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A crucial instrument to counter the global backlash against human rights defenders

The situation of human rights defenders supported through the EU HRD mechanism has improved as a result of accessing grants, support, and multi-faceted assistance. This has prompted communities and defenders to continue advocating for human rights, mobilising for action, and forming or joining social movements. However, in every region of the world, human rights defenders have continued to face reprisals, harassment, and attacks because of their non-violent work and in response to their demands for basic rights.

Smear campaigns, judicial harassment, criminalisation, and stigmatisation are widely employed by both state and non-state actors to try to intimidate HRDs. Defenders working in a context of conflict, crisis or political transition zones attempting to document atrocities are also subjected to appalling violations. Moreover, the rise of ISIS, religious fundamentalism, and other non-state actors, as well as populism and authoritarianism, continues to impact directly on the work of HRDs. More than 2,600 attacks and severe cases of targeting have been documented by partners in the 37 months of implementation, and killings of human rights defenders continued to rise – 281 killings reported in 2016, 312 in 2017, and 321 in 2018, with a striking increase in the number of defenders killed in specific countries, such as Colombia, Brazil, Philippines, or Guatemala. Many of the attacks and threats continue to go unreported, and a vast majority of perpetrators are still not held accountable.

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Defenders remained particularly targeted in countries where there is serious unrest, systematic conflict or political transition (Syria, Colombia, Egypt, Turkey, Kenya, Burundi, DRC, Philippines, Cambodia, among others) and a greater demand has been reported from land and environmental rights defenders, pro-democracy activists, and defenders advocating for freedom of expression, as a result of an increase or perpetuation of attacks, judicial harassment, and criminalisation against them. In this regard, has contributed by responding to the repression and crackdown on land and environmental rights defenders, which have been particularly acute in countries such as Honduras, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, Cambodia, Colombia, Guatemala, India, Cameroon, and the Philippines. In the case of Colombia, violence against human rights defenders and social leaders has increased significantly and the escalation of the attacks against social leaders and human rights defenders remained critical in the context of the implementation of the Peace Agreement.

There has been a growing backlash from governments against human rights defenders: National security legislation, ‘foreign agents’ laws, and travel bans are being introduced around the world in an attempt to limit the ability of defenders to continue their activities, in addition to an uptake in arbitrary detentions against HRDs and administrative harassment against human rights NGOs in several difficult countries. An increasing number of criminalisation cases on spurious or trumped-up charges have been reported.

Since the launch of to-date, highly repressive new anti-NGO legislation – including limitations to their right to access funding – has been introduced in Bangladesh, China, Egypt and many more; in Cambodia, there has been an unprecedented increase in attacks and restrictions against the political opposition, civil society organizations and independent and critical media, as well as individuals exercising their fundamental freedoms; similar repressive laws include the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act and anti-torture law in India, the Sedition Act in Malaysia, Cyber-crimes laws in Pakistan, and so on. Draconian measures in Egypt following adoption of the “NGO law” have served to harass and silence the human rights movement, while respected rights organisations and prominent NGO directors/board members have been subjected to persecution, asset freezes or to travel bans, and many NGO staff and directors have been summoned for interrogation by investigative judges. These measures appear to be at risk of being replicated in other countries and the situation in Turkey has deteriorated to the point that there is very limited space for any human rights activities. The work of the international community in support of human rights, including international NGOs or inter-governmental agencies, has also been restricted across all regions, such as the attacks against the CICIG and the diplomatic community in Guatemala, the expulsion of the OHCHR team from Nicaragua; attacks against the UN and its Special Rapporteurs in the Philippines and Burundi; as well as efforts to dismantle the African Commission and to restrict the work of the International Criminal Court in African countries.