During the second year of implementation of ProtectDefenders.eu, a very positive outcome has been reported on the situation of both human rights defenders and HRDs organisations. At the most fundamental level, defenders' lives were saved because of the assistance mobilised by the project. ProtectDefenders.eu has contributed to successfully address emergency situations and to widen the working space for local organisations supported via the different components, and to build an environment conducive to better human rights protection and democratic development. Besides, capacity-building and coping skills of HRDs working in the most difficult contexts have been reinforced and sustained, and the situation of human rights defenders at risk has been more visible and has been reflected in international diplomacy actions. As a result, the degree of repression and threats faced by human rights defenders has been mitigated, and human rights defenders have been able to pursue their activities for the respect and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the local level.
However, in every region of the world, human rights defenders have continued to face reprisals, harassment, and attacks because of their non-violent work. Moreover, the rise of non-state actors such as ISIS or religious fundamentalism, as well as populism and authoritarianism have continued to impact directly on the work of HRDs. More than 900 attacks and severe alerts have been documented by ProtectDefenders.eu partners in the last 12 months and killings of human rights defenders continued to rise, with a remarkable increase in the number of defenders killed in specific countries, such as Colombia or Guatemala. Moreover, ProtectDefenders.eu realises that many of the attacks and threats are yet going unreported, and a vast majority of perpetrators are still not held accountable.
The increasing pressure on human rights defenders has resulted in a growing demand for security support from defenders and the resources that ProtectDefenders.eu offers are needed now more than ever. The EU HRD mechanism has had to conduct its actions in particularly hostile contexts and increased its activity in the countries under armed conflicts, or where space for civil society is severely closing, therefore the assistance requested from HRDs at risk and local NGO further reflected these trends. Emergency grants helped improve their overall security, answer pressing needs and increase the security of their families and colleagues. When necessary, defenders – also those who were forced into exile – have been more able to find temporary relocation opportunities within the Temporary Relocation Programme thanks to wider availability of funds to relocate.
Defenders remained particularly targeted in countries where there are serious unrest, systematic conflict or political transitions (Syria, Colombia, Egypt, Turkey, Kenya, Burundi, DRC, Philippines, Cambodia, among others) and it has been reported a greater demand to access support from land and environmental 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, ProtectDefenders.eu has contributed to response to the repression and crackdown on land and environmental rights defenders, which has 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 over the period, with national security legislation, ‘foreign agents’ laws, and travel bans 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, and it has been reported an increasing number of criminalisation cases on spurious charges. During the Action period to-date, highly repressive new anti-NGO legislation has been introduced in Bangladesh, China, Egypt and 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, Sedition Act in Malaysia, Cyber-crimes laws in Pakistan, and so on. Draconian measures in Egypt following adoption of the “NGO law” – which 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- appear to be at risk of being replicated in other countries and the situation in Turkey is further deteriorating and the space for human rights work has practically shrunk completely. Organisations working in these contexts and facing difficulties were able to maintain their core activities, increase their own capacity in security and protection and therefore improve their capability to continue their work in this repressive context, to find and access funding and to set up new initiatives to strengthen their advocacy capacities and structures. Those in a critical situation were prevented from collapsing. Many organisations expressed the will and were supported in creating bigger coalitions and networks in order to work together to overcome common obstacles and achieve better results, including as a measure of protection.
The increased demand for fund attests not only the success of ProtectDefenders.eu in terms of outreach and visibility but also the deteriorating situation of the human rights situation across all regions and the crucial need for international community to increase resources to protect defenders and to adapt to the continuous transformation processes evolving at the societal level. Moreover, some human rights movements have increased the strategic use of social media and technology to advance their cause, and there is an enhanced awareness of human rights issues among progressive philanthropies, which resulted in an overall increased demand for funds, while a low and shrinking level of funding for human rights defenders and their organisations can be observed and perceived at the global level.
Defenders reported unanimously that support received via training and capacity-building has increased their skills and tools to better manage their security situation and to better develop their work. Defenders and groups have been able to develop and strengthen protection, support and advocacy networks, as well as strategic activities enabling them to address the restrictive contexts where they carry out their activities. Training on digital security proved particularly useful in contexts where cyberattacks continued to be widely used as a means of disrupting the HRDs' work or obtaining information which could be used to prosecute defenders or otherwise harm them, as sophisticated digital attacks, surveillance, monitoring – including surveillance of the HRDs in exile -, as well as offline and online censorship of the work of human rights defenders continue to increase across the world. A growth in the targeted delegitimisation of HRDs across all regions has further increased in the past year, including in link with the use of digital and communications means, and the criminalisation of human rights defenders and human rights activities is a consolidated phenomenon.
The accompaniment and advocacy work at the local level, as well as the ongoing monitoring of the situation of individuals and the environments, have reportedly dissuaded direct attacks and allow the defenders to continue their work even in very hostile and risky environments. Over this period, the action has reportedly contributed to the release of HRDs in several countries such as Algeria, Belarus, Cambodia, Cameroon, Colombia, Chad, Chile, Djibouti, the DRC, Ecuador, Egypt, Mauritania, Sudan, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, Zimbabwe.
ProtectDefenders.eu contributed to alleviate some emergency crisis affecting human rights defenders, as it has been notably the case of Syria over this reporting period, as well as the backlash reported against defenders of land and environmental rights or advocates for the freedom of expression, or LGBTI community. Moreover, a particular effort was made to support and reach out to HRDs particularly vulnerable and in most difficult contexts, and the Action contributed to increasing solidarity towards defenders from the international community and their situation has been more visible in the media, in social networks and has been reflected in international diplomacy actions.