Latin America: Strong steps needed to protect human rights defenders


In a statement to the Human Rights Council, ISHR analysed the OHCHR's reports on Colombia and Guatemala and fed back key recommendations from consultations with defenders from across the continent

Este artículo se encuentra también en español aqui.

(Geneva) - In a statement (available in Spanish and English) to the UN Human Rights Council, the International Service for Human Rights has responded to the High Commissioner’s new reports on Colombia and Guatemala and called upon Latin American States to take five key steps towards the protection of human rights defenders across the continent.

Although both countries saw a welcome decrease in assassinations of human rights defenders in 2014, Somos Defensores recorded 626 aggressions against human rights defenders in Colombia last year, and Udefegua 799 attacks against activists in Guatemala, meaning that both reports inevitably addressed the issue of their security.

The report on Colombia had spoken of the important role of defenders in the peace process and ISHR representative Laia Evia underlined how ‘the role of defenders in the hopefully soon post-conflict Colombia will be equally crucial and could imply continued and new risks, including stemming from the expansion of natural resource exploitation. The Office’s local support for defenders will continue to be vital.’ NGOs have commended the importance of the Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) in Colombia in working for the recognition and protection of human rights defenders.

Delivering the ISHR statement, Ms Evia also commended the OHCHR’s commitment to monitor criminal investigations into attacks on human rights defenders in Colombia and suggested the Office in Guatemala might do likewise. Impunity reigns in attacks against defenders in both countries. As the report on Colombia puts it: ‘Investigation and prosecution of perpetrators and dismantlement of the structures supporting crime against defenders are keys to preventing new threats and attacks’.

The report on Guatemala documented what ISHR had noted on a recent visit to the country: that those working on land rights and indigenous peoples’ rights face elevated risks. The report also highlighted the additional threats to women defenders and journalists, noting with concern the criminalisation of these defenders, as well as the smear campaigns and harassment which have at times been levelled against international organisations and UN representatives.

Reflecting upon the statement ISHR’s Advocacy and Communications Manager Ben Leather said ‘the levels of risks facing activists working on land rights issues in both countries is quite simply shocking. The authorities must do more to recognise the legitimacy of these defenders, develop adequate protective measures for communities and collectives, as well as individuals and NGOs, and investigate these attacks. We hope that a strong OHCHR presence can be maintained in both countries in order to monitor this’.

Ms Evia explained that earlier this year ISHR visited Colombia and Guatemala to consult 75 defenders from 21 Latin American countries. On the back of the trends outlined by these defenders, and reflected in the OHCHR reports, ISHR used the statement to the Human Rights Council to recommend that Latin American States take the following priority steps to contribute to defender protection:

  • Ensure that defenders working on business and human rights are recognised and consulted, rather than exposed to magnified risks from State and non-State actors.
  • Guarantee that security strategies do not threaten defenders and that States accept human rights demands as positive contributions to combatting violence and crime.
  • Tackle the additional risks faced by women and LGBTI defenders.
  • End the stigmatisation of human rights defence.
  • Develop, strengthen and implement human rights defender protection policies.

Though analysis was limited, both new OHCHR reports referred to the policies which ought to protect defenders. In Colombia, 3 of the 45 murdered defenders documented by the OHCHR in 2014 were under State protective measures at time of death. The impact of the Unit for Analysis of Attacks on Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala, meanwhile remains limited. Somos Defensores and Udefegua have both analysed the failings of each country’s respective protection policies.

‘On paper Latin America is the continent with the greatest State protection of human rights defenders,’ said Mr Leather. ‘Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico have laws or policies, whilst Honduras is drafting legislation. Yet Front Line documented more murdered defenders in Latin America in 2014 than any other continent. These States must prioritise a strengthening of these mechanisms, taking into account civil society input. Failing protection mechanisms for human rights defenders suggest failing to prioritise human rights’.

For more information, contact Ben Leather on


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