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HUMAN RIGHTS: Dangers Multiply for Defenders

Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Apr 15 2003 (IPS) - In more than 80 countries citizens face grave danger if they try to create an association or trade union, investigate forced disappearances or arbitrary arrests, denounce torture or document human rights violations, say activists.

Antoine Bernard, executive director of the International Federation of Human Rights, says the mission of human rights defenders continues to be among the most dangerous because the advances made in recent years to protect them have been outweighed by repressive measures perfected by states.

An indication of what human rights and social activists are up against is the fact that the president of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, has compared their activities to those of terrorists.

The figure of the human rights defender, recognised by the United Nations General Assembly in 1998, is an activist who promote and work to protect those guarantees.

The General Assembly declaration established a mechanism that has increased the level of legal protection for human rights defenders and their non-governmental organisations, Bernard said.

Progress is evident in the “strengthening of freedoms of association and of expression in the field of defending universal human rights,” he said.

However, with the increase in civil society’s capacity for action and mobilisation, some governments have reacted by enacting strategies aimed at silencing independent voices.

Since the Sep. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, “the paradigm has changed, making the context in which civil society operates more hostile.”

Eric Sottas, of the Geneva-based World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT, for its name in French), said that some governments – like Uzbekistan, Russia, Egypt and Malaysia – have used those events “to legitimise or reinforce their repressive practices, often with the encouragement or blessing of Western governments.”

Since U.S. President George W. Bush declared Asia “the second front in the fight against terrorism,” Malaysia and other governments in the region “have interpreted the new alliance against terrorism as carte blanche for repression of elements they consider subversive,” said Sottas.

According to the OMCT’s Bernard, at least 30 states have used the pretext of terrorism to harass human rights defenders and their independent organisations.

Hina Jilani, the U.N. Secretary General’s special rapporteur for human rights defenders defined the same problem in other terms.

The Pakistani jurist noted that “every counter-terrorism strategy, policy and measure that is being adopted is in its own way diminishing security even further.”

“We cannot say that we are only having to deal with the threat of terrorism. We are also having to deal with the threat of anti- terrorism itself,” she said.

Another concern of the representative of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is the increased militarisation of states. “More and more they resort to military means and methods for dealing with situations that should be dealt with in a more political manner,” said Jilani.

The activists who are most vulnerable and most threatened today are those “who are fighting for democracy and for self- determination,” commented the experts.

Another emerging threat in terms of violation of human rights, said Jilani, are private corporations, domestic and transnational firms alike.

The rapporteur cited the case of state reactions to protests against private sector policies, whether for violations of the right to a clean environment or for the direction that development policies are heading.

In the kinds of actions taken against citizens who protest these policies, “it is very clear to identify the conspiracy between the state and private sector corporations.”

Bernard pointed out that, “From Italy to Azerbaijan, via Algeria and Argentina, movements of social protest are put down with excessive force.”

Anna Biondi, with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the world’s largest labour organisation, stressed that the right to strike is also under serious threat.

The danger affects the core convention of the ILO (International Labour Organisation) referring to the right to organise and to engage in collective bargaining, she said.

“Employers don’t want to admit that (the right to strike) is part of freedom of association,” said Biondi.

Some governments “refuse to acknowledge the social and economic motivation of these movements or to recognise their legitimacy,” Bernard noted.

The vulnerability of these groups is related to the status of economic, social and cultural rights, a main branch of human rights, alongside civil and political rights.

Sottas commented that the defenders themselves of economic, social and cultural rights “very often are not seeing themselves as human rights defenders.”

One reason, he said, is that these rights are still not considered binding, as are civil and political rights.

Rapporteur Jilani said she is particularly concerned about the situation of anti-globalisation activists and, more recently, that of anti-war activists, given the use of force against their protests.

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