Latin America: HRC discusses need to protect defenders in Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras


States and NGOs call for the protection of defenders, particularly those working on land rights, as the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights highlights their precarious situation in Latin America.

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(Geneva) - States and NGOs today expressed concern about the risks facing human rights defenders in Latin America, as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) presented its reports on Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras to the Human Rights Council.

Colombia: Protection of human rights defenders essential for peace and sustainable development

ISHR intervened with a statement on behalf of a coalition of NGOs recently trained by ISHR in Bogota, arguing that the huge opportunity for transition which the forthcoming peace accords represent will be lost if Colombia fails to protect its human rights defenders and ensure that businesses respect human rights.

‘There cannot be peace without human rights and there will not be human rights if defending them puts you at risk,’ ISHR’s Ben Leather told the Council. The OHCHR report referred to 885 defenders attacked and 63 murdered in Colombia 2015. ‘The State must strengthen its protection programme, define preventative policies, increase the Attorney General’s capacity and end impunity,’ said Mr Leather.

States including Norway and Ireland, as well NGOs Peace Brigades International and Oidhaco, all underlined the need for Colombia to better recognise and protect human rights defenders, given the alarming rates of killings. Switzerland and Amnesty International, meanwhile, agreed with ISHR that those working on land rights issues – including indigenous and afro-descent leaders – face accentuated risks.

‘Whilst recently working with tenacious activists in Colombia, it was clear that there is another threat to peace in the country: the current development model,’ said Mr Leather. ‘Those who demand their rights in the context of business are today some of the most vulnerable. I met threatened women defenders, displaced afro-decendent and indigenous leaders, and campesino movements whose members have been killed. All for seeking to ensure that the costs of some economic project or another be the violation of rights, environmental pollution, or human blood’.

The statement called upon Colombia to extensively consult civil society regarding a necessary adaption and proper implementation of their National Action Plan on business and human rights, as well as to guarantee the right to free, prior and informed consen, particularly in relation to major development projects.

Guatemala: Avoid criminalisation of defenders

In presenting the report on Guatemala, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Kate Gilmore, expressed concern about the high rates of attacks against human rights defenders, journalists and indigenous leaders – particularly when opposing mega-projects – as well as the impunity affecting these cases.

Germany called upon Guatemala to strengthen policies to protect these groups, whilst Norway called for stronger mechanisms to guarantee the participation of indigenous groups in decision making, particularly over natural resource exploitation, and expressed alarm at the frequent criminalisation of human rights defenders, as did Switzerland. Last year, ISHR published a report on the attacks and criminalisation of defenders working on business and human rights in the country.

Lamentably, Guatemala itself used its intervention to question the reliability, impartiality, objectivity and reach of OHCHR's work in the country. The intervention, reminiscent of Mexico’s recent attacks on the UN, criticised the Office’s methodology and findings, insisting that there was no criminalisation of human rights defenders in the country.

Anabella Sibrian, of International Platform against Impunity, said that defenders are stigmatised and detained for speaking out against abuses, putting the Guatemalan Spring’s legacy at risk. She expressed concern at the ongoing lack of leadership of the OHCHR’s offices in Mexico and Honduras, whilst her message to the international community regarding human rights defenders in Latin America was clear: ‘do not leave us alone’.

Honduras: Ensure protection of defenders of economic, social and cultual rights

The Deputy High Commissioner promised that everything was being done to staff the OHCHR office in Honduras as soon as possible, and promised a first full report from their representation there at the Council’s 34th session. The Honduran delegate welcomed the strengthening of the OHCHR presence in the country, reiterated the President’s request for the Office to support the investigation of recently murdered indigenous defender Berta Cáceres and said ‘we wish to underscore our commitment to human rights, and particularly to human rights defenders’. In 2015, ISHR reported on the risks facing economic, social and cultural rights defenders in the country.

Speaking after the session, Mr Leather said ‘Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras are three incredibly dangerous places to defend human rights, particularly land rights in the face of business interests. The concerns raised today only serve to underline the need for the Council to pass a strong resolution on ESC rights defenders at this session, but also for the countries in question to strengthen their laws, policies and practises on defender protection and on business and human rights, in a way which fully takes into account civil society’s input’.

ISHR will continue to monitor the situation of defenders working on business and human rights in the Americas, after co-authoring a regional report on the issue in October 2015.

For more information, contact Ben Leather on or +41 787794859


  • Latin America and Caribbean
  • Corporate accountability
  • Human rights defenders
  • United Nations
  • Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • Colombia
  • Guatemala
  • Honduras