This lesson will share local experiences of protecting human rights defenders on the ground.
A. Country experiences
The following are some of the ways in which individuals fighting to promote and protect human rights have been protected in the past.
Philippines: Death threats and extrajudicial killings
In 2005 and 2006, extrajudicial killings, abduction and enforced disappearances of human rights and political activists were taking place almost daily in the Philippines. Persons were receiving death threats, after which they would be abducted or killed. Given the complete lack of protection for all citizens, including human rights defenders, adequate documentation of these human rights abuses in a safe and secure manner was an enormous challenge.
Under these circumstances, the following steps were developed with the purpose of either reducing the level of threats or preventing persons from being targeted.
By closely coordinating with local organizations, individuals, personal contacts and other sources, details of activists experiencing threats were collected in Hong Kong. It was necessary to directly communicate with victims, their families and persons in contact with victims, to ensure the information was credible, as there was considerable government propaganda to dismiss and trivialize activist murders as part of a ‘communist purge’.
Information collected in this way was reported daily through the AHRC’s Urgent Appeals system. The effectiveness of this approach was noted by several activists, for whom the level of threats reduced. It also resulted in authorities taking proactive measures to ensure their safety, as they became aware of the case being monitored outside the country.
These cases were also reported to various UN agencies. In fact, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings Philip Alston, quoted most of the cases documented through the Urgent Appeals system at the conclusion of his 2006 visit to the Philippines.
Additionally, those cases were also compiled into a special report, The criminal justice system of the Philippines is rotten, article 2 vol 6 no 1, February 2007.
Campaigns outside the Philippines
Given the limitations of movement and actions faced by activists inside the country, strategies were developed together with other organizations and persons in Hong Kong in order to respond to the security of local activists, as well as to articulate a clear understanding of the issue. This was additionally important in keeping the public better informed.
Numerous meetings were held outside the Philippines, where local activists and victims were invited to speak in public forums about their struggles. This helped persons from outside the country to understand the issue better; as well as developing solidarity for the human rights defenders and a more proactive approach in addressing their plight. In particular, the following three steps were taken:
Convening a coalition
The Hong Kong Campaign for the Advancement of Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines (HKCAHRPP) was convened in April 2005. The coalition was able to conduct two fact finding missions in 2006 and a follow up in 2007. It was the only mission with a follow up component. The mission was widely reported in the Philippines and in Hong Kong.
Posters, post cards and signature campaigns
A website was constructed, where all reported extrajudicial killings were documented. This was a tremendous help in overcoming the fragmented nature of available information. The website also hosted an online petition urging for an end to extrajudicial killings. A poster about the killings was widely circulated and a postcard signature campaign was initiated, with signatures collected in Hong Kong from various meetings, which were then sent to the Office of the President. Signatures from Filipino workers in Hong Kong were also collected.
Lobbying with the UN
Consistent intervention with the UN agencies, through written and oral submissions, was also maximized at this time. By working together with numerous international, regional and local NGOs, a greater amount of information was made widely available for the better understanding of the issue. This also allowed for concerned persons to make a more effective response to the cases of extrajudicial killings and threats to activists. It also added value and credibility to the work of local organizations that were being targeted by government propaganda in order to discredit them.
South Korea: Rights restricted and denied
During the candlelight vigils and rallies beginning May 2008 in Seoul, the government attempted to restrict the behaviour of protesters and activists in different ways, as mentioned in Lesson 1. In response to this, civil society organized itself to ensure the least possible abuse by authorities, and the greatest protection to citizens.
Activists made cards informing of individuals’ legal rights when arrested, and distributed them amongst the participants. A group of lawyers provided lectures to the participants, educating them about due process in instances of police arrest or detention. They also distributed a contact number to call if they were arrested. When arrests occurred, these lawyers were actively involved in representing and protecting the rights of the arrestees. Some lawyers appealing against the illegal arrest of the demonstrators were themselves assaulted and arrested. Staff from the National Human Rights Commission who were monitoring the vigils were also assaulted by the police.
Individuals interested in taking photos volunteered as photographers during the vigils, taking photos of police violence amongst other things. They wore arm bands so they could be identified, as did those volunteering as medical staff. These staff took care of injured protesters and police. Small shop owners volunteered to provide free food to the participants. Similarly, famers collected their agricultural products and distributed them amongst the participants. Men who had completed their mandatory service in the army organized themselves and created a buffer zone between the protesters and the police, in order to reduce tension.
Different religious groups were also part of this civil society movement. They held various religious ceremonies asking for the government to properly communicate with the people for social integrity. Academics, scholars and professors were also involved through the issuing of statements or press releases pointing out the lack of effective communication between the government and citizens.
When the first instances of government restrictions on the freedom of opinion and assembly, as well as cases of arbitrary detention came to light, the information was documented as urgent appeals and statements. These were issued urging the government to protect citizens’ rights and investigate all alleged violations. The information was also sent to various UN Special Rapporteurs.
As the situation worsened, a fact finding mission was set up. The mission produced a report, which was later used for lobbying at the UN. The report was also widely circulated within the international community to better inform them of the dire situation in South Korea. In the meantime, a representative from the Korean Embassy in Hong Kong visited the AHRC office, where we expressed our grave concern on the situation and asked the government to follow international norms and standards.
Together with other local and international organizations, oral statements were made at the ninth session of the UN Human Rights Council, September 2008. A separate event was also organized during the council session regarding this issue, as well as informal meetings with concerned groups and individuals.
B. Other methods of protection
Direct intervention with authorities
Following complaints in certain cases, interventions have been made directly with the immediate police authorities and their superiors, and urgent appeals have been sent, averting further immediate danger. During the 2005 coup in Nepal, there were also several occasions when higher military officers were contacted directly by phone, in order to get persons released from army custody, or avert arrests.
When court cases are heard in Sri Lanka, a large group of supporters attend the court together with the victim. In both Sri Lanka and Thailand, court observers from abroad have attended cases where there are serious security concerns, to improve morale and send a message that the local persons are not isolated.
The Home for Victims of Torture in Sri Lanka houses many individuals who are facing threats for pursuing complaints against rights violations.
Following the disappearance of Somchai Neelaphaijit in Thailand, his wife Angkhana, was threatened for taking a strong stand. Advocacy contributed to local and international intervention to protect her, including by the European Union. She was also proposed for a number of human rights awards, with a view to improving her stature and ensuring greater protection.
C. Questions For Discussion
1. Discuss how international norms and provisions protect human rights defenders.
2. Are these norms realized in your local context? Discuss the obstacles preventing realization and how they can be overcome.
3. Do you know of human rights defenders who have needed protection? Could any of the above methods help?