen our own identities, our resistance, our cultural and spiritual struggles. That is one of the things that I think are important, because as we recover our identity, when we know what we are and are proud of who we are, this allows us to fight against the evil forces upon us. That is one of the most serious threats that we are facing today, because communities that are forced, end up losing their identity and culture, becoming easy prey to anything that comes, and accepting anything that comes as divine.

As we already talked about, there are many challenges, and in the case of our communities and our indigenous peoples, our greatest challenge is precisely how to continue to strengthen ourselves as culturally differentiated people. How to appreciate our value in society, our importance, and the value of what we can contribute to a society that values competition and the individual above all else. A society with anti-values that are destroying it, such as a lack of solidarity, a lack of accompaniment, a society in which material goods are more important than humanity. A society dehumanized by technology, where instead of taking advantage of technology to advance as a society we are talking more and more with machines and less with humans. This is very serious, because every day we become more dehumanized.

That is why I said in the beginning that we are part of a collective suicide mission that we must cancel, because humanity is the most precious resource, end we must save humanity. That seems to me to be key. And to do this we must be creative in our struggle, we must understand that although we have our weaknesses, we also have great potential. And understand that we are part of a whole, and that articulation, accompaniment and an understanding of how all parts complement each other can help us move forward, and especially to win battles.

We powerful women, powerful men, can create ourselves, although we must also understand that we can also fail, and that failure is human, and that sometimes we must fail and rectify, and accept that we sometimes fail, and understand that we are not perfect and that we must therefore understand and accept when someone tells us Miriam, something is not right. We must do things better. But we can only do this when we speak from the community, when we understand that we are complementary, and understand that we must change structures to improve this world that is in a great and deep crisis. I think that very few people understand the change that is coming in United States, and that will affect the whole world. A change that will demand an organized and structured response to the North from us in the South, such as had never happened before.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Human rights defenders are at a greater risk than ever today because our states, our governments are actually responding to the interests of transnational capital in our countries, and really have no policies in place to protect human rights defenders. This is one of the great problems that we face today. Another problem is the approval of laws that criminalize human rights defenders, which prosecute us, persecute us. That is very serious, to accuse human rights defenders of being people who attack the state and who are criminals. It is a serious problem that we face today in Latin America: they are telling us, human rights defenders, that we are criminals, and that we are attacking the state.

Interview with Abel Barrera Hernández

Abel Barrera Hernández, director of the Tlachinollan Mountain Human Rights Center (CDHM), based in Tlapa, Guerrero, Mexico.

Q: Why are people who stand up for human rights at risk from companies, organized crime and extremist political groups, and what can be done to protect them?

Why are defenders at risk and what can be done? Human rights defenders are at risk because we are accompanying the people in cities or in the countryside who have organized to defend their rights. For example in Mexico, mothers and fathers are demanding the live presentation of children disappeared in Ayotzinapa, and thousands of families have had their children torn from their homes and now know nothing. So now we are joining with them, and this is a risk because of the violence in the streets.

Worst of all is that authorities are not acting properly to punish those responsible, to find the whereabouts of those that have disappeared. Corruption and impunity is eating away at our institutions. That is why human rights defenders are at risk, because we are raising our voices, because we are denouncing these crimes, because we are exposing the collusion between organized crime, the police and some politicians that are damaging the life of our society. And, on the other hand, we believe that public opinion, international solidarity and cooperation agencies can become a great eye that can shine on this darkness. With their presence, their solidarity, their support, and by embracing the cause of justice, they can contribute enormously so that there is more justice in this world.

Q: Why is it important to understand how power structures and gender and race discrimination shape this threat?

The situation of violence in this country causes indigenous women, and women in general, to suffer more cruelly at the hands of authorities. We can see how our country is falling apart because of this lack of justice. But above all, we can see that actions are most violent against the poorest, most unprotected people in our country.

There are more than 15 million indigenous people in this country, and yet they are not visible. Because they speak a different language, have a different worldview; they are excluded from our political system. They are denied their rights. And women, especially indigenous women, are unprotected. Their own communities, spouses and authorities do not recognize the rights of women. Not to mention at a national level, at a political level, where there is systematic violence against women. Their struggle is stigmatized and their rights are trampled on.

And I believe that in this sense, in our country the pain is stronger, deeper and more intense among indigenous women, women from the countryside and the city, indigenous peoples. That is why it is so important to stand on the side of those who suffer the most. That is why it is important to give greater visibility and, above all, strength and presence, to these agents of change and agents of hope.

Q: What changes could be made by human rights activists and movements – and the protection groups and donors who support them – to make more effective their approaches to protecting against threats and violence from non-state actors?

How to improve approaches that seek to protect human rights defenders from threats? Well, in the first place we must keep insisting, which is what families are doing, insisting on their demands to authorities. We must first demand that institutions work. We need a restructuring, a renewal of our institutions. Our institutions have turned their back on citizens. They are not serving the citizenry. Institutions must, above all, rid themselves of corruption. It is necessary to make fundamental changes in the way rights are protected. This is at an institutional level, and it is a great challenge. The justice and security systems must really work. People must feel protected.

And obviously, organizations, movements and communities must develop their own methods for protection, self-care, bonding and building networks of solidarity, because there are state actors and non-state actors who are threatening. We must analyze this scenario, but above all, we must build our strength within the society so that we can be a counterweight, with its organized civil society and communities organized with their own security mechanisms, with the help of international solidarity. We also need international cooperation entities to join in the struggle, because human rights are an issue for all of us.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share?

