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Highest number of human rights activists on record killed in 2018

In total 321 people in 27 countries were targeted and killed for their work.

Image: Front Line Defenders

AN IRISH-BASED organisation has said human rights activists around the world continue to face threats from state, non-state and corporate actors and hundreds lost their lives because of their work last year.

In 2018, 321 human rights defenders in 27 countries were targeted and killed for their work, according to the Front Line Defenders annual report. This is the highest number ever on record.

More than three-quarters of these activists were defending land, environment or indigenous people’s rights, often in the context of extractive industries and state-aligned mega-projects.

Today Front Line Defenders said the murders of human rights defenders were not isolated events, but were “preceded by judicial harassment, threats and physical attacks”.

At least 49% of those killed had previously received a specific death threat, and in an additional 43% of killings there had been general threats made to activists in the area.

In the vast majority of cases, Front Line Defenders said these people did not receive the necessary protection and support from state authorities from the time they reported threats to the time they were murdered.

Speaking at the launch of the organisation’s global analysis for 2018, Ed O’Donovan, head of protection, said it is more important than ever that governments that value human rights lend vocal, practical and financial support to the work of peaceful activists who are fighting against “a tide of xenophobia, racism, homophobia, misogyny and environmental degradation.”

The names of the 321 human rights activists killed last year can be found here and here

Sexual assault

According to the report launched today, in addition to the threats experienced by male colleagues, female activists face gendered and sexualised attacks from both state and non-state actors, as well as from within their own human rights movements.

“Such violations include removal from public or high-ranking positions in NGOs, trade unions, and political societies; smear campaigns questioning their commitment to their families; sexual assault and rape; militarised violence; and the harassment and targeting of their children.” 

In Saudi Arabia, the organisation said authorities arrested, sexually assaulted, and tortured female human rights defenders who led the successful campaign for the abolition of the driving ban in 2018.

‘Re-education camps’

The report said there is also a continuing trend towards restrictive legislation aimed at stifling human rights work, including:

  • A Digital Security Act in Bangladesh carrying a 14-year sentence for using digital media to “cause damage to the state”;
  • Retrospective legislation in Xinjiang province, China, legalising the use of “re-education” camps for the minority Uyghur population, including human rights defenders;
  • Anti-terror legislation in Nicaragua widening the definition of terrorism to include those accused of damaging property, leading to dozens of arrests of protesters now facing terrorism charges and 20 years in prison.

The organisation is today also calling for the release of nine human rights defenders serving lengthy prison sentences. 

Despite the sometimes life-threatening risks faced by activists, Front Line Defenders said 2018 saw a number of major successes including helping to secure the Escazu Agreement on environmental protections in Latin America and the Caribbean, the vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment in Ireland and a decree in Equater protecting women’s land and forest rights.

The organisation said it is working to promote security with a range of protection programming in response to the 2018 attacks on human rights defenders.

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