10/06/2021 – This paper is based on a Protection International prior submission to the UNSR on HRDs Mary Lawlor (September 2020), in response to her call for documents for her annual report “Final warning: death threats and killings of human rights defenders” (presented by the UNSR on HRDs on March 5th, 2021, during the 46th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva).
Death threats are probably one of the most pervasive actions against human rights defenders (HRDs) in the world, and it is without any doubt that they stand in the way of the right to defend human rights (RDHR). As the repression of human rights defenders is predominantly psychological, threats are widely used to make defenders feel vulnerable, anxious, confused and helpless. Ultimately, repression (and threats) also seeks to break organizations and make defenders lose trust in their leaders and colleagues. Defenders have to tread a fine line between careful and thorough management of threats and maintaining a sense of safety in their work.
This short paper reflects on the connection between death threats and the actual level of risk they pose. It also provides a number of key considerations for conducting a comprehensive assessment on the likelihood that a threat may be executed and outlines some recommendations for preventive decision-making whenever a human rights defender receives a death threat.