Across the globe in 2016, 282 human rights defenders were killed, and hundreds more were subjected to harassment, detainment, violence and other violations, according to a new report released this week, that also found a concerning number of people were killed defending land as well as Indigenous and environmental rights.
The annual report from Front Line Defenders pointed out that the killings commonly occurred following threats and warnings, but were frequently ignored by authorities once reported to police.
The report showed that 282 human rights defenders were killed across 25 countries, an increase from the previous year. The non-violent activities of human rights defenders were targeted by state and non-state actors and 49 percent of people were killed after working to defend land, Indigenous and environmental rights.
While physical attacks, intimidation, threats, stigmatization and smear campaigns and even cyberattacks were commonly used to discourage and discredit human rights defenders, legal action was the most commonly used means to subdue the efforts of activists.
The organization said that more than half of the cases that it reported included criminalization tactics, used as “the first choice of governments to silence defenders and to dissuade others.”
Human rights defenders were frequently subject to arbitrary detention and hit with charges for speaking out against human rights abuses, while there was a 100 percent increase in the use of travel bans against defenders in 2016.
“Vaguely worded laws allowed criminal justice systems to be used as political tools. In some countries, the law itself was routinely ignored,” the report stated.
The organization made mention of concerning attacks in Latin America, such as the murder of Honduran activist Berta Caceres, who was a key Indigenous and environmental leader opposed to the Agua Zarca dam in western Honduras, a controversial development project in the community of Rio Blanco that was approved despite the lack of consent from local communities.
“Her killing illustrates the limitations of protection when a government is determined to blindly pursue economic interests and ignore growing social tensions in communities affected by large-scale projects," the report stated.
Latin America was by far the most dangerous region for human rights defenders in 2016 with 217 killings, equivalent to more than three-quarters of the reported killings worldwide. Despite its progress toward peace, Colombia was the most dangerous country with 85 reported killings. Brazil was the second-most dangerous with 58 killings.
“The scale of the killings in Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and the Philippines is a bloody indictment of the governments concerned; it demands an urgent and systematic response,” said Front Line Defenders head Andrew Anderson in a statement.
As a result of increasing anti-immigration rhetoric around Europe, individuals and organizations assisting refugees were subject to harassment in Hungary, Poland, Greece and Turkey. Security crackdowns in France and Turkey following terror attacks also saw a restriction of civil liberties and setbacks in rights for political dissidents.