Lives in the balance


We must give the same priority and resources to creating an enabling space for human rights defenders as autocrats give to closing it down, writes Front Line Defenders Executive Director, Mary Lawlor.

By Mary Lawlor, Executive Director, Front Line Defenders

Front Line Defenders is increasingly concerned at the growing threat to human rights defenders (HRDs) as authoritarian governments invest huge efforts and resources to silence, restrict and discredit independent civil society and HRDs, especially those critical of government policies. There has been a sustained effort by repressive governments to target HRDs within their borders through legal and extra-legal means, as well as internationally, through travel restrictions, reprisals and attacks on civil society space in international fora. In his report to the Human Rights Council, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon raised the issue of retaliation against persons who have cooperated with the United Nations, describing these attacks as 'only the tip of the iceberg'.

The Front Line Defenders Annual Report 2015, Human Rights Defenders in the Balance, documents a growing global backlash against HRDs which has now reached crisis point. The repression included restrictive legislation but also killings, torture, fabricated prosecutions and death threats. 136 human rights defenders were killed in 2014, as reported to Front Line Defenders, of whom 47 were killed in Colombia alone. Overall, the Americas accounted for 101 of that number.

In the Russian Federation, the cumulative effect of the restrictive Foreign Agent Law, the Anti-Homosexual Propaganda Law, and a series of regulations designed to control the media and restrict access to the internet, has created a situation in which HRDs are operating in a state of siege. By the end of 2014, 28 NGOs had been registered as 'foreign agents',while some NGOs have ceased operations due to the burden of legal and bureaucratic harassment.

Sadly this scenario is not limited to the Russian Federation. We have seen an almost viral spread of repressive NGO legislation across the region. Azerbaijan unleashed a major crackdown on civil society, ironically at exactly the same time as it assumed the chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. In Ethiopia, the government, which had used the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation to silence civil society, continued its obsessive attempts to monitor and control information with the arrest of bloggers and journalists on fabricated charges of treason. In Egypt, 2014 was marked by an assault on civil society unseen even under the Mubarak government. In Kenya, the government is increasingly veering towards authoritarianism, while in Uganda and Nigeria the LGBTI communities have been the targets of public hostility and government oppression.

Since the May 2014 army takeoverin Thailand, the climate for HRDs has deteriorated significantly. Several HRDs and activists have been summoned for questioning and have had to sign a bond not to participate in any activity of a ‘political nature’. Martial law allows the army to detain anyone for up to seven days without providing evidence of wrongdoing or bringing formal charges. Protesters and HRDs have been arrested and held at irregular places of detention, including military bases. HRDs opposing the adverse impact of mining or other development projects remain most at risk because of links between such businesses and the military.

Increasingly, the struggle to protect the right to freedom of expression is being pursued online. Human rights defenders are exposed to digital attacks virtually everywhere. Digital targeting of HRDs has included interception of emails, hacking of websites or social network accounts,the installation of spyware,and the banning of websites.

In the United Arab Emirates, HRDs had their Twitter accounts hacked. In Serbia, independent media and human rights groups had their websites targeted through DDoS attacks. In Somaliland, the authorities blocked access to the websites of two independent media outlets which reported critically on the regional administration. Less sophisticated tactics were equally effective. In Vietnam, where the state-controlled media environment made Facebook an essential tool for debate and access to information, the profiles of HRDs and human rights groups were the subject of a number of complaints by pro-government individuals, which led to their suspension by Facebook.

'We must give the same priority and resources to creating an enabling environment for human rights defenders as autocrats give to closing it down.'

Against this backdrop, international human rights institutions, as well as governments traditionally supportive of human rights defender,s seem incapable of  effectively opposing the shutting down of civil society space. Governments must recognise the vital role of HRDs in building more equal and just societies. In eastern Congo women HRDs are targeted with impunity despite the presence of a substantial UN peacekeeping operation, while in Afghanistan, with the withdrawal of foreign forces and the reduction in commitment from the international community, women HRDs fear losing the limited gains they have made to date.

This is a crucial political moment. We need a more consistent and credible political response from governments active in the defence of democracy and human rights. We must give the same priority and resources to creating an enabling space for human rights defenders that autocrats give to closing it down. The people who will play the most effective role in countering this new authoritarianism will be human rights defenders and civil society working at the national and international levels, and there must be a new and reinvigorated political priority to protect them. This requires more high profile political leadership, a consistent strategy that integrates a serious priority for the protection of human rights defenders across a number of policy areas, and sustained support for those under attack on the front line.

Mary Lawlor is Executive Director of Front Line Defenders. Follow her on Twitter: @MaryLawlorFL

Photo: [L-R] Mary Lawlor Executive Director, Front Line Defenders; Andrea Rocca Head of Protection, Front Line Defenders; and Mary Akrami, Director, Afghan Women Skills Development Centre, Kabul. (Photo by Conor McCabe).


  • Human rights defenders
  • Afghanistan
  • Azerbaijan
  • Colombia
  • Egypt
  • Ethiopia
  • Nigeria
  • Russia
  • Serbia
  • Thailand
  • Uganda
  • United Arab Emirates
  • Vietnam