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Column There's a viral spread of increasingly restrictive laws curtailing human rights

The space in which human rights defenders can operate safely is steadily shrinking, with devastating consequences, writes Mary Lawlor.

As Front Line Defenders launches its Annual Report during the meeting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Mary Lawlor, looks at the devastating consequences for human rights defenders of the viral spread of increasingly restrictive laws.

EVERY YEAR AT this time there is a ritual dance in Geneva when governments from around the world gather to discuss the situation of human rights. But in among the point-counterpoint of the diplomatic niceties, there are a number of inescapable facts. The main one being that the space in which human rights defenders can operate safely is steadily shrinking, with devastating consequences.

As Front Line Defenders documented in its Annual Report, launched this week during a side event at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, it has been almost normal over recent years for repressive governments to use threats, media smear campaigns, imprisonment, torture or killings to prevent human rights defenders from carrying out their legitimate human rights activities. Now governments are increasingly trying to subvert the system of legal protection, manipulating laws to suit their own political agenda and to silence voices of dissent.

Restrictive legislation

Restrictive legislation proposed in the last year ranged from laws regulating NGOs and access to funding (Azerbaijan, Ecuador, Egypt, Indonesia, Israel, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, South Sudan), to laws on public assembly (Egypt), media (Burundi, Kenya), public order (Uganda), sexual orientation and gender identity (Russian Federation, Uganda, Ukraine). In some cases, these laws introduced an outright ban on the publication of materials on a set list of issues (Burundi); introduced disproportionately heavy prison sentences, up to 15 years, for ‘publishing false information’ (The Gambia); or granted the authorities the right to dissolve an organisation for virtually any minor violation of the law (Ecuador).

The new anti-terror law, recently introduced in Saudi Arabia, a staunch ally of Western governments, is just the latest example of a repressive state’s systemic legal oppression of civil society. It classifies peaceful activism as an act of terror, grants the Minister of the Interior the right to prosecute or pardon suspects and access their private information. The law also allows for incommunicado detention for a renewable period of 90 days. A recent royal decree announced a new blacklist of prohibited activities including questioning Islamic foundations, joining any opposition groups, expressing sympathy or support to any such groups,calling for protests or sit-ins, attending conferences or gatherings which may affect national stability, or inciting countries or international organisations against Saudi Arabia.

Cut-and-paste repression

A modern feature of restrictive laws is that they spread by contagion. Legislative initiatives passed in the Russian Federation, including the infamous ‘Foreign Agents’ Law, were widely discussed by officials and lawmakers in other countries in the region. In Kyrgyzstan, a ‘Foreign Agents’ bill was presented for public discussion in September, but was fortunately rejected by Parliament in December. Before presenting the Bill the authorities forgot to remove the name of a neighbouring country from the document. The Parliament in Ukraine passed, and eventually repealed, a Foreign Agents’ law in January 2014. In Kenya, the National Assembly discussed an amendment to the 2012 Public Benefit Organisation Act seeking to cap the amount of foreign funding NGOs can receive at 15 per cent of their budget, in a move closely resembling the 10 per cent cap passed in Ethiopia in 2009, which succeeded in effectively silencing local civil society.

Throughout the year, LGBTI issues continued to be used by governments for political gains, either to portray themselves as defenders of traditional values against foreign-backed moral corruption or as a way of distracting the electorate from economic or political problems, a crackdown on opposition or corruption scandals.

In Haiti, where the Martelly Government appears to be drifting slowly towards authoritarianism, the issue of same-sex marriage occupied the headlines – fomenting threats and attacks against LGBTI rights defenders – despite the fact that this is not on the agenda of local LGBTI groups. Front Line Defenders reported on cases of arrest, threats, attacks or killing of LGBTI rights defenders in Cameroon, DRC, Georgia, Haiti, Honduras, Macedonia, the Russian Federation, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The result of years of repression

When we watch dramatic scenes of protest unfolding on our televisions screens we sometimes forget that these crises don’t just erupt overnight. Usually they are the result of years of repression, of the denial of basic human rights and the targeting of those who dare to raise their voices. In Ukraine under President Yanukovitch it is a fact that police violence, police abuse and police impunity was not only widespread, but was a systemic problem; that corruption was an inherent feature of every governmental institution’s work; that the court decisions on any sensitive cases were pre-determined.

Even those human rights lawyers, and human rights defenders in general, who tried to defend people’s rights and freedoms using the judicial system, felt more and more often that their only option left was to go to the European Court of Human Rights or to use the UN human rights mechanisms – options which can hardly be called effective on the ground. It remains to be seen how the new Government will address these issues.

More drastic methods of repression

But when the power of the law and the force of the security services is not enough, repressive governments often turn to more drastic measures. In 2013, Front Line Defenders documented the killing of 26 HRDs from Cameroon, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Guatemala, Honduras, India, Kenya, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, and Venezuela. This is a fraction of the hundreds of HRDs killed every year around the world: in Colombia alone, in the first six months of 2013, 37 HRDs were murdered because of their human rights work.

While HRDs have been at the forefront of the battle against restrictive legislation, the international community has struggled to find effective ways of opposing this trend. It is to be hoped that the new UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, scheduled to take up office in May, will have the necessary support from governments, to offer effective security and protection to human rights defenders. The credibility of the entire United Nations system of human rights protection depends on its ability to hold repressive governments to account.

Mary Lawlor is the founder and Executive Director of Front Line Defenders.

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