Published on Jul 25, 2018
God of Small Things
Arundhati Roy’s 1996 novel drew international attention to the plight of India’s Dalit community, Formerly known as “untouchables,” Dalits suffer endemic discrimination and are systematically denied access to public spaces and resources. Over a decade after the book’s publication this situation has worsened, as has that of Dalit human rights defenders (HRDs.)
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, has said that “Indian authorities have proven themselves unwilling to protect minority religious communities and other vulnerable groups from frequent attack.” According to the National Crimes Records Bureau, crimes against Dalits occurred every 15 minutes on average in 2016, an increase over 2015 figures. Tallies by NGOs and news organisations suggest that the upward trend has intensified throughout 2017 and 2018. Dalit women are particularly vulnerable to abuses. Conviction rates for crimes against Dalits are extremely low in certain regions; the state of Maharashtra, for example, stands at less than 5%. Photojournalist Sudharak Olwe’s ongoing case study of crimes against Dalits in this state found that in most incidents, “the victim was involved in either emancipatory work for his community or struggling to make his life better.”
The spike in abuses may in fact be a response to Dalits’ increasing assertion of their rights, according to Dalit HRD Asif Shaikh. In March of this year, a Supreme Court judgement claimed that a law which offers significant legal recourse for Dalits was used “as an instrument to blackmail or to wreak personal vengeance”. Nationwide protests, referred to by Al Jazeera as a Dalit Spring, followed. Though they began peacefully, demonstrations were met with violence; 11 people were killed.
In May, Sachin Walia was shot dead. His brother Kamal is a leader in the Bhim Army, an organization that works for Dalit emancipation through education. A month after Sachin’s killing, five Dalit HRDs were arrested and may face life in prison for allegedly inciting caste violence. Urgent action appeals have been issued for dozens of other violations of Dalit HRDs’ rights.
Violence against Dalits is often framed as nothing new, which may actually be fuelling the increase in abuses. It is more important than ever to support the empowerment of this community, remembering Dalit leader BR Ambedker’s words: “ rights are protected not by law but by social and moral conscience of the society. If social conscience is such that it is prepared to recognise the rights which law proposes to enact, rights will be safe and secure.”
It has never been a deadlier time to defend one’s community, way of life, or environment. Our latest annual data into violence against land and environmental defenders shows a rise in the number of women and men killed last year to 207 – the highest total we have ever recorded. What’s more, our research has highlighted agribusiness including coffee, palm oil and banana plantations as the industry most associated with these attacks
Download the report in full: At What Cost? (PDF, 3MB)
Hear the voices of environmental and land rights defenders – click below
Hernán Bedoya, from Colombia, was shot by a paramilitary group 14 times for protesting against palm oil and banana plantations that were expanding over his community’s territory and clearing the forest.
In the Philippines, after protesting the expansion of a coffee plantation, a community near Lake Sebu was attacked by military forces, leaving eight dead, five wounded, and forcing 200 to flee.
And in Brazil, farmers assaulted the indigenous Gamela community after they attempted to protect their land from logging, severely injuring 22, including children.
But it’s not just defenders in these countries who are being threatened, attacked, or killed for fighting to protect their land and way of life. Countless people around the world are under threat for standing up to the might of large corporations, paramilitary groups, and even their own governments.
The data we have painstakingly gathered and presented in this report and the case studies included are almost certainly a sizeable underestimate, given the many challenges in identifying and reporting killings. Yet even as it stands, it shows that the risks defenders face every day continue to grow, and governments and business have a very serious case to answer.
The global movement
Of the 207 defenders murdered last year, a vast majority of them hailed from Latin America, which remains the most dangerous region for defenders, accounting for 60% of those killed in 2017. Brazil saw 57 murders alone – the worst year on record anywhere in the world.
But not a single region was immune to the growing number of attacks on its defenders. The Philippines saw 48 defenders killed, the highest number ever in an Asian country. And in Africa, 19 defenders were reported killed, 12 of whom were in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
You can find the English Spanish and Portuguese versions of the report here
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From June 1 to July 3, some 19 social, community, Indigenous and Campesino leaders and activists have been killed in Colombia, multiple national and international organizations have reported.
Leonedis Sierra Ortiz, a 25-year-old community activist from Antioquia, Luis Cuarto Barrios Machado, a 55-year-old president of the citizen control oversight of Palmar Varela and Hector Santiago Anteliz, a 52-year-old member of the Community Action Board (JAC), are among the victims.
Since the beginning of 2018, 100 social leaders have been killed in the Latin American country, as was reported by the Institute of Study on Peace and Development (Indepaz), in June.
Various human rights and social organizations have demanded that the Colombian Government implement effective measures to prevent the wide-scale killing of social leaders.
Social and political leaders were supposed to be protected by the peace agreement signed in Havana, in 2016.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights spoke out against the high incidence of deaths.
“We condemn the homicide of Hector Santiago Anteliz, 52-year-old, president of the JAC of San Jose, Teorama, in Norte de Santander. In 2018, we have documented 9 defenders’ homicides in this department.