I just want to tell you that the people who live there, in the mountain of Guerrero, we are people with a very big heart. But that big heart is bleeding for lack of basic rights, food and education. That big heart is also full of hope, but it is in pain. How can you help diminish the intensity of this pain? How can you help heal this pain, remove this suffering, but above all help us to achieve equality, justice and peace in this world? Because the men and women of that mountain, we are men and women of peace. We are men and women who look for the future to embrace us all.

Interview with Claudia Samayoa

Claudia Samayoa, the general coordinator for the Protection of Unit of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala, known as UDEFEGUA.

Q: Why are people who stand up for human rights at risk from companies, organized crime and extremist political groups, and what can be done to protect them?

Human rights defenders, whether they work individually or collectively in the Mesoamerican region, are currently under attack from corporations, organized crime and illegal armed groups, because most defenders challenge the power structure, which is exclusionary. So, if I come in to report, or to ask a mayor for information on how he is spending his budget, I may discover that the mayor is actually laundering money for organized crime structures. And suddenly an organized crime squad attacks me, who naively thought that everything was going to be okay.

And that is because of the way the region has been broken down, with state actors that have co-opted, joined forces or are a structural part of organized crime structures. And some companies, particularly from the extractive industry, join forces with them to extract riches, which is ultimately their shared interest.

Q: Why is it important to understand how power structures and gender and race discrimination shape this threat?

In order to protect human rights defenders in this new, very complex context, we must analyze who is the defender and what kind of community he or she belongs to. And we must take up an old practice, from the 1970s and 80s: to thoroughly comprehend whom we are facing. We must break the silence that surrounds organized crime. We must accept that we are terrified of them, but we must also recognize that our adversary has its weaknesses, as did other adversaries we faced in the past.

And we can only do this together, because this is a globalized world and organized crime is transnational, because usually the extractive companies that order assassinations and attacks are also transnational, and this way we can find weaknesses in these powerful actors. Something else that we must do is gradually get to know the collectives, indigenous communities, and grassroots organizations that achieve change, and we must understand that change is not achieved as individuals.

So solidarity must be extended to the whole group, to all human rights defenders. This is a more effective way to help human rights defenders to continue their work, which in many cases is the defense of the jungles that provide the world with oxygen, and provide the world with water.

Q: What changes could be made by human rights activists and movements – and the protection groups and donors who support them – to make more effective their approaches to protecting against threats and violence from non-state actors?

The violence experienced by people in the Mesoamerican region, caused by companies and organized crime as well as corrupt state and non state sectors, has become more complex and has grown exponentially as it has combined with the problems caused by historical racism, patriarchy and class relations in our region.

In our region, the processes of democratization were superficial adornments, and never caused any real changes in structural problems. This is why many human rights defenders, most of the defenders who try to claim their right of access to water and to the oxygen we all breathe, are very poor, mostly indigenous, and mostly women. Every day they must face violence linked to their condition, and when they are targeted politically, attackers dial up the violence related to their gender or condition.

That is why we have insisted that women defenders, LGBTI advocates who are attacked suffer from a violence that, although it is just as grave as an attack on a woman or member of the LGBTI community, is particularly serious for the defender of human rights because it is being used intentionally. The same goes for indigenous people and poor people.

In the face of this complicated situation, where one never knows the difference between the state, organized crime and corporations, a series of changes have also been made to respond to the complexity of aggressions. Part of the changes is at a community level: networks for protection are built not only as spaces for solidarity, but also as spaces to strengthen the struggle. So, as more communities face aggression because companies such as Barrick Gold want to start operating on their territories, by joining together they can face them more effectively.

Organizations that protect human rights defenders must adapt to this situation. We must understand that our job is not to put defenders that are attacked in glass bubbles, but to help them do their work more effectively. This is where community defense mechanisms must combine with donor strategies, and donors must understand that they must support movements and organization in their process and that not all progress can be measured in logical frameworks, by filling in charts with “what was achieved in three months”.

Many times you can save a human rights defender in an hour, as was the case of Miriam Miranda, who was being held by the police and released an hour later due to a Twitter campaign. Or it can simply take months, and you must relocate the human rights defender together with his or her family. Much progress has already been made. Protection services and donors now understand that human rights defenders are not just individuals but their families as well, and that they must protect themselves as a group. They also understand that we must keep looking to these types of alternatives that enable the struggle to produce effective results, and that we must not consider the human rights defender a victim, but rather an agent of change.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share?

If you are a human rights defender in Mesoamerica, the first thing you will face is a stigmatization and disinformation campaign. Throughout the region, it is believed that those who defend human rights are people who are conflicted, anti-development, communists, terrorists, or even members of organized crime. You must overcome this, and as you become more effective in the organization, in your collective work within the organization, you will begin to receive threats: death threats, rape threats for women, etc. And you must protect yourself and learn how to analyze your environment so that these threats do not come as a surprise, and document them well so that you can prove that you’re being threatened. Unfortunately, threats and harassment are not the only aggressions faced by human rights defenders in the region. The region has three (Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico) of the four countries where there are most murders of human rights defenders (the fourth is Colombia). So the challenge is also to mourn comrades who are killed, but also to continue working in the face of the possibility of murder, criminalization and unjustified jail, such as that of political prisoners.

×Close search