Report Reveals That 331 Human Rights Defenders Were Murdered in 2020

Most were working for environmental, land, and Indigenous people's rights.

protesters in Colombia
Demonstrators gather holding signs during a protest to demand action by President Ivan Duque to stop murders of human rights activists, indigenous people, former FARC members and the massacres of young people on September 4, 2020 in Medellin, Colombia .

Fredy Builes / Getty Images

In 2020, at least 331 human rights defenders (HRDs) were murdered while advocating for a safer, cleaner, fairer world. The latest Global Analysis by Front Line Defenders, an NGO and watchdog based in Dublin, revealed this shockingly high number when it was published on February 11. The report said the number will likely grow once cases currently under investigation are confirmed.

More than half (53%) of the killings occurred in Colombia, which is by far the most dangerous country in the world to be a human rights defender; 117 people were killed there. The Philippines came second, with 25 murders, followed by Honduras, Mexico, Afghanistan, Brazil, and Guatemala. Sixty-nine percent of the murders were people working for environmental, land, or Indigenous people's rights.

The arrival of COVID-19 exacerbated the risks for many of these defenders. With international borders closed, some were unable to escape physically when faced with threats to their lives. From the report: "Temporary relocation to another country is sometimes the most effective protection response in situations of severe risk. Last year demonstrated how quickly this measure can become extremely difficult or impossible when borders are shut overnight."

Some defenders were forced to pass through new COVID checkpoints enforced by armed groups that exposed them to even greater risk. 

Most were forced to switch to online communication, which proved challenging with unreliable Internet connections and security risks. Interacting virtually made it harder to build important relationships: "Working remotely with defenders made it more difficult and took longer to establish trust; online capacity building had to be carried out in much shorter bursts over longer periods of time."

As the numbers show, South and Central America are particularly risky for environmental defenders, a fact that Front Line Defenders (FLD) head of protection Ed O'Donovan described to the Guardian as "no surprise." When Treehugger asked why, the FLD's Protection Coordinator for the Americas explained:

"Judicial systems in Latin America are marked with corruption scandals and irregularities... It is not a surprise that those seeking justice and denouncing impunity in the face of powerful interests that sustain this structures would be targeted and seek to be silenced. There aren't signs of real political will to dismantle those structures; on the contrary, we observe complicity and targeted attacks against those who denounce it."

Adam Shapiro, head of communications and visibility for FLD, told Treehugger that Latin America's danger is due in part to "the amount of natural resource extraction and governments' neoliberal approaches to development," as well as "institutionalized racism against Indigenous peoples [that] feeds into impunity and levels of violence." Natural resource extraction, however, is not always linked to higher murder rates; Shapiro offered Zambia as an example of a country with high levels of resource extraction, but no reported killings.

There is a vast disconnect between governments' pledges on climate action and their inability (or unwillingness) to protect environmental activists. As Shapiro said,

"We are seeing a trend of governments making environmental policy but also targeting climate and environmental activists – treating HRDs and civil society as the enemy on climate and environmental policy is anathema. As more and more scientific findings suggest, relying more on Indigenous knowledge and practice with regard to the natural environment is better practice and one way to fight against climate change." 

Government climate promises and protection of HRDs should go hand-in-hand, as they're working toward the same goals. As such, HRDs need to be included in governments' post-COVID planning and in the COP26 climate talks to be held later this year. 

What can people do to help HRDs? Shapiro thinks the most effective actions are through financial decisions and "what investors – especially at levels of pension funds, sovereign funds, etc. – do in terms of choosing where to put money. That level of engagement is important and proven to have impact. This recent report shows that killings of HRDs can have cost to companies, though often it is a short-term cost. Getting investors to act can have longer-term impact and change how decisions are made." 

He pointed to a study from Oxford and Monash Universities that found that linking companies to HRD assassinations resulted in significant financial losses. Mongabay reported of the study, "Once a company is named, the data show that within 10 days the markets respond, hitting the company with a median loss in market capitalization of more than $100 million." In other words, putting a spotlight on companies implicated in these deaths can result in a significant blow to their value.

Read the Global Analysis 2020 here.

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  1. "Global Analysis 2020." Front Line Defenders, 2021.